The US missile strike on Syria’s al-Shayrat air base earlier this month has raised expectations of a more muscular American policy in Syria in the advent of the Donald Trump administration. This is reinforced by Trump’s aggressive leadership style which has seen a dramatic spike in US military activity in the region with a corresponding rise in civilian casualties.
More broadly, the US has just dropped the “mother of all bombs” on an alleged Daesh tunnel complex in Afghanistan and is talking tough on North Korea, even at the risk of triggering a catastrophic war on the Korean Peninsula.
In so far as the proxy wars of the Middle East are concerned it appears that Trump believes that the application of massive force (similar to the huge bomb dropped on Afghanistan) can shape events and facilitate desired outcomes without the need to deploy significant numbers of US troops on the ground.
But in Syria, absent a comprehensive strategy to address that country’s multiple conflicts, the Trump administration will be shooting in the dark if it chooses to periodically apply massive force from a distance on a par to the Tomahawk missile strike on Shayrat. This type of knee-jerk intervention not only risks aggravating the conflict but also ironically diminishes US influence on the outcome of the war.
US in Syria
From the outset of the Syrian crisis in early 2011 the United States has been accused of lacking a comprehensive strategy to intervene decisively. This lack of strategy, and the attendant reluctance to get deeply involved, was brought into sharp relief in the suspected chemical weapons attack on Ghouta in August 2013.
Former US president Barack Obama had identified the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” and his subsequent unwillingness to enforce the US position in the wake of the attack on Ghouta, inflicted a severe blow on American prestige in the region.
Supporters of a more forceful US approach in the conflict have poured much scorn on Obama and his unwillingness to dive into the Syrian quagmire. For his part Obama put up a spirited defence of his Syria policy, essentially anchoring it in the dizzyingly complex nature of the conflict.
Obama’s rational was that an intervention devoid of an enduring US commitment spearheaded by a ground invasion only makes the situation worse. Moreover, in view of the Russo-Iranian led regional and international coalition in support of the Syrian regime, any serious intervention would set the stage for further escalation.
It was from this baseline that the US under Obama proceeded to narrowly define its goals in Syria, centred on combatting Daesh and extremism more broadly, whilst at the same time maintaining rhetorical opposition to the Syrian regime.
The missile strike on Shayrat does not necessarily signal a major shift in US policy. However, it has changed the atmospherics, if not the underlying dynamics, in so far as Trump has demonstrated a willingness to use military force against Syria, ostensibly to deter Bashar al-Assad from recourse to chemical weapons.
However, from Syrian, Iranian and Russian perspectives the US may use or indeed manufacture any excuse for further interventions. This perception already marks an escalation as all three powers will be undertaking a wide range of measures to deter the US from any further strikes, or failing that to mitigate their impact.
The United States’ lack of options in Syria is brought into sharp relief by setting out the multiple actual and potential conflicts either inherent or ensuing from the war. The original conflict, namely that between the regime and its opponents, is effectively over inasmuch as Assad now controls much of “useful” Syria, including all provincial centres except Raqqa and Idlib.
In its wake, three major actual and potential conflicts have emerged in descending order of importance. First and foremost, the quest for Kurdish autonomy and possible independence, is in full swing as embodied by Rojava.
Kurdish over-reach in northern Syria has already provoked a direct Turkish intervention and moreover it has complicated US plans to wrest control of Raqqa from Daesh.
The prospect of greater Turkish intervention to contain, and possibly even to eradicate, Rojava has increased as a result of the Turkish referendum granting more powers to president Reccep Tayyip Erdogan.
Second, Syria is increasingly the focus of Israeli strikes on Hezbollah positions and convoys. The frequency and severity of these strikes, coupled with a strong Iranian-Hezbollah military presence in Quneitra province bordering the occupied Golan Heights, has raised the spectre of a major conflict (on a bigger scale to the summer 2006 war) fought in part on Syrian soil.
Third, jihadist groups independent of Daesh are growing in strength, in part because of the eclipse of the non-jihadist component of the Syrian rebellion. Whilst these jihadist groups, notably the former Nusra front now operating as part of Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, are deeply embedded in the anti-Assad rebellion, by ideological logic they are committed to a much larger struggle. The greatest risk is that isolated parts of Syria may become a long-term haven for international terrorism.
The United States only has a strategy to deal with the jihadist threat, comprised of eradicating Daesh and subjecting other jihadists to targeted air strikes. But the greater threats of Kurdish irredentism and a looming Iranian-Israeli confrontation in the Levant is either ignored by US strategists or exacerbated by US policies, such as the decision to support the Syrian chapter of the PKK.
Absent a comprehensive strategy to address, contain and if possible forestall all three actual and potential conflicts, the US is better served by sticking to Obama’s policy of avoiding the Syrian quagmire.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.