On Thursday, a senior American official indicated his country would no longer insist on the removal of Syrian president Bashar Al Assad as part of a political settlement of that country’s six-year long civil war.
“I don’t think it’s important for us to say Assad must go first,” said Tom Bossert, who is president Donald Trump’s homeland and counterterrorism advisor. “The U.S. would still like to see Assad go at some point. That would be our desired outcome.”
While Thursday’s statement seems to indicate a softening of the US position, it is not the first time an American official has indicated a willingness to compromise on Assad’s departure. As early as September of 2015, the US secretary of state John Kerry indicated his country could consider a settlement that kept Assad in power for the time being. Unsurprisingly, Kerry’s statement came soon after Russia joined the fight in Syria on Assad’s side.
Russia’s intervention in Syria’s civil war has been predictably controversial. Assad’s regime has after all indiscriminately bombed and shelled cities, used chemical weapons against civilians, and its soldiers have sometimes carried out atrocities little different from those of ISIS. There’s also mounting evidence both Russia and Assad have used white phosphorous or thermite-based munitions in urban areas. (Russia is a signatory to a 1980 UN protocol that prohibits the use of air-dropped incendiaries ‘within a concentration of civilians’.
However, unlike the US, Russia has a reasonably coherent strategy in Syria: To back Assad’s regime and make it the indispensable centre of any peace settlement. It has already succeeded in ensuring Assad’s survival.
The US, on the other hand, has been narrowly focused on defeating ISIS, which as I’ve argued before, is a non-strategy. ‘For most of the United States’ allies in the Middle East, the war against the Islamic State never was the primary concern,’ Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group perceptively argues. ‘Even as Western nations decreed this struggle a universal priority, these nations largely humored Washington, echoed its alarm, joined its international coalition — and looked the other way.’
The campaign against ISIS in Syria’s northeast highlights the strategic confusion. Earlier this month, US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) began taking back Raqqa, a self-declared capital city of the Islamic State. Yet the SDF, despite its inclusive-sounding title, overwhelmingly consists of the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG), along with a smattering of ethnic Arab units. While the YPG militia has fought bravely against ISIS and has, by the standards of the region, been relatively humane in victory, it is also closely connected with the PKK, a violent Kurdish separatist group operating in neighbouring Turkey. If the US were to remove its special operations forces advisors and other support troops from YPG-controlled areas, it is entirely conceivable America’s NATO ally Turkey would attack its Syrian ally the YPG.
Towards a more realistic strategy in Syria
On Wednesday, the CIA ended its support for some anti-Assad rebels. One US official described the move as ‘a signal to Putin that the administration wants to improve ties to Russia.’
On July 9, a Russia-US ceasefire agreement for southwestern Syria took effect. According to sources who spoke to Foreign Policy, the deal would bar Iran-backed ‘foreign fighters from a strategic stretch of Syrian territory near the borders of Israel and Jordan’.
The ceasefire is one indication Russia and the US will try to find common ground as they search for a political settlement. When we consider the escalating clashes in the air just a few weeks back, that’s a huge improvement.