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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 10 December 2018

Trump needs to define achievable political objectives in Syria

Washington might not be able to beat the Astana process devised by Russia but it could try to join it and affect its outcome, something it has avoided until now, writes Michael Young

A US soldier sits in his armoured vehicle in Manbij, north Syria. Hussein Malla / AP
A US soldier sits in his armoured vehicle in Manbij, north Syria. Hussein Malla / AP

Recently, there has been much talk about how US President Donald Trump was persuaded by his advisers and foreign leaders to maintain troops in Syria. However, it would have been better for his team to push the president to define achievable political objectives in Syria.

The reality is that Mr Trump has said time and again that his only aim in Syria is to defeat ISIS. Even when his officials defined a more complex set of aims, including containing Iran and countering Russia’s regional influence, the president ignored them to focus on terrorism. His indifference to the Middle East’s politics may reveal the true depths of his desire to remain outside its conflicts, which is perhaps understandable. But doing so will have an impact on US power and on whether America is great again, to borrow from a Trump trope.

American officials have repeatedly declared that the Astana talks on Syria have failed, urging a return to the United Nations framework in Geneva. They are right to emphasise Geneva but the reality is that the plan floated in the UN process, which would have transferred power from Bashar Al Assad to a transitional governing body, is today dead. And it is dead partly because the US never did anything to reshape the Syrian political landscape in a way that would have facilitated the plan’s implementation.

Astana was devised by Russia, along with Iran and Turkey, to lower tensions in Syria and ultimately create an environment that could bring about a political solution. That is not to say that Moscow wanted to undermine the UN process but it did want Geneva to be icing on a cake baked in Astana. Washington might not have been able to beat Astana but it could try to join it and affect its outcome by being involved in negotiations over Syria’s future, something it has avoided until now.

That is perhaps why the US response to the chemical weapons attacks by the Trump administration was largely meaningless and mostly hypocritical. In the absence of any political endgame, the United States can bomb all it wants. However, if the bombings do not serve to achieve something that can be anchored durably in political behaviour, they serve no purpose whatsoever.

Who is to blame for this sorry state of affairs? Critics of the Obama administration have said, probably correctly, that former president Barack Obama did have a strategy in Syria, one that involved accepting Iranian stakes in the country, in exchange for Tehran’s signing a nuclear accord with the US and its international partners. Yet Mr Trump, regardless of his disdain for Mr Obama, has not clarified US political aims in Syria, and when officials have tried to do so in their own public statements, the president has contradicted them.

After the recent chemical attack in Syria, some criticised defence secretary James Mattis for failing to give Mr Trump the advice he needed to formulate a more coherent regional strategy. Mr Mattis, in urging a restrained response, was perhaps trying to avoid a situation that might invite comprehensive involvement in Syria. Who could blame him? He works for an impetuous president who doesn’t have the commitment to embark on a far-reaching approach in the country that would make the administration’s definition of political objectives worthwhile.

In fact Mr Trump has shown repeatedly that in foreign policy terms, his eyes are never on the prize. He recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, apparently unconcerned about the fact that it would undermine his desire to reach a comprehensive peace settlement between Palestinian and Israelis. He wants to contain Iran but has done nothing to unify Arab ranks in support of such a project. And he wants to reassert US power in the world but his moves in the Middle East have displayed only the seductions of disengagement.

That Mr Trump never regarded US forces in Syria as part of a wider strategy to contain Iran is embarrassingly revealing. His former secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, had made that connection in a talk at Stanford University earlier this year but it is questionable whether the president heard it. To anyone with a cursory knowledge of the region, what happens in Syria will define what happens in much of the Arab world in the coming years, so Washington cannot afford to be vague about what its political aims in the country are.

But clarifying them is not Mr Trump’s task alone. His advisers, Mr Mattis among them, might lament working for a blowhard but that doesn’t make them any less responsible for helping him devise political objectives in Syria. It would help if the United States were at the negotiating table, not lurking in the corridors. The administration wants Geneva but it has to push for it, with its allies. A political offensive is needed and US forces in Syria should be integrated into that goal. If they have to remain in Syria, let their presence at least be guided by a political purpose.

Michael Young is editor of Diwan, the blog of the Carnegie Middle East programme, in Beirut