President Trump’s outrage for the children that have been gassed by the Syrian regime during the Syrian civil war should be lauded by all Americans. That said, since the last several years’ actions and inactions of the current and prior U.S. administrations have served to significantly reduce the value of the cards we have to play in this venue, hopefully policymakers will consider whether a sole focus on military options may be too narrow and predictable.
Bashar Al-Assad is a hollow man, propped up by Russia and Iran for their own purposes. Since Turkey has also engaged in the conflict more as an ally of Russia and Iran than of the U.S., it could also be helpful to U.S. interests if it suffers repercussions for its forays. We might consider broadening our approach to give the Russians, the Iranians, and the Turks something more to think about, lessening their focus on their collaboration protecting Mr. Assad, including the following:
- Russia’s strategic interests are on its European border, not in the Middle East. Issue a ringing commitment to NATO. It will reassure our NATO allies, and make Mr. Putin aware that he has challenges in his own neighborhood.
- Put more than talk behind our support of Ukraine. After quiet consultation with Congress – and with the U.K. and France if they would collaborate — the Administration should execute a codicil to the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances pledging military assistance to Ukraine in the event its borders are infringed, and place a symbolic U.S. force at the Ukraine-Russia border.
- The Wall Street Journal reported Wednesday that Russian markets have been “rattled” by the Administration’s orders to U.S. investors to sell all holdings in companies related to a named Russian oligarch. Impose like targeted U.S. sanctions on other Russian oligarchs and institutions tied to President Putin, doing our best to avoid measures that will directly impact the Russian people.
- Engage in aggressive cyber warfare against Russia – immediately and constantly. (We should be already doing this, but reportedly, we aren’t.)
- As to Iran, the U.S. should impose whatever economic sanctions on Iranian officials it hasn’t already – again, to the extent that such sanctions will not directly impact the Iranian people.
- Get support from EU nations to buttress our sanctions on Iran. I note that the Journal reported in mid-March that EU countries – admittedly as a result of the President’s calls to exit the Iranian nuclear deal and for sanctions against Iranian ballistic missile and other activities – were hoping to forestall the U.S. exit by exploring measures to strengthen the EU’s sanctions against Iran. Although I entirely disagree with the President’s spoken intent to abandon the nuclear deal, he again needs to be given credit: his “crazy man” approach appears to have borne fruit. The U.S. should harvest the leverage the President has created by quietly indicating that it will continue in the nuclear deal – at least for a specified period — if the EU imposes an aggressive set of sanctions on Iran specified by U.S.
- Engage in aggressive cyber warfare against Iran – immediately and constantly. (This, we probably are already doing.)
- As to Turkey, double the number of U.S. troops assisting our Kurdish allies in the region of Syria in which the YPG is currently fighting ISIS on behalf of the alleged coalition. Inform the Turkish government that any military action against the YPG that results in American casualties will be dealt with severely.
- Call for dividing Syria into separate states, as was done in Bosnia: an independent Kurdish state – perhaps linked to the Kurdistan region in Iraq; a independent Sunni state (75% of Syrians are Sunni); and an Alawite state under Assad control.
- It would give the Kurds something to continue to fight for, and would show the U.S. was firmly behind its staunchest and most effective ally against ISIS. Right now, the world doesn’t believe the U.S. can be trusted.
- It would be unsettling to the Iranians, since Iran has a significant Kurdish population; only a positive.
- Turkey would hate it. Turkey might require us to close our air bases in Turkey (that said, some analysts assert that the air bases are no longer strategic). Such a step – if a careful assessment is made that U.S. defenses can be maintained without the air bases — may be worth the price: President Erdogan has made himself a de facto dictator, abusing his people’s rights; Turkey has established too warm a relationship with Russia and Iran to be considered a reliable NATO ally; Turkey has condoned the beating of American protesters by Mr. Erdogan’s body guards when he visited the U.S.; Turkey has allegedly conspired with Michael Flynn for a kidnapping of Fethullah Gulan on American soil. Turkey is, at best, a neutral in the U.S. struggle with Russia and Iran. It should be treated that way.
- Concededly, Iraq would hate it for giving strength to its Kurdistan regional government. Admittedly a factor that weighs against the move; some accommodation to the Iraqis would need to be made.
- The Saudis and the other Gulf States would presumably welcome such a move, given the creation of another Sunni state to align against Iran.
- Ironically, President Assad might favor such a move if it meant that he was able to safely remain in power without the concern that the U.S. would any longer try to have him deposed. (Admittedly, he might well feel that given the way events have unfolded, there is no need to give up any of his country.)
- It’s tempting to suggest calling for the establishment of a “Safe Zone” for the Syrian people, but a number of authorities indicate they’re hard to establish, hard to maintain, and sometimes become military targets. Unless there was true support from Russia – which, based upon the record, there is no reason to expect – such might tempt, rather than dissuade, Mr. Assad from further attacks on his own people.
Mr. Trump has shown himself willing to shuffle the deck; unfortunately, he’s also shown an affinity for strong men. Watching the way Messrs. Putin and Erdogan have cozied up to Mr. Rouhani of Iran and to each other has hopefully taught the President that in the final analysis, friendship means nothing in foreign policy and that foreign leaders are like boys in the playground — will push their advantage until they face resistance. The above suggestions certainly come with their own dangers; at the same time, limiting ourselves to military approaches in Syria also has significant risk in a venue where we have less strength and few effective options.