The war in Syria is entering a new phase where the external powers have coalesced into sectors of control. In northern Syria, Russia has the Syria-Turkish border west of the Euphrates; Turkey has the border areas east of the Euphrates; and, the U.S. is in the eastern security zone along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and local tribes.
Security Studies Group (SSG) previously proposed a plan quite similar to this except with Turkey west of the Euphrates and the Russians not holding ground in the North. Negotiations along these lines went on for almost two years with the U.S. unable to get both Turkey and the SDF to agree.
The current state is far from ideal, but absent a new U.S. interest in changing it we are best served by accepting it and working to ensure no unacceptable outcomes occur. These would include:
- A recurrence of ISIS or another Sunni insurgency
- A land bridge across Syria through areas controlled by Iran
- The long-term continuation of the Assad regime’s oppression
The US policy aimed at ensuring those don’t happen and creating a better future for Syria is a version of what we call Attrition plus Prosperity. Essentially it means to apply all available pressures to degrade the Assad regime and to create positive conditions in the Eastern Security Zone that will serve as a counter-example to the Syrian people of what their lives could be.
This strategy is no guarantee of success and the piece linked above by SSG Sr. VP Dr. Brad Patty discusses how it was a fit for Iraq but not in Afghanistan. It remains to be seen if it will work in Syria, but the conditions there are more similar to Iraq than Afghanistan.
Both Russia and Turkey will be busy trying to maintain control of the border areas they have taken. Neither has any certainty of holding them and a danger will be more of the war crimes committed already. They must try to pacify the populations and fend off guerrilla attacks by those they ran out in force on force combat.
Turkey’s plan to repopulate the area east of the Euphrates with one million plus refugees is certain to be challenging logistically and will face concerted opposition from the people they displaced to do so. Russia needs to extract some value from its presence in Syria on top of simply maintaining a warm water port. Both of them may have bitten off more than they can chew.
The U.S. is not in a position politically or militarily to change the disposition of either of them, but the problems each faces will likely keep them out of our hair. This can allow the U.S. to focus on providing security and economic revitalization to the eastern zone. Much of the region was basically destroyed by the infestation of ISIS and then the major combat operations to remove them from power.
Security is required for redevelopment to happen and the Raqqa Internal Security Forces (RISF) are an initial success. The U.S. and Jordan assisted the SDF in creating a local organization to fill the vacuum and provide the day to day protection that will allow normal life to return again for inhabitants there. Moving that concept to other parts of the Eastern Security Zone is the next step followed by the massive effort it will take to get the basic infrastructure operational again.
The U.S. will help with much of this as will the regional allies like Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Jordan and others. These partners have done a considerable amount already and have a stake in how their neighborhood turns out at the end of all this.
If the U.S. can help show the people of Syria a better life, then the constitutional processes and democratic initiatives underway can allow them a path out of tyranny.
The main U.S. interest in Syria was to crush ISIS. While they still maintain cells across both Syria and Iraq, their Caliphate is gone, their leader is dead and they are a shell of their previous danger. But to ensure they do not rise from the ashes, we must push forward strongly with this next phase.