September 27, 2017 | Policy Brief
Preventing a “Fait Accompli” in Syria
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met with representatives of 17 like-minded nations to discuss the future of Syria last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Following the meeting, Ambassador David Satterfield, acting assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said the U.S. and its partners were firmly opposed to “accepting a fait accompli” in which the Assad regime and its Iranian patrons consolidate their grip on Syria with the expected defeat of the Islamic State.
Satterfield argued that the urgent need for aid to rebuild Syria would ultimately compel Assad and his patrons to engage in a “credible political process that reflects the will of the majority of Syrians.” Without such a process, he said, “you’re not going to get international participation in Syria, and that’s vital. The regime needs it. Russia needs it.”
The U.S. should by no means finance the recovery of a nation dominated by Assad. And there is little reason to believe that withholding such aid will sway the calculus of the regime and its patrons in Tehran. Rather, the effective route to building leverage at the negotiating table is to consolidate and expand the influence of U.S. partner forces in eastern Syria, especially the Sunni Arab elements within the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
However, the U.S. has sent mixed signals regarding its readiness to compete with the Iranian axis for influence in eastern Syria, or even to acknowledge that such a competition is under way. Earlier this month, President Trump stated, “We have very little to do with Syria other than killing ISIS. What we do is we kill ISIS.” Similarly, Satterfield listed the defeat of the Islamic State as the top priority, followed by a need to “end the violence.”
In contrast, Tillerson declared last month that putting an end to “Iran’s military influence” in Syria is one of two essential U.S. objectives. To that end, the U.S. military is supporting an SDF offensive designed to prevent the Assad regime and its partners from establishing a dominant position in the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor. Journalists now describe the SDF-Assad competition as a race for eastern Syria, reminiscent of the race between U.S. and Soviet forces to claim the lion’s share of German territory in 1945.
One of the most concerning aspects of the regime offensive in the east is the prominent role played by Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy forces, such as the Fatemiyoun Division, composed of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan. Unless the U.S. commits to preventing the march of these forces, Iran will be the ultimate victor of the Syria conflict, thereby expanding its influence across the Middle East and setting the stage for future conflict – with both Sunni states and with Israel. Indeed, this would likely mark not the end of a war, but rather the beginning of yet another.
David Adesnik is the director of research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow him on Twitter @adesnik.
Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD.