May 1, 2017 | The Cipher Brief

Syria: Options Remain If America is Willing to Take Them

One of the biggest foreign policy challenges that President-elect Donald Trump will face is Syria. Here are how things look on the ground today and some of the scenarios the new American president may have to deal with.

Over the past few weeks, Russia has been moving significant naval assets to add fire power to its Syria-based forces currently pummeling Syrian rebel groups in and around Aleppo. Russia is expected to launch a major bombing campaign against the rebel-held part of the city in coming days, hoping to finally allow Syrian government forces to recapture it. Moscow is fully aware that, for the next few months, it all but has a carte blanche to increase its presence in the eastern Mediterranean and escalate at will in Syria without concern for any repercussion or pushback from the United States.

The Russian push follows months of talks with the Obama administration, which were used by Russia and Iran to maximize their advantage in Syria. Iranian-led and regime forces moved to secure long-besieged areas around Damascus.

The starvation sieges in the suburbs and towns near and around Damascus, as well as in other areas in Homs, resulted in deals to evacuate people to the northwestern province of Idlib, which remains under rebel control, and unlike besieged Aleppo, retains access to the Turkish border. Of course, the Russian and Syrian regime air forces continue to heavily bombard the province. Furthermore, by conceding that offensive operations against Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS; the former al-Qaeda affiliate previously known as Al Nusra Front) can continue, even during any ceasefire, the Obama administration has given cover to the continued shelling of Idlib.

Whether and how this will affect dynamics between mainstream rebel groups, including Islamist factions and JFS, remains to be seen. For all the talk of mergers between JFS and other major Islamist militias, nothing has materialized. However, battlefield cooperation between JFS and a wide variety of other rebel groups and coalitions continues. Still, the spat involving religious rulings over whether it is permissible to fight alongside Turkey against ISIS underscores continued differences between JFS and other major groups like Ahrar al-Sham – JFS forbade it but Ahrar al-Sham has permitted cooperation.

The Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield operation in northeastern Aleppo began after Ankara came close to losing control of the Syrian side of its border, from Aleppo all the way to the Iraqi border. Russia, supporting Iranian-led and regime forces, as well as at times the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), managed to cut off access to Aleppo from the north. Meanwhile, the PKK, with U.S. support, had controlled much of the northeastern border. What remained in the middle was controlled by ISIS. Turkey moved to create new space by going after the ISIS areas. Sure, the concern is to keep the PKK and/or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies from controlling the length of the border. However, by securing this real estate, Turkey preserves options for itself and, should President-elect Trump decide to depart from Obama’s policy, for the U.S. as well.

However, the Obama administration’s policy has greatly complicated those options and set the stage for several sub-conflicts in the Syrian theater. Those include clashes between the Turkish-backed Arab and Turkmen forces and the Kurdish PKK forces (known as the People’s Protection Units, or YPG) and their Arab junior partners that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As the Euphrates Shield pushes south toward the ISIS-held city of al-Bab, it has and will likely continue to clash with the YPG. The likelihood increases should Turkey follow through on its threat to push the YPG-dominated SDF out of Manbij and east of the Euphrates river. Likewise, should Euphrates Shield forces turn west in order to put pressure on regime forces east of Aleppo, it could reignite tensions with Russia.

In contrast to all this activity in the north, southern Syria has been much quieter. That is because, following Russian intervention last year, Jordan, with the encouragement of the Obama administration and in line with its policy, froze the rebel southern front. This freed up manpower for the regime assault on Aleppo and removed pressure on Damascus, allowing the regime to choke off rebel-held areas around it. The question now is whether Iran and the regime, assuming they prove capable of capturing eastern Aleppo, decide at some point to turn their attention southward. Should that happen, Jordan and Israel will face difficult choices, as neither wants Iranian influence on their border, nor are they interested in tensions with Russia, especially in the absence of U.S. protection.

The Assad regime, although sovereign in name only, has declared its intention to recapture every inch of Syria. It is fully aware that it doesn’t have the manpower and capacity to achieve this goal. What Assad really wants is to push the U.S. further onside. The Obama administration has all but acquiesced to Assad control over western Syria. It has also helped empower the Syrian PKK branch, which has been open to finding modus vivendi with the regime, under a Russian umbrella.

As he looks to recapture Aleppo, Assad is busy creating a fait accompli for the new U.S. President: he will remain in power, the uprising no longer poses a strategic threat to him, and the U.S. and Europe have no option other than to find an accommodation with him. In his mind, if he succeeds in this effort, the world will begin to reengage him, even in limited ways, like giving his government access to reconstruction funds, and gradually his domestic enemies will be isolated.

Whether Assad’s wish materializes will depend on what approach President-elect Trump decides to adopt. For all the talk that Assad has seemingly turned a corner, reversing his gains and turning the heat back on him is very doable. Allying with the Turkish-backed Euphrates Shield is an option. Reactivating the southern front is another. Invigorating the rebel offensive in Hama and reactivating the Latakia front from Idlib are all feasible options. However, they all require American leadership and a clarity of purpose and understanding of what’s at stake in Syria. Whether Trump agrees remains to be seen.

Tony Badran is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @AcrossTheBay