A US Withdrawal from Syria?
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Paul Saunders

Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest.

President Donald Trump’s decision to launch missile attacks against Syrian chemical weapons targets has done little to dispel fears among some US allies, and some in the American foreign policy establishment, that Trump may follow through on his March statement that America would be “coming out of Syria, like, very soon.” [https://www.politico.com/story/2018/03/29/trump-syria-military-isis-491856?cmpid=sf] This raises some important questions about what might follow.

What Does President Trump Really Mean?

The first question, of course, is what “coming out of Syria” means and, for that matter, what “very soon” means. Neither phrase is especially clear. Still, given the context and the president’s past comments, one could reasonably assume that it means “disengagement of US forces from combat” and “as quickly as possible without undue risk to American personnel.” Trump’s critics certainly seem to interpret his words in this way. Still, this leaves open whether Washington may maintain a role in the war (for example, by arming anti-Assad forces) or pursue a diplomatic role (harder without a military role, but far from impossible for a superpower).

The second question is whether the president’s statement reflects a preference, a conviction, or a decision. Can top aides or senior generals change his mind or not? Mr. Trump’s past zig-zags on other issues—including his apparent new willingness to consider rejoining the Trans-Pacific Partnership [https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-02-28/mnuchin-says-trump-willing-to-negotiate-u-s-return-to-tpp]—make it difficult to assess his commitment to almost any course of action. This has advantages and disadvantages; unpredictability can be a virtue in some situations, problematic in others, and both simultaneously in many.

Most commentary surrounding President Trump’s remarks has focused on the third question—what will happen in Syria if the United States is not militarily engaged in the conflict? This is also not clear, though for different reasons; it depends on other governments, especially those in the region who have supported opposition fighters against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. How will they react?

Could US Partners Do More in Syria?

Broadly speaking, there are two options. The first is to take greater responsibility for the outcome in Syria, redouble their own efforts, and seek to halt Assad’s momentum with a view to establishing a stronger negotiating position. If they are especially determined, they could go beyond this and seek to reverse the current dynamics favoring the Syrian regime, though this may provoke greater external assistance from Iran and Russia.

Either way, this approach is likely to prolong the war and increase its already extreme human and material costs for the people of Syria. Still, if anti-Assad regional governments believe that Washington has disengaged not only militarily but politically, this may be their only pathway to influence in a settlement and in post-conflict Damascus. Alternatively, if President Trump were prepared to help—with arms and political influence—it might produce a negotiated outcome including significant constraints on Assad at a lower cost to the United States than the current path. This “burden-sharing” option would reflect Mr. Trump’s apparent desire to see US allies and partners shoulder a greater proportion of the costs of maintaining the existing international system.

The second option these governments have is to follow the Trump administration’s lead and to disengage from Syria’s seven-year civil war. The key consideration here is to what extent these governments believe they can not only sustain but also expand their own operations absent a visible US military commitment. This has a military component (capability) and a political component (will, including public support). Washington’s ongoing non-combat assistance (for example, in providing intelligence) would be another important factor in this calculation.

What Would Russia and Iran “Win” in Syria?

Absent such an effort, which many consider unlikely, most American observers fear that Russia, Iran, and Turkey will negotiate a political settlement that preserves and protects Assad’s hold on power. This may well mean a shorter war but would subject those Syrians remaining in their homeland to Assad’s continued brutal rule and, almost certainly, to an ongoing humanitarian crisis in their devastated nation.

Still, a political settlement that keeps Assad in power following what amounts to a Russian-Iranian military victory may not prove to be an enduring outcome. Neither the US Congress nor European parliaments would likely vote for financial assistance to rebuild a Syria still led by Bashar al-Assad. Few US allies in Asia or the Middle East would probably be inclined to offer such help either, especially if Washington sought to discourage such aid. With sufficient unity, Washington and its partners could block assistance from Western-dominated international financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. For that matter, China appears unlikely to offer significant assistance on anything other than commercial terms.

This raises yet further questions. Will Russia, with its stagnant economy, spend billions of dollars to rebuild hospitals, schools, and roads in Syria when most of its citizens are eager for new social and physical infrastructure in their own country? The price of such a reconstruction program would dwarf what Moscow has spent on its small but effective military intervention. Likewise, will Iran, facing its own economic troubles and a population already frustrated at its leaders’ willingness to spend on Syria’s civil war rather than their needs? [https://www.wsj.com/articles/irans-spending-on-foreign-proxies-raises-protesters-ire-1514920398]

If Moscow and Tehran are unable or unwilling to invest quite substantially in Syria, fighting could well resume. Alternatively, should Syria’s elites conclude that Assad has become a guarantor of economic ruin rather than political stability, Syria’s president could face unprecedented pressure to step aside. At that moment, the United States and other like-minded governments could have tremendous leverage over Syria’s future.

Indeed, with thorough explanation of what may lie ahead for Syria, the Trump administration could have more leverage than many people think even now. Washington has more experience than most in what it takes to restore stability following military victories—something Americans have learned is far more challenging than it may seem while large-scale combat is still underway. How much similar experience do Russians and Iranians want to earn?

The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research