January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
January 14, 2021 | From Trump to Biden Monograph
The Trump administration never settled on a clear and consistent policy toward Syria. Rather, there was perennial tension between the president’s determination to withdraw U.S. forces – now fewer than 1,000 in number – and the insistence of both his advisers and Congress that the United States had vital interests at stake.
As a candidate in 2016, Trump made clear his aversion to continued U.S. involvement in Syria for any purpose other than defeating the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).1 Nevertheless, Trump launched air and missile strikes in 2017 and again in 2018 to punish the Bashar al-Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. Trump also accelerated the U.S.-led campaign against the ISIS caliphate, leading to its defeat in 2018.
While that campaign was still underway, however, Trump began to advocate a withdrawal from Syria. In March 2018, he unexpectedly announced at a public rally that the United States would be leaving Syria soon. “Let the other people take care of it now,” Trump said. “We are going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be.”2 On the advice of his national security team, Trump quietly postponed the withdrawal.
Nine months later, following a phone call with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Trump surprised both his advisers and the other members of the anti-ISIS coalition by announcing a rapid pullout of the roughly 2,000 U.S. troops then in Syria. “We have won against ISIS. We’ve beaten them, and we’ve beaten them badly,” Trump said. “Now it’s time for our troops to come back home.”3
Trump’s decision led to the resignation of Secretary of Defense James Mattis, while the Senate voted 68-23 to condemn the withdrawal, with 43 Republicans in favor of the resolution and only three against.4 Under pressure, the president gradually distanced himself from his original order. In the end, the United States withdrew about half its troops.
In October 2019, following another call with Erdogan, Trump reissued his order for a complete withdrawal. He stated, “[T]he plan is to get out of endless wars,” adding that Syria is of little concern because “[i]t’s a lot of sand.”5
Trump specifically directed a withdrawal from U.S. positions near the Syrian border with Turkey; Erdogan quickly sent an intervention force across the border to attack Ankara’s Syrian Kurdish adversaries – integral members of the anti-ISIS coalition. A UN report later documented extensive human rights violations by the Turkish military and Turkish-aligned militias in Syria.6 Russian forces also gained access to parts of northeastern Syria where coalition forces once exercised exclusive control.
Three days after Trump announced the withdrawal, a bipartisan majority in the House voted 354-60 to repudiate the decision.7 As pressure mounted, the president turned to a new rationale for keeping troops in Syria: “We’re keeping the oil. We have the oil. The oil is secure. We left troops behind, only for the oil,” he said.8 The Pentagon accordingly relocated some units to Syrian oil fields.9
As 2019 drew to a close, a bipartisan coalition in Congress succeeded in passing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (“Caesar Act”), which mandated sanctions on Assad’s foreign enablers while enhancing executive branch authority to target them. The U.S. government also continued to appropriate extensive humanitarian aid, totaling more than $12 billion since the start of the war.10
At the end of Trump’s term, an estimated 500 to 600 troops remained in northeastern Syria. An additional 200 troops serve at a garrison at al-Tanf, a strategic town on the main highway from Baghdad to Damascus – a key artery for Iran’s “land bridge” across the Levant.11
Trump’s periodic calls for a withdrawal from Syria derived from a mistaken premise that the United States had stumbled into a quagmire. In fact, the U.S. military applied the lessons it learned in Iraq and Afghanistan to minimize both the human and financial costs of its operations in Syria. Principally, the military employed air power, surveillance capabilities, and a small number of advisers to support local allies, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which fought the bloody ground war against ISIS.12
Previous wars also demonstrated the need to ensure local allies could preserve stability after initial successes on the battlefield. Trump himself frequently condemned the Obama administration for its rushed withdrawal from Iraq from 2009 to 2011, which satisfied a campaign promise yet contributed directly to the rise of ISIS. Nevertheless, Trump ignored his own advice with regard to Syria.
The president also refused to recognize the connection between his policy toward Syria and his campaign of maximum pressure against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has spent an estimated $20 to $30 billion to prop up the Assad regime.13 A full withdrawal from Syria would have enabled Assad to reassert control of the oil fields and agricultural resources of northeastern Syria, thereby relieving pressure on his own finances and, by extension, Tehran’s. An American departure would also have solidified Tehran’s efforts to build a land bridge to the Mediterranean, facilitating its supply of advanced weapons to Hezbollah for ultimate use in a war with Israel.14
Trump’s unwarranted faith in Erdogan’s assurances also contributed to errors in Syria. Trump claimed that Turkey would assume responsibility for fighting ISIS, yet Erdogan had consistently turned a blind eye to ISIS and al-Qaeda financiers in Turkey, while sending weapons and funding to Syrian extremists, including al-Qaeda-affiliated al-Nusra Front.15
Trump deserves credit, however, for enforcing the U.S. red line that prohibits the use of chemical weapons in Syria. French and British warplanes even participated in the second round of airstrikes in 2018, a rare instance of transatlantic cooperation in recent years. Still, the strikes had a limited impact; Syrian aircraft continued to bomb civilian targets with conventional munitions. The State Department also reported to Congress that the Assad regime continues to procure materials for chemical-weapons production.16
The Trump administration also made a concerted effort to escalate economic pressure on Assad. President Obama’s executive orders granted many of the necessary authorities to the departments of Treasury and State to impose sanctions, yet enforcement was intermittent. From 2017 onward, Treasury worked to disrupt the illicit flow of oil from Iran to Syria, while blacklisting many of the oligarchs generating income for the Assad regime.17 After the Caesar Act took effect in June 2020, Treasury and State began to announce new designations on a monthly basis.
While Trump ultimately settled on the presence of several hundred U.S. troops in Syria, his claim that America would keep Syrian oil illustrated the extent to which misinformation drove his policy. The United States is the world’s leading producer of oil and gas; it has no legal right to Syria’s reserves and does not need them.
The prospects are dim for a resolution of the war in Syria, whether on the battlefield or via diplomacy in Geneva. Trump’s top advisors advocated sustainable policies to secure U.S. interests amid ongoing fragmentation and instability. The president’s failure to follow that course prevented his administration from focusing its efforts on keeping ISIS down, limiting Iranian and Russian influence, managing tensions with Turkey regarding northeastern Syria, protecting and aiding Syrian civilians, and strengthening U.S. relations with Kurdish and Arab partners in the anti-ISIS coalition.
Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken explained last May that President-elect Biden’s Syria policy would address grave errors made by both the Obama and Trump administrations. As an Obama administration veteran, Blinken said “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”18
Blinken’s candor and openness to self-criticism amount to a refreshing change. To fix past mistakes, the new administration should implement the following recommendations:
- Maintain troops in Syria to prevent an ISIS resurgence. Effective operations in Syria also depend on the U.S. military presence in Iraq. The Biden administration should request that the Pentagon determine whether Trump’s partial withdrawals from either country compromised the mission. If so, reverse the withdrawals.
- Continue to support and train the SDF. Capable and motivated allies are a rare asset in the region; more than 11,000 SDF fighters lost their lives while fighting ISIS.19
- Target revenue streams that enable Assad to engage in atrocities against the Syrian people. The Biden administration must build on current efforts to disrupt Syria’s illicit oil imports as well as its narco-trafficking. It must also employ the Caesar Act and related authorities to target Assad’s oligarchs and foreign facilitators.
- Warn U.S. partners in the Arab world not to normalize relations with Assad. The incoming administration should make clear that the United States will punish sanctions evasion by entities from friendly states as well as hostile ones.
- Reform and increase humanitarian aid. The United States and its allies rely on the United Nations to distribute aid to populations under Assad’s control, yet the regime diverts massive amounts.20 Donors should hold the United Nations accountable and ensure it establishes comprehensive safeguards. Donors should also pressure Russia and China to stop blocking aid to populations outside regime control, including the displaced persons camp at Rukban.
- Oppose reconstruction aid while war crimes continue. Congress may consider an updated version of the No Assistance for Assad Act, which specifies criteria for when reconstruction aid would be permissible.21 The criteria should include safeguards against corruption.
- Help local authorities in northeastern Syria to develop their energy resources in a transparent and equitable manner. Moving toward self-sufficiency can reduce the need for economic assistance.
- Deter Erdogan from further aggression against the Syrian Kurds. If Turkish military personnel or proxy forces continue to abuse Syrian civilians, the Biden administration should impose human rights sanctions on key commanders and officials.
- Press the Assad regime to provide information about the status of American citizens who have disappeared in Syria. The next administration should uphold the U.S. policy of offering no concessions – whether in the form of sanctions relief or diplomatic recognition – for releasing hostages.
- Suspend Syria’s rights and privileges within the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW). Russia will likely attempt to obstruct any effort to hold Damascus accountable, but there is a working majority at the OPCW that will respond to U.S. leadership.
- Continue to enforce the U.S. red line on Syrian use of chemical weapons. Assad is likely to test the new administration’s commitment. If the regime employs chemical weapons, the response should deprive Assad of the means to commit further atrocities, by completely destroying his air force and potentially other offensive capabilities.