Syria: How to Move Forward after Tomahawks

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

William A. Rugh

Retired Foreign Service officer (U.S. ambassador to Yemen, 1981-84, United Arab Emirates, 1992-95).
May 5, 2017

President Trump’s decision to launch a Tomahawk strike on a Syrian airbase on April 7 is worrisome because it was apparently motivated by his emotional reaction to television pictures of dead children rather than because of a well-considered and comprehensive strategy to deal with the Syrian problem. If Bashaar al Assad used chemical weapons again, would Trump escalate the use of force?

What is needed now, rather urgently because of Trump’s impetuousness, is a thoughtful strategy on Syria, taking all of the complicated factors into account and focusing on our basic interests. The president could make this a positive turning point in the six-year bloody civil war if our next steps took advantage of the new situation. He should focus on creative diplomacy, not on more use of force.

Following the surgical strike, additional military action would be a mistake. The American public and Congress remember Iraq and they do not want a full scale U.S. military intervention to bring regime change. Escalating to destroy Bashaar’s air force would stop his barrel bombs but not end the war. Arming the Syrian Kurds, the best opposition fighting force, would help them make gains against Bashaar’s military and the Islamists, but it would antagonize Turkey and we might lose access to Turkey’s Incerlik air base. And more U.S. military steps could provoke a direct confrontation with Russia, that has maintained a military presence in Syria.

The best way to capitalize on the Tomahawk strike would be to revive intensive diplomatic efforts with Moscow, and President Trump has given hints he may be thinking along those lines. On May 2nd, in his first direct communication with President Putin after the missile strike, he discussed lowering the tension over Syria and agreed to send a representative to the Russian-brokered cease-fire talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. At the same time, Secretary of State Tillerson agreed to intensify a dialogue with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov to “search for options” on Syria.  That is good news.

Some may object that now is not the time to try to work with Putin, when he has tried to intervene in the American election. But in several respects, Russian objectives in Syria are parallel to ours and there should be a basis of cooperation with them. We could still investigate Russian meddling in American politics while trying to come to agreement on Syria.

What objectives do we share? Putin has strongly supported the regime of Bashaar al Assad with weapons, advisors and direct military intervention. He worries that Islamists could take over Syria, because that could encourage Islamists closer to home. The United States also wants to stop ISIS and other Islamists from winning the war in Syria because that would have negative repercussions for us throughout the region. Secondly, Russia would like to see the end of fighting in Syria and a political accommodation that would bring stability to the country. The U.S. wants the same goal. A major obstacle has been Russia’s steadfast support for Bashaar, so they are bombing his enemies while we bomb ISIS. 

Russia is deeply involved in Syria because Putin strongly resents that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the loss of Moscow’s influence in the Middle East and elsewhere. He remembers when Moscow was the dominant power not only in Syria but also in Iraq, Egypt, Yemen and North Africa. Putin today has invested heavily in Syria because he wants to regain a foothold at least somewhere in the Arab world. So he has steadfastly supported Bashaar as a means to recover Russian influence in Syria and maintain military bases in the country. But Bashaar’s brutality against his own people has created so much Syrian resentment that it is difficult to imagine long term stabilization of Syria if he stays in power long term. Putin has indicated he is not wedded to Bashaar forever, so he could probably accept a political solution that sees Bashaar stepping down. We also want Bashaar to go.

Russia could be the key to ending the Syrian civil war because Bashaar is fully dependent on Russian support. If Putin could help establish a regime in Damascus that included opposition elements but excluded all dangerous Islamists and Bashaar, he might decide to do that if it assured predominant Russian influence over Syria.  The United States ought to find that solution acceptable and support it because it would end Syrian suffering, allow millions of refugees to return home, and block Islamists from dominating the country. Russia would gain an ally in the Middle East but Syria has been so badly devastated that Moscow would be saddled with paying for reconstruction.

Finding a political solution in Syria by using diplomacy will not be easy. The Obama administration worked hard on it. Several United Nations envoys have tried and failed. The Syrian opposition is divided and Bashaar continues to be dug in, at least for now. Iran has an interest and could be a spoiler. But now a completely new ingredient has been added that could be a game changer. Unlike Obama, Trump has shown willingness to use force to take direct action against the Syrian regime, despite the risk of conflict with Russia. Putin has continued to support Bashaar and has intervened militarily to support the Syrian regime, but now he must have serious concerns that Trump might escalate the use of American force. So now is the perfect time for our dealmaker president to engage in quiet negotiations with Putin to find a new regime in Damascus we both can accept. It’s worth trying.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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