For almost half a decade, the world’s only superpower has mostly abdicated its role in helping to resolve the world’s most consequential conflict. Now former President Barack Obama’s excessive caution about Syria has given way to President Donald Trump’s unstrategic uncertainty. The question is whether this qualifies as an improvement. It’s certainly good news that Russia has invited the US to participate in Syrian peace talks next month, along with representatives from Turkey and Iran. But Trump — who claimed during the campaign to have a “foolproof” plan to quickly defeat IS — will soon face some tough choices.
The president is apparently open to creating a safe zone in northern Syria to protect Muslims and Kurds from the Syrian government, which seems likely to remain under President Bashar Al Assad’s control indefinitely. Carving out a protected area requires control of the skies above it, however. With both Russian and Syrian planes bombing rebel (and civilian) locations in northern Syria, enforcing a full no-fly zone with US jets and ground-based air defenses would risk turning a sectarian civil war into something vastly larger.
So the Trump administration should use the peace talks to get buy-in on the safe zone from the Russians — who seem anxious to claim victory and go home — and their puppet in Damascus. Iranian negotiators are likely to object, but they have little sway on that part of any deal.
The US will also need a cooperation agreement with the Turks, who have created a small protected area across the Syrian border and have been bombing US-supported Syrian Kurdish forces, which they claim are in cahoots with Kurdish terrorists inside Turkey. But Turkey has much to gain from stabilizing northern Syria and enabling many of the 2.7 million Syrian refugees it now houses to return home. Promised support from other members of the US-led coalition, such as Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, is also vital. Protecting innocents and allies in Syria is important. But their ultimate safety depends on the defeat of IS. Trump has given Defense Secretary James Mattis 30 days to come up with options for more aggressive action.
Mattis, a general who has seen plenty of combat duty in Afghanistan and Iraq, needs to convince his commander in chief that a comprehensive and deliberate plan, carried out with Russian cooperation if possible, stands the best chance of victory. Any assault on IS in Syria will inevitably spill into Iraq, as the border between the two countries is now fictional.
This would be no small undertaking, to put it mildly, involving great risk to US forces. There will be no quick and total victory over IS, as Trump vowed during the campaign. Nevertheless, a change in strategy is overdue, and how the president decides to proceed in Syria will be among the first and most difficult tests of his military decision making.