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Assessing The Syria Situation

By James S. Robbins
U.S. News & World Report
February 15, 2017

The Obama administration's Syria strategy has left along with the former president. The question remains how the United States will continue to be involved in the conflict, if at all. 

Peace talks are scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan's capital of Astana on Feb. 16-17, sponsored by Russia and Iran (on the part of the Damascus government), and Turkey (on the part of some of the rebel groups). A second round of talks will begin in Geneva on Feb. 23, sponsored by the United Nations. The United States has been invited to the Astana talks and will continue to participate in the Geneva rounds. 

U.S. goals with respect to Syria have shifted since the advent of the Trump administration. The Obama White House backed regime change in Damascus, the removal of Syrian president Bashar Assad and the creation of a coalition government from among the various rebel factions, some of which the United States gave arms and other forms of support. However, this policy foundered because of lack of a domestic political mandate, as well as Russian and Iranian military intervention on behalf of the Assad regime. 

The Astana and Geneva talks could lead to some form of power-sharing agreement between the Assad regime and its opposition, but this is unlikely. The fall of the rebel stronghold in Aleppo back in December was a significant victory for Damascus that weakened the opposition's political influence and cohesion. Since Aleppo fell, some of the harder-line Islamist rebel groups have begun to fight among themselves for control of the dwindling territory left to them. As well, jihadist factions have attacked Free Syrian Army groups for attending the previous round of talks in Astana. Some rebel groups have threatened to boycott the latest round because of perceived bad faith from Russia. 

For its part, the Trump administration has yet to issue a definitive Syria strategy. President Trump has discussed shifting U.S. efforts towards cooperating more with Russia and focusing the fight on the Islamic State group. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, noted recently that the "primary purpose of the Russian intervention had nothing to do with fighting the Islamic State," but that "there might be room for the United States to cooperate with the Russians" if President Vladimir Putin made the decision to do so. 

The most important issue to the new administration is not replacing the Assad regime but stemming the destabilizing flow of refugees emanating from the conflict zone. Trump has floated the idea of establishing safe zones in Syria in which displaced persons could receive aid and sanctuary. Assad has rejected the idea, saying that creating safe zones is "not realistic" and that it would be "much more viable, much more practical and less costly to have stability than to create safe zones." This is another way of saying he would like the opposition to surrender. Others have pointed out the practical problems in creating safe zones, such as determining their location, supplying them with aid and support and ensuring that rebel factions within the zones don't start fighting each other. 

Yet the idea of establishing safe zones gives U.S. negotiators a starting point for shifting the debate away from the doubtful outcome of regime change and toward solutions for the humanitarian crisis that the civil war has created. The facts on the ground have turned decisively against the rebellion and the United States is unlikely to make the military commitment necessary to reverse that trend. Therefore, the primary issues now are focusing attention on the fight against the Islamic State group and other Islamist groups and stopping the refugee flow at its source. 

The United States cannot force a favorable resolution of the Syrian civil war, but it can work to be free of its harmful side effects. 

James S. Robbins is senior fellow for national security affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council and the author of This Time We Win: Revisiting the Tet Offensive.

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Related Categories: Middle East; Terrorism; Radical Islam; Democracy & Governance

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