The July 5 statement from American Secretary of State Tillerson about Syria was the most detailed statement of the Trump administration’s goals in Syria. The Trump administration is often hard to understand, but this July 5 statement follows a cabinet-level meeting at the White House about Syria on June 30 so it should reflect consensus between the State Department, the National Security Council and the Defense Department.
Tillerson mentioned ISIS nine times and emphasized that the American effort in Syria is against ISIS. The implicit meaning is clear: Tillerson called the Syrian government a “regime” but Washington is fighting neither Assad nor Iran in Syria. Indeed, Tillerson urged the Syrian opposition to focus efforts against ISIS, not against Assad. Here Tillerson’s policy reminds me of the Obama administration which insisted in 2014 that the American military would train and equip only Syrian opposition fighters against ISIS who pledged not to use their training and weapons against Assad. Few Syrian fighters accepted the American demand, and the 2014 effort ended in a major embarrassment. In 2017, however, the Free Syrian Army is exhausted by attrition and endless, useless internal battles. More Syrian opposition fighters in the end may accept the American demand to fight ISIS only. Indeed, some now are joining the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to fight ISIS.
The American viewpoint is that two elements are vital to destroying ISIS. First, ISIS’ remaining territories must be captured. Second, there must be stability in Syria; without stability ISIS could, he warned, rise again. After six years of fighting in Syria it is hard to imagine stability, so what is Tillerson thinking about?
We can see some specific points that Washington sees as key to stability. First, Tillerson’s statement mentioned Russia eight times and emphasized that Russia has special responsibilities in Syria. Tillerson said Russia must prevent any Syrian faction from “illegitimately” recapturing territory liberated from ISIS or other terrorist groups’ control. This is the most peculiar part of the Tillerson statement. He apparently is demanding Russia preventing more attacks by Syrian government forces against the American-supported SDF, dominated by the Syrian Kurdish PYD party and its YPG militia, that are attacking Raqqah now and may even try to take parts of Deir az-Zour province in far eastern Syria.
The Americans shot down on June 18 a Syrian air force fighter that was attacking the SDF near Raqqah; three times the Americans have bombed Syrian and Iranian-backed militias approaching Syrian Arab opposition forces in southeastern Syria. However, the Syrian government, even if it is repugnant, is acknowledged by the United Nations to be the legitimate government in Syria and so its retaking any territory inside Syria would be legitimate in terms of international law.
Tillerson listed other elements of stability. Washington, he said, would discuss with Russia establishing no-fly zones, de-confliction areas, deployment of ceasefire observers and faster delivery of humanitarian aid. This will please Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Russians after the last round of Astana talks had announced four “de-escalation” zones, and so the American vision of stability in Syria is clearer: in the short term, Syria is de facto partitioned into at least four zones: first, a Syrian government zone that includes the major cities in western Syria; second, a zone in northeastern Syria dominated by the Syrian Kurdish PYD that includes Raqqah; third, Idlib in northwestern Syria where perhaps Russian and Turkish soldiers will deploy, and finally, a small zone in southwestern Syria near the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border.
Tillerson didn’t mention Syria’s reconstruction. Instead, he said that Russia had a responsibility to ensure that the “special needs of the Syria people are met.” Tillerson’s implicit message is simple: don’t ask the Americans to help with reconstruction. This message will not please Lavrov, but it fits closely with candidate Donald Trump’s insistence during the presidential campaign last year that the United States should stop trying to fix foreign countries.
Tillerson only briefly mentioned Syria in the long term. He said there should be a political process to achieve a settlement to design Syria’s future. He didn’t say Assad must step aside. He didn’t say foreign militias must depart Syria. He didn’t even mention the word Geneva. Instead, he said Russia – not America – has a special responsibility to help with the political process, whatever it will be.
There are two big issues Tillerson left out of his statement. First, he avoided the word “Iran”, as if Iran has no forces there and will not influence stability. It is possible the June 30 meeting at the White House didn’t reach a final conclusion about what to say about Iran in Syria. Second, Tillerson listed many things for Russia to do but he avoided giving a list of what the United States would do except for fighting ISIS and beginning discussions with Russia about de-escalation, humanitarian aid and no-fly zones. Am I being too cynical to say that also reminds me of the Obama administration?
*Robert Ford is the former US Ambassador to Syria