In the wake of the U.S. air strikes on a Syrian airfield, Team Trump can’t seem to agree on what comes next.
It’s hard to fathom whether the White House wants regime change in Damascus or a laser focus on the Islamic State; a one-off slap for Syria’s use of sarin or further strikes for any further Syrian attacks on civilians.
The contradictory statements from the Trumpsters complicated Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s trip this week to Moscow, and threaten to dissipate any gains from the air strikes. The White House desperately needs a communications director who can get the team on the same page, including the First Tweeter.
But first it needs a comprehensive (and cogent) strategy for Syria that goes beyond the crushing of the Islamic State in Raqqa. And that strategy should start with a political formula developed by the Syrian Kurds.
Let me explain.
The reason the Syrian regime risked using sarin (after its stocks were supposedly destroyed) was that its army is depleted; it no longer has the manpower to retake, let alone hold the remaining rebel-held strongholds. Russia understands the regime’s weakness and probably yellow-lighted the use of chemical weapons.
So the missile strike, in theory, warned Vladimir Putin that Bashar Assad can’t gas his way to retaking the rest of Syria, which means the country will remain unstable. But Putin won’t dump his Syrian ally for now because Assad provides him with a solid Mideast foothold. (Nor will Shiite Iran cease its backing for its co-religionist in Damascus).
However, a firm (and clear) U.S. position on no-gas-use, including chlorine, plus a successful campaign to retake Raqqa, might eventually change Putin’s calculus. That, however, would require a long-term strategy for post-Islamic State Syria, one that didn’t mean walking away when the fighting is done.
You are understandably skeptical. But for the sake of argument, let’s assume such a strategy is being drafted at the Pentagon and National Security Council. This brings me to the importance of the Syrian Kurds.
Tough Syrian Kurdish fighters are the key to crushing the Islamic State caliphate in Raqqa. And please take note: Any hope that Assad and Russia will do this dirty job for the United States is nonsense. As noted above, Assad doesn’t have the troops. Moreover, Assad and Putin are happy to let the Islamic State trigger refugee flows that undermine Europe.
So, much rests with the Syrian Defense Forces (SDF) within which Kurdish troops provide the muscle. They are accompanied by an increasing number of Sunni tribal fighters who are being trained by U.S. special forces and backed by U.S. air strikes. The Kurds have already driven the Islamic State out of broad swaths of the Syrian northeast and have declared their own federal state in Kurdish areas, called the Federation of Northern Syria. In liberated Sunni Arab areas, like the critical town of Manbij, they have established civilian and military councils of local residents.
“We have to talk about a decentralized Syria,” I was told in Brussels by Saleh Muslim, the co-head of the Syrian Kurdish PYD political party, which controls their federal state. “Raqqa after ISIS will be like Manbij, a military council, then a civilian council.”
“The Americans and the SDF together” are already setting up the civilian council that will administer Raqqa after liberation, says Muslim. “They can have their own federal state or be part of the north federal (Kurdish) state, whichever they choose.”
The Russians have shown some interest in autonomy for the Syrian Kurds, but Assad has furiously opposed the concept. Some U.S. officials hint that, after liberation, Raqqa could be handed back to Assad (with whom the Kurds have had some dealings). These officials believe the regime would keep the jihadis from returning. Given the past, that is bull.
Muslim insists the Kurds would never agree – unless Assad accepted the concept of federalism. “There won’t be a centralized authority like before,” he says. “If (the regime) accepts federalism it would be a different basis. But if they are not going to change, Syria will be divided.”
Ultimately, a federal formula holds the only hope for stabilizing Sunni Arab areas in the rest of the country.
Muslim thinks the Syrian regime might accept the federalism formula if not for Iran, the other key Assad backer. He hopes America will keep some forces in the Kurdish federal state as a balance to Iran and to help prevent any return of jihadis. (A U.S. presence, and intense diplomacy, would also prevent Turkey from clashing with Syrian Kurds, whom it views with the same hostility it does its own PKK Turkish rebels.)
Bottom line: The White House must continue to warn Putin that a centralized Syria can’t survive because Assad won’t be able to control it and the United States won’t let him gas his way to achieving it. Moreover, a federal formula, whether formalized or de facto for now, is the only way to stabilize Syria, and the Kurdish template provides the model.
“If you want to prevent the return of Syrian extremists there should be good relations between Kurds and Americans,” says Muslim.
Trudy Rubin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.