Recipe for failure: America’s contradictory objectives in Syria
12 Apr 2017|

Image courtesy of the US Department of Defense.

President Trump’s decision to fire dozens of missiles at a Syrian airbase in retaliation for the Syrian government’s alleged use of sarin gas to attack a town in Idlib province has demonstrated several dimensions of American policy that are unnerving.

Trump’s action seems to have been based more on impulse and emotion rather than careful consideration of the consequences, especially for US relations with Russia. It seems the President was more interested in demonstrating that he had greater backbone when it came to taking on Assad and his supporters than did his predecessor.

Most importantly, this action clearly demonstrates the contradictory objectives being pursued by the Trump administration toward the Syrian civil war. The incongruities between those goals are a sure signal that American policy toward Syria is set up for failure.

America’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, who has increasingly become the Trump administration’s chief spokesperson on Syria, has spelled out those goals most clearly. ‘Defeating Islamic State, pushing Iranian influence out of Syria, and the ousting of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’ are the chief priorities for Washington. Haley continued by stating that ‘there’s not any sort of option where a political solution is going to happen with Assad at the head of the regime.’

That statement was a remarkable turnaround from her remarks a few days earlier when Haley downplayed the importance of ousting Assad in America’s policy toward Syria. On 30 March Haley had stated categorically: ‘Our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out…our priority is to really look at how do we get things done, who do we need to work with to really make a difference for the people in Syria.’

Such a radical restatement of policy priorities, even if as a reaction to a heinous act, doesn’t demonstrate adequate planning in the shaping of American priorities regarding Syria. It shows the fickleness of an administration that’s easily swayed by TV coverage of atrocities.

The three objectives spelled out by Haley run counter to each other in many ways. First, the United States doesn’t have adequate deployable military capabilities in and around Syria that can accomplish both the defeat of the ISIS and the removal of the Assad regime. Haley’s remarks also seem to contradict Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement last Saturday that Washington’s chief priority is the defeat of ISIS.

Tillerson’s statement faithfully reflected President Trump’s earlier conviction that he considered ISIS the principal enemy of the United States and that his chief foreign policy objective is to render ISIS extinct. However, the US is struggling to achieve the goal of decimating ISIS capabilities and is hugely dependent upon allies such as the Syrian Kurds and the Turks—who consider each other inveterate enemies—to accomplish the job.

It’s clear that the United States needs both Assad, and even more, Russia to defeat ISIS. Russia is far more apprehensive of Sunni jihadism than the United States given acts of terrorism committed by ISIS-inspired Russian citizens and groups within Russia itself. The latest bombing in St. Petersburg is but one indication of the severe challenge Russia faces from local extremists.

Therefore, there’s a near-perfect coincidence of interests between Moscow and Washington as far as ISIS in concerned. However, since Russia is Assad’s principal external supporter and is actively engaged in the civil war on the regime’s side, by bombing Assad’s bases Washington may end up alienating Moscow to a degree where coordination between the two against ISIS is rendered impossible.

Iran is the other primary supporter of the Assad regime and has committed its own troops as well as Iranian-supported Hizbullah fighters in defense of the Syrian government. Iran is also the closest ally of the Shia-dominated Iraqi regime fighting ISIS on its own territory. Iran fervently opposes ISIS for both sectarian and geopolitical reasons. ISIS ideology, which considers the Shia not only heretics but beyond the Islamic pale, is an offshoot of Saudi wahhabism and Saudi Arabia is the principal geopolitical rival of Iran in the Middle East. Consequently, Iran’s motivations for opposing ISIS exceed that of both Russia and the United States. It is, therefore, a logical ally of the United States in its fight against ISIS.

Therefore, Haley’s statement that pushing Iranian influence out of Syria and defeating the ISIS at the same time is a contradiction in terms. In fact, a sober assessment of American goals in the Middle East, especially with regard to Syria, would demonstrate that Iran is a potential ally of the United States in the region rather than its inveterate enemy. Clubbing it together with ISIS shows not merely a confusion of thinking but a total inability on the part of Washington to clearly formulate its Syrian policy.

That doesn’t bode well for the future of American policy in the Middle East. If defeating ISIS is America’s top-most priority then it must learn to live with Assad on the one hand and cultivate Iran’s friendship on the other.