President Trump’s unexpected attack on Syria’s Shayrat airbase in response to President Assad’s sarin gas attack on his own citizens has changed the dynamic of Syria’s civil war and potentially its eventual outcome. Trump’s attack sent a clear message not only to Assad, but to Russia and Iran, who are staunch supporters of Assad, and to North Korea, who has been testing the US’ resolve regarding its missile program. This one single salvo has repaired some of the United States’ global credibility, which was tarnished by the Obama administration. At the same time, Trump’s attack imposed a new responsibility on the US to follow through with a well-thought out strategy that stands a good chance of ending Syria’s horrific civil war and diminishing the North Korean threat.
Any new strategy requires a clear definition of its ultimate goal. If the goal is to end the civil war in Syria, then careful consideration must be given to the role and requirements of all the stakeholders involved in the war, without which no sustainable agreement can be achieved.
Although finding a solution to the conflict is extremely difficult, now that the US has become directly involved, Trump has no option but to try. I maintain that since all the parties involved seek an end to the conflict on certain terms, the Trump administration needs to consider their needs but follow a strategy based on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy approach of “speak softly and carry a big stick.”
First, Trump must demand that the indiscriminate killing of innocent men, women, and children stop immediately as he has already intimated. Although the heinous act of using chemical weapons must not be tolerated, the wholesale killing of civilians by barrel bombs and starvation is no less condemnable. Assad must also be warned that if he fails to comply, the US will attack new targets in Syria, particularly runways, hangars, and munition depots.
Assad’s patrons Russia and Iran will take such a warning seriously because, notwithstanding their public bluster, neither wants to engage the US militarily, especially now that Trump has established his credibility to take punitive actions to stop the senseless killings, as well as his unpredictability as to when and how he will act.
The second part of the strategy is for Trump to extend his hand to all the players who have stakes in the war and its ultimate outcome—especially Russia, Iran, Assad, and the rebels—to start serious negotiations with the purpose of ending the civil war.
Although the players seem to agree that ISIS must be liquidated and that they must cooperate to achieve this objective, the search for a solution to the civil war must not await the demise of ISIS, and the negotiations to end the war should begin immediately.
The Trump administration recognizes that Russia is the most significant player with strategic interests in Syria going back nearly five decades. Russia has had a naval base in the city of Tartus and will insist on maintaining its presence and influence in Syria.
Similarly, Iran’s ambition to become the region’s hegemon suggests that it will not relinquish under any circumstances its strategic interests from the Gulf to the Mediterranean, in which Syria serves as the linchpin.
Both Russia and Iran will continue to support Assad as long as he serves their interests. For this reason, Trump cannot vacillate; he must accept that Assad will have to continue to serve as president during a transitional period, perhaps for three to four years.
Trump and Putin can work together on the establishment of a representative government consisting of the main sectors of the population—the Sunnis (represented by the Free Syrian Army), the Kurds, the Alawites, and the Christians—for at least five years, during which the focus should be on rebuilding the country and restoring internal security.
During this period, a loose federation should be created whereby each of the main sectors establishes semi-autonomous rule and agrees to engage in a process of peace and reconciliation to prevent revenge and retribution, and to pave the way for economic and security cooperation.
The repatriation of the refugees must also be dealt with, and the parties should agree on a program that allow the refugees to return to their homes. Given the extensive destruction of the country, all the stakeholders should embark on raising the billions of dollars necessary to rebuild infrastructure and support the rehabilitation of refugees.
Between now and the time when such an agreement is reached, a no-fly zone should be created in Syria along its borders with Turkey and Jordan to provide a safe haven for the internally displaced and refugees.
To be sure, Trump should be clear that the US is more than willing to engage diplomatically to solve the war in Syria, which by extension threatens its security and the security of its allies. Trump should also emphasize that the US is willing to use force when necessary to achieve its objectives.
Trump’s order to attack a Syrian air base while having dinner with Chinese President Xi Jinping was also intended to send a loud and clear message to the North Korean regime. Moreover, dispatching a naval strike group to the Western Pacific Ocean near the Korean Peninsula sends an unambiguous message to China that it is time to rein in North Korea’s provocations, because the longer the conflict persists, the more complicated it becomes.
Through his actions against Assad and toward North Korea, President Trump reasserted the US’ position on the global stage by challenging its enemies to take heed of its resolve, while inviting a diplomatic solution based on the national interests of all the players involved.
Russia has a special interest to resume normal relations with the US, and is eager to have the sanctions lifted. Secretary of State Tillerson’s visit to Moscow should pave the way for starting serious negotiations to end the conflict in Syria, as long as it ensures Russia’s long-term strategic goals.
China’s main interest is to maintain, and even improve, its trade relations with the US. With some American incentives, China would more than likely take whatever steps necessary to tame North Korea and prevent any confrontation between the US and North Korea that could precipitate regional upheaval that China wants to avoid at any price.
Similarly, Iran wants to prevent any military entanglement with the US, knowing full well that it simply cannot emerge but humiliated from such a confrontation, which would adversely impact its national interests in Syria and leave it subject to new crippling sanctions.
The US today is in a better position than it has been in more than sixteen years to reestablish its global credibility and moral and security responsibilities.
Trump’s unpredictability and his readiness to use force when necessary can be an asset, but it is no substitute for a sound and effective strategy—a strategy that offers carrots while carrying a big stick, with a clear objective always in sight.