Baker Institute experts: Trump administration ‘will face a series of excruciating choices’ in Syria

Barring an extremely unlikely comprehensive settlement, the Syrian civil war will continue over the next year and President Donald Trump’s administration “will face a series of excruciating choices as it balances competing U.S. interests” in the country, according to a new issue brief by experts at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy.

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“Trump Policy in the Middle East: Syria” was co-authored by Robert Barron, policy assistant to the Baker Institute director, and Joe Barnes, a foreign-policy expert and the Bonner Means Baker Fellow at the institute.

As of this month, the Syrian civil war has lasted seven years. The authors of this brief explore how the United States — first under President Barack Obama and now under Trump — has struggled to develop a coherent strategy that balances U.S. interests in the conflict with the military, financial and diplomatic resources necessary to pursue them. The Trump administration’s ultimate decisions will “affect not only Syria, but the Middle East’s geopolitics for years to come,” the authors wrote.

“Over the next year, President Trump and his foreign policy team will be forced to decide how the United States will address Syria after ISIS,” the authors wrote. “There are three decision points facing the Trump administration in Syria: re-evaluating the U.S. position on (Syria President Bashar) Assad, navigating the Kurdish-Turkish conflict and understanding and addressing the influence of Iran and Russia. This is not to mention the simmering challenges related to jihadist and insurgent groups now concentrating in northwest Syria or the regional maneuvering of the Gulf Arab states, which, in their cold war with Iran, have spurred discord regionally and among themselves.”

This year the Trump administration’s Syria policies are possibly becoming clearer, if still erratic, the authors aid. “The Obama administration’s policy was a sort of muddled containment — supporting rebels just enough to combat ISIS and al-Qaida (and the regime), but not enough to reach any decisive outcomes,” the authors wrote. “The Trump administration seems to be continuing some version of a containment strategy, but it is unclear how coherent such a strategy (and the tasks involved) has become.”

The authors said the clearest recent indicator of the current administration’s stance on Syria came in January, in a set of prepared remarks given by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at Stanford University, where he addressed the importance of Iran’s presence in Syria to U.S. policy. “For many years, Syria under Bashar Assad has been a client state of Iran,” Tillerson said in his prepared remarks. “A Syrian central government that is not under the control of Assad will have new legitimacy to assert its authority over the country. The re-assertion of national sovereignty by a new government, along with de-escalation efforts and new flows of international aid, will lower violence, set better conditions for stability and speed up the departure of foreign forces.”

The authors said this policy does not represent a radical shift — that Assad must leave has been U.S. policy for years. “But Tillerson also urged ‘patience’ on Assad’s departure and stressed the need for serious negotiations with the parties involved,” the authors wrote. “Less clear is how the current U.S. military intervention — a couple thousand troops in northeastern Syria — is going to achieve these ambitious goals.”

This brief is the second of a three-part series on America’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The first brief analyzed the Trump administration’s approach to the battle against ISIS. The final report will examine the intensified competition between Iran and traditional U.S. partners in the region, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel.

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.