Analysis |

The Absence of Strategy in Washington's Syria Policy

After disconnecting from the Syrian theater both militarily and diplomatically, Congress seems to have produced legislation that will likely not impact the conduct of the Syrian regime, but will certainly harm its civilians

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018.
FILE PHOTO: Syrian schoolchildren walk as U.S. troops patrol near Turkish border in Hasakah, Syria November 4, 2018.Credit: \ Rodi Said/ REUTERS
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

It’s been an especially difficult winter for thousands of refugees and displaced persons in Lebanon and Syria, with dozens dying of the cold in temporary camps set up in both countries.

According to the World Health Organization, 29 children and newborns have died of hypothermia over the last eight weeks in Syria’s Al-Hol refugee camp alone. More than 42,000 refugees in Syria’s Rukban camp lack blankets, food and medicine, and UN aid services are having trouble reaching the camp. Moreover, aid organizations are running out of money.

This is the eighth winter that brought shocking pictures of women and children trudging through the slush and snow around their leaky tents as they desperately seek firewood for heat and cooking. Donations do arrive regularly from Arab and European countries, but as time passes, the tragedy of the Syrian refugees has gradually faded from view, as have diplomatic moves that could end the country’s civil war.

Read more: Why the rebuilding of Syria isn’t going to happenTwo years in, gulf states disappointed in Trump on everything from Iran to peace

On the other side of the ocean, the Trump administration and Congress are busy fighting over the withdrawal of American forces from Syria. U.S. President Donald Trump has delayed the withdrawal until the end of April, perhaps because he understood that it might well bring disaster upon America’s Kurdish allies, or perhaps because his grandiose statements about Islamic State being destroyed have no factual basis.

The annual threat assessment published this week by Director of National Intelligence Daniel Coats, which CIA Director Gina Haspel also signed off on, said that thousands of Islamic State fighters are still active in Iraq and Syria. It also said Iran shows no signs of planning to develop nuclear weapons, whereas North Korea hasn’t gotten rid of its nuclear weapons – despite negotiations with America.

Trump, as usual, assailed this report. In an unprecedented attack, he accused the intelligence chiefs – whom he himself appointed – of being “passive and naïve” and told them to “go back to school.”

But his poisonous tweets don’t change the fact that Islamic State is alive and well in both Syria and Iraq. Tragic proof of this was supplied by the organization itself through an attack in the Syrian city of Manbij two weeks ago, which killed at least four American soldiers and 12 Syrian civilian.

The attack sparked public criticism, which quickly penetrated the halls of Congress. Several members of the House of Representatives have sponsored a bill that would bar the Pentagon from using its approved 2019 budget to finance any drawdown of American troops to below 2,000 combat soldiers – about the number currently stationed in Syria. The bill, titled the “Responsible Withdrawal from Syria Act,” hasn’t yet been passed, but it clearly signals where Congress is heading.

The bill would let the Pentagon use its budget for the withdrawal only after it responds to 15 questions, including what Islamic State’s actual strength is in Syria, how much of a threat it poses, how the administration plans to thwart this threat, whether the Kurds will continue to fight the organization and what guarantees Washington will get from Turkey to protect the Kurdish forces. Each of these questions is a roadside bomb that could destroy the withdrawal itself – not only its funding.

But the same Congress that seeks to delay and perhaps kill the U.S. withdrawal from Syria is now about to approve a new sanctions law against the Assad regime. But the logic behind the bill, first submitted in 2016 and titled the “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” is unclear.

“Caesar” is a pseudonymous Syrian photographer who officially worked for the Syrian police while secretly working for the rebels. Over the course of two years, starting in 2013, he took thousands of photographs of Syrian prisons and hospitals that proved the regime was committing war crimes. High-resolution pictures of crushed limbs, mutilated sex organs and dismembered bodies of people tortured by the regime were all downloaded to Caesar’s personal computer, which he managed to smuggle with him to Europe. There, he disseminated the photographs to the entire world.

Caesar zealously guards his anonymity for fear of his safety. But his shocking photographs spurred Congress to draft a bill meant to stop the slaughter in Syria. Now, the bill is being revived. It already passed the House of Representatives, but was held up in the Senate due to the government shutdown.

The bill calls for the president to impose sanctions not just on the Assad regime, but also on anyone helping it, in Syria or outside it. Inter alia, it would bar the sale of spare parts for both military and civilian aircraft, ban participation in any projects managed or supervised by the Syrian government and forbid sending funds for Syria’s reconstruction.

The bill is very similar to the sanctions law against Iran, and would effectively enable the U.S. government to punish European and Arab companies that sought to operate in Syria.

Trump already announced several weeks ago that America wouldn’t participate in Syria’s reconstruction as long as it lacked a stable, representative government. But in the same breath, he thanked Saudi Arabia for its willingness to finance part of the reconstruction, though without specifying how much.

It’s unclear what the administration and Congress seek to achieve through this new sanctions bill, especially when Russia and Iran continue to finance Assad’s military activity and also plan to raise money to help him rebuild the country. Neither country will be impressed by the sanctions legislation.

Nevertheless, they aren’t the only countries planning to cooperate with the Assad regime in the very near future. On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain met in Amman to discuss their joint policy on the Syrian crisis and whether Syria should return to the Arab League.

The UAE has already reopened its embassy in Damascus. Jordan is currently in talks with Syrian officials about resuming flights to Damascus and has raised the level of its diplomatic representation there. Additionally, Syrian and Jordanian parliamentary delegations have exchanged visits to signal their intent to restore full diplomatic relations.

So will Congress impose sanctions on Jordan, or on the UAE, which already has plans to invest in Syria? Is the goal of the sanctions to prevent money from reaching the refugees in Syria? It’s true the bill would exempt international aid organizations, but what will happen to donations from corporations and businessmen?

“Syria Civilian Protection,” which was so badly needed during the war’s early years, has now become the risible title of a bill. In its haste to show that America is doing something, after it disconnected from the Syrian theater both militarily and diplomatically, Congress seems to have produced legislation whose ability to influence the conduct of the Syrian regime is doubtful, but whose ability to harm civilians is certain.

Precisely because this bill enjoys bipartisan support, it raises questions about America’s role in solving crises in the Middle East, and not only there. The superpower’s disappearance from the Syrian theater; its apathy, not to say abdication, toward the war in Yemen; the slap in the face it received from the Saudi crown prince; the failure of the Arab coalition against Iran that was set up at the Saudis’ initiative with American support; the endlessly postponed publication of its Israeli-Palestinian peace plan; its loss of Iraq to Iran, the caprice of its withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal; its rift with Turkey; its betrayal of its Kurdish allies in Syria; and its cutoff of aid to the Palestinian Authority all paint a sorry and worrying picture of the diplomatic capabilities of Israel’s most important partner, at least during the first two years of Trump’s term.

Regardless of whether one agrees or disagrees with America’s policy of turning inward under Trump, it’s not really turning inward as long as it sees itself as obligated to work against Iran, disarm North Korea of its nuclear weapons, solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, fight Islamic State and change the Assad regime’s behavior.

And these aspirations can’t be realized through statements or tweets. They require intensive diplomatic and sometimes military engagement, consistency in defining enemies and allies, and the forging of strategic international partnerships – an area where Trump has failed in Europe and is about to fail in the Arab world, assuming the Arab states decide to restore Syria to their fold.

Trump justified the withdrawal from Syria by saying the country doesn’t have “vast wealth,” it has nothing but “sand and death.” This isn’t deep diplomatic poetry, but a worldview that seemingly maps out America’s interests according to Trump. The problem is that the map's contradictions have managed to confound those very interests.

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