January 19, 2018 | Policy Brief

Tillerson Revises U.S. Policy on Syria

January 19, 2018 | Policy Brief

Tillerson Revises U.S. Policy on Syria

In a speech Wednesday at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson articulated the most detailed vision so far of the Trump administration’s Syria policy. Building on President Trump’s address last October that described his strategy for confronting Tehran, Tillerson warned that “U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria,” and further encourage Bashar al-Assad’s ongoing atrocities.

In October, Trump committed the United States to opposing “the full range of Iran’s destructive actions” in the Middle East, where they “fuel conflict, terror, and turmoil.” This statement implied growing concern about Iranian influence in Syria, which seemed to be a shift away from Trump’s previous approach of having “very little to do with Syria other than killing ISIS.”

While Tillerson reiterated that one of Washington’s top goals in Syria is to counter Iranian influence, it is not entirely clear what this means in practice. The secretary of state observed that an enduring U.S. presence in regions formerly controlled by ISIS will not just prevent the group’s re-emergence, but “will also help pave the way for legitimate local civil authorities to exercise responsible governance.”

Tillerson said the U.S. plans to stabilize these regions by clearing landmines, restoring water and electricity services, and re-opening schools, yet he said little about the path toward political stability or protection from Assad’s efforts to reassert his control. In particular, Tillerson remained silent about the future of the U.S. relationship with the local forces it trained and equipped to fight ISIS, which might now be able to offer protection from Assad if they receive ongoing support.

In his remarks, Tillerson also recognized that Iran’s growing influence in Syria ensures that Hezbollah will strengthen its position there, posing a direct threat to Israel. The secretary observed that the security of the Jewish state depends on “requiring Iranian-backed militias, most notably Hezbollah, to move away from Israel’s border.” To that end, Tillerson defended U.S. cooperation with Russia “to establish the de-escalation area in the southwest part of Syria,” from which Iran and its proxies are excluded.

Tillerson portrayed Russia as an indispensable partner for promoting a diplomatic solution to the war in Syria “through the UN-led Geneva process.” He called on Moscow “to exert its unique leverage on the Syrian regime” to pursue the objectives laid out in UN Security Council Resolution 2254, including “UN-supervised free elections in Syria.” These elections play an essential role in addressing the Iranian threat, Tillerson said, since “reducing and expelling malicious Iranian influence from Syria depends on a democratic Syria.”

It is doubtful that Russia will enforce the de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria, let alone pressure the regime to hold free elections. Last week, a senior State Department official testified before Congress that the de-escalation agreement is meant “to test Russia” to see if it can be trusted. Meanwhile, Iran is already finding ways to circumvent restrictions on its presence.

Tillerson deserves credit for declaring that U.S. policy is to challenge Iranian control in Syria, yet he must lay out a more plausible path toward that goal. Job one is to ensure that territories liberated from ISIS remain beyond Assad’s grasp, and by extension, Iran’s. Only this step will ensure that the Trump administration can build the leverage necessary to negotiate effectively. From there, the U.S. can build on its progress by strengthening partners on the ground that eschew Iran.

David Adesnik is the Director of Research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Follow David on Twitter @adesnik.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter @FDD. FDD is a Washington-based  nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security and foreign policy.