With tensions escalating between the United States and Russia, the White House still has no larger strategy on how to deal with fresh conflicts sure to arise in parts of Syria once the Islamic State is pushed out.
U.S.-backed local forces are squeezing the terrorist group out of Syria’s south and east, and already, other actors appear to be jockeying for control. That has led to a string of U.S. clashes with the Iranian- and Russian-backed Syrian regime, as well as with Iranian-backed forces on the ground.
In the latest case, the U.S. on Sunday shot down a Syrian regime jet suspected of dropping bombs near U.S.-backed fighters, and Russia threatened on Monday to target aircraft flown by the U.S. and its allies in the region.
A senior administration official insisted that the No. 1 goal in President Donald Trump's White House remains defeating the Islamic State. He said the Trump administration is still working on a broad anti-Islamic State strategy that will ultimately include how to deal with the power vacuum that will be left in Syria once the terrorist group is defeated. But he declined to give a timetable for the plan’s release.
“Good strategy takes time to develop. We’re interested in getting it right,” the senior official said. “We’ve got to defeat the bad guys in a way that doesn’t offer opportunities to other bad guys.”
Lawmakers and former U.S. officials warned on Monday that the Trump administration’s seemingly haphazard approach in the meantime could lead to a dangerous escalation and expansion of U.S. aims in Syria.
“Trump is quietly starting a new war that Congress has not declared. Red alert,” Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) wrote on Twitter.
Robert Ford, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria now with the Middle East Institute and Yale University, said the so-called bad guys aren’t waiting for the Trump team to figure out what it will do.
“Events are moving very fast,” Ford said. “The Syrian government’s bold moves on the ground show that it, with the help of its Iranian allies, will not readily accept American attempts to dictate local governance in eastern Syria.”
It doesn’t help that there are so many actors – Iran, the Kurds, Russia, and Turkey to name a few – with a stake in Syria, and that so many have competing agendas.
“I have never seen so many international and regional conflicts playing out simultaneously in one military theater,” said Randa Slim, another Syria analyst also with the Middle East Institute. “At some point things will get out of control.”
Under President Barack Obama, the United States focused on defeating the Islamic State in both Syria and Iraq. It offered air power and Special Forces to back Iraqi, Kurdish and other allied fighters on the ground in both countries. But Obama declined to get involved in the Syrian civil war pitting the Syrian regime of Bashar Assad against rebel factions.
The Trump administration has followed a more aggressive version of the same approach, and it has succeeded in continuing to degrade the Islamic State. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, many of whom are Kurdish, recently began trying to oust Islamic State fighters from Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital in Syria.
Meanwhile, Assad, backed by Iranian and Russian military might, has managed to gain the upper hand in the civil war. But despite the belief in many corners that Assad’s fight against the rebels helps fuel the Islamic State, Trump also has tried to avoid getting entangled in the Syrian civil war. The sole exception: In April, the Trump administration fired missiles at an Assad airbase to protest his use of chemical weapons.
America’s downing Sunday of the Syrian warplane — a Russian-made Su-22 fighter-bomber — was the first time the U.S. had shot down a Syrian aircraft since Syria began spiraling out of control in March 2011. The U.S. move led Moscow to warn that it will treat American jets that venture west of the Euphrates River as potential targets. Russia also said it was cutting off its deconfliction channel with the United States. The channel lets the two sides coordinate aircraft movements in Syria to avoid collisions.
In recent weeks, the U.S. also has clashed with Iranian-backed forces maneuvering for space in Syria, especially around what’s known as the Tanf border crossing. U.S. Special Operations forces have been in the Tanf area training local forces. In one incident, U.S. F-16s hit a convoy of Iranian-armed fighters alleged to have ignored warnings to stay away from the Tanf base on May 18.
One reason Iran and the Assad regime may be provoking the United States now is that they may suspect that the Trump White House is distracted by the the scandal involving suspected Russian meddling in the 2016 election. Critics accuse Trump of being too cozy with the Kremlin, though on Syria his administration has bucked Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The Trump administration is likely looking at ways to peel Russia away from its alliance with Iran in Syria, even though recent indications are that the Russians and the Iranians are getting closer. Still, some analysts said the United States will probably have more luck coming to terms with Russia than with Iran, a longtime nemesis.
“Often times, there’s a lot of bluster coming out of Russia, but deep down they do want to talk,” said Anna Borshchevskaya of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Putin does not want World War III.“
Iran considers the Islamic State an enemy, but analysts believe Tehran also is eager to create a “land bridge” across Syria that makes it easier to send supplies to various parts of the Middle East where it has proxies, such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq. The push for a land bridge makes it even more likely that Iran or its allies will run into the United States.
What’s striking about the string of recent clashes is that the United States has been provoked by offensive actions taken by Iranian-allied groups or the Syrian regime, said Andrew Tabler, also of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Tabler, who has called the scramble for supremacy in eastern Syria a new “Great Game,” said it’s not clear why Iran and other parties believe now is a good time to needle the United States.
“I think they are testing the mettle of the United States,” Tabler said of the Iranians. He added, however, that, whereas Obama hesitated over taking military action in Syria, “what’s interesting about the Trump administration is that they lay down red lines, and if you cross them, they react.”
Mark Dubowitz, chief executive of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, is advising the Trump administration on Iran policy. He noted that the administration is nearly finished with a review of U.S. policy toward Iran and that how to deal with Tehran’s role in Syria is part of those discussions.
“A rollback strategy against Iran starts in places like Syria,” Dubowitz said. “The administration is making clear they’re not looking for a direct confrontation. They’re not looking for a fight, but if Iran, Assad and Hezbollah continue to push into areas in southern and eastern Syria, they are prepared to take the fight to Iran and its allies.”
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