As the Syrian tragedy lurches toward a bloody final showdown in Idlib province, the Trump administration is struggling to check Russia and the Syrian regime from an assault there that UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warns would be a “humanitarian catastrophe.”
The administration’s efforts are so late in coming, and so limited, that it’s hard to muster much hope they can reverse seven years of American failure. But at least the administration has stopped the dithering and indecision of the last 18 months and signaled that the US has enduring interests in Syria, beyond killing Islamic State group terrorists -- and that it isn’t planning to withdraw its special operations forces from northeastern Syria anytime soon.
“Right now, our job is to help create quagmires (for Russia and the Syrian regime) until we get what we want,” says one administration official, explaining the effort to resist an Idlib onslaught. This approach involves reassuring the three key US allies on Syria’s border -- Israel, Turkey and Jordan -- of continued American involvement.
President Trump’s personal commitment to Syria is unclear, given his frequent past comments that America’s role there should be limited to fighting terrorists. But the revamped policy appears to have the backing of Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who recently appointed Jim Jeffrey, a respected former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, to coordinate Syria engagement.
This eleventh-hour rediscovery of Syria is poignant, because it comes as America is mourning the death of Sen. John McCain, who anguished in his final years about America’s inability to check the slaughter there. McCain believed that because of feckless policy, America was complicit in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrian civilians.
The administration has signaled a stiffer stance by warning Russia against its planned escalation in Idlib, which Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described Wednesday as “a festering abscess” that must be “liquidated.” Russia has mobilized about 15 ships near Syria as a prelude to a final assault. National security adviser John Bolton warned publicly last week that the US would respond “very strongly” if President Bashar Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.
Idlib, located in the northwest corner of Syria, has become a haven for terrorists, anti-regime fighters and desperate civilians who fled there from after the fall of Aleppo and Deraa. The province’s population is now about 3 million, swollen by perhaps a million refugees. In the Idlib cauldron are about 10,000 hard-core al-Qaida fighters, along with foreign jihadists who joined the Islamic State caliphate.
Turkey fears that a massive assault on Idlib could drive as many as 2.5 million refugees north toward the Turkish border. From there, some (including terrorists) would try to make their way to Europe, creating a new security nightmare for countries already panicked by refugees. Staffan de Mistura, the UN envoy for Syria, this week described Idlib as a “perfect storm.” In this case, that overused metaphor seems apt.
US goals in Syria have been sketched publicly by Pompeo and Mattis: withdrawal of all Iranian-commanded forces from the country, rather than just from a 50-mile, or 80-kilometer, buffer zone along the Israel border, as in the deal Russia arranged; and a political transition that can prevent Syria from becoming a terrorist base again and stabilize it enough that refugees can return to their homes. Pompeo and Mattis want more American involvement in the Geneva deliberations on a political transition, too.
The challenge is convincing Syria’s neighbors that America’s influence still matters, particularly when Russia and the Assad regime seem poised for victory. Israel has worked closely with Moscow this year as it struck Iranian targets in Syria. But Israeli officials say they’ve concluded that only America can drive Iranian commanders from the field. Jordan, too, has welcomed Russian help in reopening its border crossing with Syria, but Amman’s survival depends on US aid.
Turkey poses the trickiest problem. Its relations with America are poisonous these days because of the botched deal to free pastor Andrew Brunson. But on the ground in Syria, cooperation is far better than six months ago, thanks to a face-saving accord between Turkish forces and US-backed Syrian Kurdish fighters. Russia doesn’t have all the answers, in other words.
The paradox of Syria is that the most stable area now is probably the northeast, where US forces operate alongside Kurdish-led militias, Sunni opposition groups, Turkish-backed fighters and elements friendly to the regime. If the US really means to be back in the Syria game, it must prevent the Idlib bloodbath -- and then encourage this same process of coexistence across the country.
David Ignatius can be reached via Twitter: @IgnatiusPost. -- Ed.
(Washington Post Writers Group)