Trump Team is Repeating Obama’s Mistakes in Syria
By Josh Rogin
July 23, 2017
Trump administration officials consistently point back to
the Obama administration’s failed Syria policy to justify their approach,
which includes teaming up with Russia, accepting the continued rule of Bashar
al-Assad and abandoning many of the rebels America supported for years.
But although the Trump team inherited a terrible hand in
Syria, the way it is playing it repeats the same fundamental mistakes made by
President Barack Obama — and it will likely have the same negative results for
the Syrian conflict, as well as for American interests.
Last week at the Aspen Security Forum, CIA Director Mike
out what he sees as U.S. interests in Syria. He said the United States
has two principal enemies there, the Islamic State and Iran. In addition to
stopping Iran from establishing a zone of control that spans the region, the
U.S. goal is “providing the conditions to have a more stable Middle East to
keep America safe.”
President Trump has no choice but to work with Russia in
Syria because Obama and then-Secretary of State John Kerry “invited” Putin
into Syria in 2013 to work on a chemical weapons deal, according to Pompeo. But
there’s still no real evidence that Russia wants to fight terrorism there, he
“We don’t have the same set of interests” in Syria as
Russia, said Pompeo. What are the Russian goals in Syria? “They love a
warm-water naval port and they love to stick it to America.”
Pompeo is right, but he’s not in charge of U.S. Syria
policy. That portfolio belongs to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who made
completely contradictory remarks in Hamburg this month, right after he and Trump
met with Putin to arrange a cease-fire in Syria’s southwest.
“Russia has the same, I think, interests that we do in
having Syria become a stable place, a unified place,” Tillerson said.
Tillerson’s top Middle East official, acting assistant
secretary Stuart Jones, also spoke in Aspen and said the United States has
effectively outsourced security in Syria to the Russians by having them police
“This is a real test of the Russians’ ability to lead
this process,” he said. “The solution is to put this on the Russians and, if
that fails, it’s a problem.”
If that sounds familiar, it should. That’s almost the
same exact formulation Kerry used when he was negotiating Syrian cease-fires
with Russia in late 2015 and early 2016. Over and over, Kerry said Russia’s
willingness to be a constructive partner in Syria must be tested. Over and over,
Russia proudly failed that test by helping the Assad regime expand its control
and continue its atrocities against civilians.
To be sure, Obama and Kerry made many mistakes. The U.S.
effort to train and equip Syrian rebels was poorly executed and may have spurred
the Russian military intervention in 2015. The Obama administration
deprioritized the push to remove Assad after that and began working on
cease-fires with Russia because that offered the best hope of stopping the
Many argue that Trump has no choice but to continue that
policy. As Jordan’s ambassador to Washington, Dina Kawar, said in Aspen,
“What is the alternative?”
Perhaps there is none. But the Trump administration ought
not to repeat Kerry’s chief mistake, which was to negotiate with Russia
without leverage. That’s why Trump’s reported
decision to cut off the CIA program to train and equip some Syrian
rebel groups fighting Assad is so shortsighted. Trump is giving up what little
leverage he has for nothing in return.
Trump also must not repeat the Obama administration’s
second mistake, which was to allow Assad and Iran to expand their areas of
control. Jones said that the regime and its partners are using the cease-fire in
southwest Syria to free up resources to advance in southeast Syria, where the
fight for the strategic region around Deir al-Zour is underway.
The Trump administration seems fine with allowing Iran and
Assad to take over another large part of Syria. But the Sunni Arabs who live
there will not be. “What are we going to do when these people coming back to
their homes come under fire from Iranian militias?” asked Andrew Tabler,
senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Lastly, Trump should increase support to local Sunni Arab
communities, if not with weapons than with support for local governance,
education and basic services. Empowering local leaders is a prerequisite for any
kind of long-term stability, and it will be crucial if and when a political
The Trump administration is not responsible for past
American mistakes in Syria, but it is responsible for what the United States
does now. Rather than simply blaming Obama and Kerry for the mess, this
administration should learn the lessons of that failure.