On June 18, 2017, the Trump administration made a grave mistake in downing a Syrian jet south of Tabqah, which follows a string of similar events in the months prior. Faced with the decision of having to vacate Syria and abandon the garrison stationed in al-Tanf near the Jordanian border, staying in al-Tanf despite waning strategic value, or demonstrating a show of force to challenge the Syrians, Russians, and Iranians, the Trump administration predictably chose the latter which will ultimately only benefit ISIS in the long run.
The decision to bomb and disrupt the Syrian-aligned forces attacking ISIS on two main fronts—Raqqa and Deir Ezzor—is one major symptom of a contradictory and oftentimes incoherent foreign policy in Syria.
Two competing objective have been pursued in Syria over the vicious six-year war: pressuring the government of Bashar al-Assad and combatting the spread of ISIS. However, these goals contradict each other based on one inconvenient fact: the Syrian armed forces, as well as Hezbollah, Iran, and Russia, are the main forces effectively fighting ISIS.
Despite analysts’ and think tank aficionado’s hopes, the world was provided with the perfect case study to determine the contradiction in these two objectives when CIA-backed rebels fought in Northern Syria against Pentagon-backed local Kurdish and Arab forces; policy makers and military officials have struggled to tame their dogs in this unwinnable fight.
It is unclear what the next steps will be, but the Russians have had enough of the consistent provocations against their allied forces.
While Mr. Trump’s campaign rhetoric suggested that there would be a peaceful resolution to the conflict in Syria, one involving joint Russian and American support, his administration has backtracked on many of its commitments.
But it is not solely his administration’s fault for dwindling trust. Where there was once a chance for cooperation, repeated American aggression and strategic blunders that have inadvertently helped ISIS forces, including a deadly bombing in Deir Ezzor on September 17, 2016 that killed and injured nearly 200 Syrian forces fighting ISIS and warranted an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council. These mistakes have driven Washington into a corner and out of any serious involvement in the peace process including the ongoing Astana talks.
The most measured solution to this conundrum would be to pack up and leave Syria; such well-devised solutions have no place in policy discussions concerning the Syrian quagmire. With a tense domestic situation and bipartisan calls to get serious about combating Russia and Iran, Trump has the political capital to keep flexing American might in the Syrian Desert, but these provocations will not help America get serious about fighting ISIS.
Not attacking ISIS with the intent to further undermine the Syrian government is even proudly admitted by some analysts, including columnist Thomas L. Friedman, who wrote that “In Syria, Trump should let ISIS be Assad’s, Iran’s, Hezbollah’s and Russia’s headache — the same way we encouraged the mujaheddin fighters to bleed Russia in Afghanistan.” These same Afghani fighters mentioned by Friedman were to become Al-Qaeda, the leader of whom devised a plot that killed nearly 3,000 Americans on September 11, 2001.
Despite wanting to remain true to regional commitments, such as battling a so-called growing Iranian threat to defend America’s most cherished ally, Israel, and wanting to defend the interests of Sunni-Arab states in the Gulf, it appears that America cannot have it all as doing so is damaging America’s national security.
To the dismay of policy makers, Bashar al-Assad is poised to win the Syrian war and remain in power. After a decisive victory in the Battle of Aleppo and waning Turkish and Qatari financial support for the opposition, there is no way that there is any viable challenger to Assad.
It is only a matter of time before the Syrian Army regains total control of Syria. The choice has to be made soon on which interest America wants to pursue: defeating ISIS or failed regime change.