President Obama’s strategy in Syria has been roundly criticized for being weak and passive. According to the outgoing president’s critics, the vacuum left by American “inaction” has allowed Russia and Iran to reassert and extend their influence in the region to the detriment of all concerned.
These critics can hardly be pleased with the latest joint announcement by Syria, Russia, and Turkey (the latter a U.S. ally) that a ceasefire agreement has been reached in the total absence of consultation with the United States. This development, those critics say, simply confirms the narrative that the United States is becoming an increasingly minor player in the region.
Yet for all its shortcomings, Obama’s seemingly improvised strategy in Syria has taken advantage of unexpected opportunities. This new ceasefire could be the latest.
Better Than Intervention
The most prominent example was Obama’s decision to capitalize on Russia’s unexpected offer in 2013 to press Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his then undeclared chemical weapons stockpile. That September, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry suggested that the only way for Syria to avoid U.S. military strikes would be to “turn over every bit of his weapons to the international community within the next week, without delay.” But, Kerry mused, “he isn’t about to.”
However, both Russia and Syria were quick to pick up the offer — and President Obama decided to test this alternative way of eliminating Syria’s chemical weapons. As a result of this diplomatic initiative, which was endorsed by the UN Security Council, nearly 1,300 tons of chemical weapons — including sarin and mustard gas — were removed from Syria and destroyed aboard a U.S. merchant marine vessel.
Of course, this lone initiative certainly failed to resolve all the problems associated with Assad’s brutal campaign of repression. There have been scattered reports that Assad maintains a small hidden reserve of chemical weapons and has used chlorine gas in attacks against civilians. Moreover, as the civil war continues to burn, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and millions have fled the fighting, creating refugee flows that threaten to overwhelm the capabilities of neighboring countries to absorb them.
American strategy has hardly precluded these disasters. Nonetheless, pursing the diplomatic course almost certainly yielded a better outcome than military action would have.
According to a senior defense official in the Obama administration at the time, U.S. military strikes would have at best only eliminated 25-30 percent of Syria’s chemical weapons, leaving the remainder in the hands of the Syrian military — or at risk of being seized by any number of opposition groups, including al-Qaeda affiliates or the Islamic State — all while enmeshing the U.S. more deeply in the conflict. It’s not difficult to imagine how those weapons could have been used to inflict horrific damage both in Syria and abroad.
A New Opportunity
The latest announcement of a nation-wide ceasefire enforced by both Russia and Turkey offers the U.S. a similar opportunity.
While tenuous, the plan is perfectly compatible with the U.S. goals of defeating the Islamic State, stemming the flow of refugees fleeing the fighting, and beginning a political transition in Syria that improves prospects for longer-term regional stability. It’s an opportunity that President Obama should preserve, and the incoming Trump administration could usefully exploit.
Indeed, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby noted that if this agreement (unlike previous ceasefires) succeeds in ending the violence and restarting negotiations over a political transition in Syria, then “that’s what we’d like to see.” Moreover, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has left open the prospect that the Trump administration could participate in subsequent negotiations after assuming office in January.
To preserve leverage in the outcome of these negotiations, the U.S. will need to demonstrate a willingness to invest more skin in the diplomatic game than it has thus far. Washington’s first job will be to lean on the opposition groups it’s supporting — and their Arab Gulf backers — to adhere to the terms of the ceasefire as long as the regime keeps up its end. Next, the U.S. should begin laying the groundwork for a UN-backed peacekeeping force should the ceasefire hold.
At a minimum, the U.S. could participate in this force by providing administrative, intelligence, and logistics support. The exact structure and composition of the force, of course, would be subject to negotiations.
However, the U.S. should expect that Turkey will want to maximize its influence in northern Syria (securing its border and preventing the emergence of an autonomous Kurdish region) while Russia will want to preserve its influence with the Syrian government so as to guarantee continued access to its naval and air bases in western Syria.
Meanwhile, the U.S. could aim to maximize its influence in southern and eastern Syria to bolster the security of its allies in Iraq, Jordan, and Israel, which could face renewed pressures from the Islamic State in the event that its capital in Raqqa falls.
Toward a Political Solution
The risks of such an approach are both moral and substantial, as it would at least temporarily reward Assad for his ruthless and brutal military campaign, tacitly acknowledge a greater role for Russia and Iran in the region, and could lead to casualties among peacekeeping forces or U.S. troops.
Nevertheless, a ceasefire — however fleeting — will ease the humanitarian suffering of the Syrian people. Moreover, it offers the prospect that both Russia and the United States could come to a practical arrangement that would allow for the continuation of efforts to defeat ISIS in western Syria.
Whatever happens on the military front, only a political transition that accommodates the essential interests of all Syrian parties — both government and opposition — can end the civil war and begin the lengthy process of reconstructing a devastated country.
Whatever its other shortcomings, Obama’s strategy in Syria has made measurable progress toward his expressed goal of constraining the Islamic State’s territorial conquests and financial resources. Trump has likewise made clear that he prioritizes the fight against ISIS over the broader war between Assad and the rebels, which may finally begin to wind down if the U.S. can cooperate with Russia and other parties to effectively enforce a ceasefire.
As with Russia’s offer to cooperate in the elimination of Syria’s chemical weapons in 2013, the U.S. would be well advised to test the limits of this latest Russian proposal for a ceasefire and a revival of negotiations. Successful strategy is certainly aided by avoiding critical mistakes, but prospects are often improved by exploiting opportunities as they arise.