Mission accomplished?

In this photo released by the Syrian official news agency SANA, smoke rises after Syrian government airstrikes and shelling hit in Hajar al-Aswad neighborhood held by Islamic State militants, southern Damascus, Syria, Sunday, April 22, 2018. Syrian state media says government forces are pounding districts of southern Damascus held by Islamic State militants with warplanes, helicopters and artillery in a bid to enforce an evacuation deal reached earlier in the week. (SANA via AP)

Ten days ago, 105 missiles filled the skies of Damascus and Homs. Earlier that week, butcher-in-chief Bashar-al Assad once again used chemical weapons on innocent civilians. America, France and the U.K. took action. Coordinated airstrikes targeted his Barzah Research Center and the Him-Shinshar chemical weapons complex. Yet the Syrian civil war entered its seventh year in March, and shows no signs of ending. Indeed, American forces occupy northeastern Syria, national rebels lie to the west and Russia and Iran hold central and southwestern Syria firmly in their grasp.  The region-by-region deadlock accomplishes nothing, and airstrikes do not change anything. It’s time for a shake-up of U.S. policy in Syria.

First, an evaluation of American objectives. Syria borders Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. In doing so, it became a country of interest in the War on Terror started 17 years ago. Add the rise of the Islamic State to the mix, and it’s little wonder that American troops moved into Syria in late 2015. That entrance worked. Just this October, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drove the Islamic State from Raqqa.  Just this month, American forces unleashed 30 strikes consisting of 47 engagements on ISIS. The radical group’s territory shrinks by the day–most indicators point to their impending destruction. So, what’s next?

Immediately before the airstrikes, that question caused division in the White House. President Trump sought to decrease America’s military presence in Syria, and his advisors disagreed. Secretary of Defense Mattis and General Dunford, joined by Senator Lindsey Graham, believe that any military drawdown in Syria leaves a vacuum for ISIS, Russia or Iran to enter.  That’s a dangerous argument. It leaves the timeline for Syrian operations open-ended while avoiding an implementation of clear strategy. If Russian and Iranian expansion, or extremist resurgence, is the real concern, there are better options than military overstretch.

Would Russian or Iranian expansion be so bad? Syria lies torn to pieces, its cities and neighborhoods levelled. Dozens of armed militias continue to spark conflict, and any potential revival of ISIS threatens all regional powers.  Instead of assuming the burden to secure the country, America should willingly hand the task off to Russia. If Putin wants Assad to stay in power, fine. Good luck finding the money or the manpower to repair electrical grids, fix water supplies, rebuild city centers and districts or defeat all of the groups calling for his removal. The Russian military can try to hold northeastern Syria and prevent the return of radicalism. Sure, it’s been able to remove ISIS forces from Aleppo. But stamping out the group once and for all is infinitely harder.  Such logistical concerns form the core of any post-civil war Syria. They won’t be easy to resolve. In fact, they promise to drain resources from America’s already profligate budget. Let the Russians spend their rubles if they want Syria so badly; U.S. dollars are better spent elsewhere. How about some investment at home instead of across the Euphrates?

Alternatively, if the Pentagon cannot overcome its position on Russian-Iranian expansion, America should involve its local allies in resolving the crisis while putting its Syrian coalition to better use. Saudi Arabia and Jordan share no lost love for Iran, and rely heavily upon U.S. alliances. Moreover, the conflict in Syria threatens Riyadh and Amman more than Washington, yet their regional influence exceeds that of the U.S. State Department. However, their battlefield prowess falls short of America’s military infrastructure.  Right now, the U.S. must continue to combat ISIS in northeastern and eastern Syria. As it accrues more territory, the American-led coalition must change the appearance of the Syrian Democratic Forces. Currently viewed as illegitimate guns-for-hire, nurturing their political responsibility is the best way to mount a challenge to the Assad regime. There is no serious alternative to Assad today, but if the SDF can form basic governments and principalities, that might change in the future. America cannot afford another drawn-out conflict in another failed state. For this reason, its strategy in Syria needs to evolve beyond combating ISIS. Bringing troops home can be done, so long as the administration abandons narrow-minded and vague tactics.


Shankara Narayana is a contributor for The Daily Campus and can be reached via email at shankara.narayana@uconn.edu .