By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
The United States and its Arab allies are poised to defeat ISIS in Syria, but what happens next?
This question was never fully addressed when President Obama was in office. Now President Trump must formulate a coherent strategy for Syria after the defeat of ISIS.
Whatever Trump stated on the campaign trail has no relevance, because he has to deal with the situation on the ground in Syria. There are no easy answers and the decisions the U.S. makes have ramifications not only in Syria, but throughout the Middle East and across the globe.
Trump Has Limited Options in Syria
Trump’s decisions will be based on limited options. He will have to navigate the perilous terrain with many competing actors in and around Syria.
With the defeat of ISIS, who will govern the eastern part of Syria? Will we allow President Bashar Hafez al-Assad to take over that part of the country? Will the al-Nusra Front or Jabhat al-Nusra, an al-Qaeda based terrorist organization, be allowed to fill the power vacuum? What is the U.S. policy with regard to Assad?
In 2011, when the “Arab Spring” revolution engulfed Syria, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton read a statement by President Obama urging Syrian President Assad to step down from the Syrian government. Obama stated, “We have consistently said that President Assad must lead a democratic transition or get out of the way. He has not led. For the sake of the Syrian people, the time has come for President Assad to step aside.”
President Obama never said how this change would occur or what his strategy was for Syria in the absence of Assad. Obama’s inaction in the following years only further complicated the Syrian situation.
Obama Allows Russia into the Middle East
Following that pronouncement in 2011, Obama made two strategic miscalculations. One was failing to enforce his famous “red line” in response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons against his own people.
The failure to enforce his “red line” allowed Russia to enter the Syrian conflict and return to the Middle East. There was no Russian presence in the region since the Soviet Union was ousted after the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
Obama’s strategic failure allowed Moscow to gain greater leverage and deepen Russia’s ties with Syria by keeping Assad in power. Russia also strengthened its military presence in Syria.
Russia’s sole strategic goal was to keep Assad in power. As the Institute for the Study of War reported this month, “Russia de-prioritized its air campaign against the Syrian opposition in June and early July as part of an effort to encourage the U.S. to accept Russia’s proposal for a ‘de-escalation zone’ in southwest Syria.”
Trump Ends Support for Syrian Rebels
Just this month, Trump cancelled U.S. military support for the anti-Assad forces. This change may allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to seize more territory during the Syrian conflict and force the United States to cede its influence in Syria to Moscow.
A lot has changed over the years. Russia has now gained greater influence in the region that the U.S. once dominated.
Jon Alterman, of the Center for Strategic & International Studies, writes that “Russia’s bid for increased Middle Eastern influence comes after a period in which the United States had a remarkable run in the region. Throughout the Cold War, the Soviet Union had clients scattered here and there: Syria, Egypt for a time, South Yemen and so on. But the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and Russia was scarcely able to gather up what it had lost. By 2010, every single country in the Middle East had a positive relationship with the United States, except for Iran and Syria, which were trying to improve relations. What Russia had to show in 2010 for decades of efforts to build ties was a forlorn little naval base in Syria.”
All that has changed, and the U.S. will now have to deal with a Russia that is solidly back in the region.
Impact of Iran Nuclear Deal Reverberates Throughout Middle East
Obama’s second strategic miscalculation was to sign the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran. This agreement lifted international sanctions and freed billions in Iranian assets. The funds allowed Tehran to shore up Assad’s regime and provide economic assistance to its proxy terrorist organization Hezbollah in Lebanon.
At the time, Hezbollah was broke. The nuclear agreement gave Hezbollah the capital to rebuild after fighting alongside pro-Assad forces in Syria.
U.S.-Iran Nuclear Agreement Helped Hezbollah Gain New Missiles and Rockets
The U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement also allowed Tehran to give military assistance to Hezbollah, which now has missiles and rockets that are far more accurate than Iran had before. These rockets can reach virtually every city in Israel.
Once Hezbollah fighters return from Syria, will we witness a replay of the 2006 conflict with Israel? If so, this time it will be far more deadly.
Trump Must Also Deal with Syria’s Other Problems
Besides Iran, Trump has to deal with Turkey, a NATO member that has its own strategy in Syria. Also, what about the Kurds? Ankara has vigorously complained that by providing U.S. arms to the Kurds, the United States has created an existential threat to Turkey.
Another problem that must be addressed is the refugee crisis in Syria. Millions of displaced Syrians and other ethnic groups have flooded into Europe, creating a host of problems. Destroying ISIS won’t end the refugee problem; it seriously complicates it.
The Obama administration failed to address this problem, so will Trump deal with it? Or will he revert to his campaign rhetoric? No one knows. What is said on the campaign trail often falls victim to reality.
Trump has hard choices to make. The big question is what will happen to Syria after ISIS is defeated? We shall see.