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5 Questions for Next Secretary of State About Syria

By Nicholas Danforth

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

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With the United States threatening to strike Syria less than two weeks after President Trump announced his desire to withdraw all U.S. forces from the country, U.S. policy toward the 7-year civil war appears more confused than ever. Current CIA Director Mike Pompeo’s upcoming confirmation hearings for the top role at the State Department offer a unique opportunity to bring clarity to one of the most vital challenges facing the White House today. Specifically, answers to the following five questions should serve as a starting point for articulating a clear and realistic path forward on this issue.

How would you prioritize current U.S. interests in Syria?

At the moment the White House appears poised for an unprecedented intervention aimed at punishing Assad’s use of chemical weapons. At the same time, U.S. Special Forces are in northeastern Syria to defeat ISIS. Back in January, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also argued that the United States has an interest in preventing Iran from consolidating and exploiting its presence in Syria. Balancing these interests, particularly in the aftermath of military strikes against the regime, may require difficult choices, especially in light of President Trump’s limited appetite to expend resources in the region.

How would withdrawal of U.S. forces currently in Syria affect these interests?

Concerns have been raised that withdrawing U.S. forces too rapidly would allow ISIS to reconstitute itself. Likewise, returning the area taken from ISIS to Damascus’s own heavy-handed control could create the conditions for new extremist groups to arise. Beyond this, withdrawing U.S. forces would seem to preclude any serious prospect of contesting Iranian activity in Syria.

What potential policy options are covered by the currently applicable Authorization for the Use of Military Force?

Ongoing operations against ISIS in Syria have been carried out under a 2001 authorization for preventing “any future acts of international terrorism.” A more sustained effort to confront Iran or further strikes aimed at Assad’s chemical weapons capacity would seem to require additional authorization.

Does the United States have any further obligation to its Kurdish partners in the fight against ISIS or refugees from the Syrian civil war?

Beyond immediate strategic interests, many have argued that the United States owes its support to the predominantly Kurdish forces at the forefront of defeating ISIS as they try to maintain autonomy in the face of threats from Damascus and Ankara. Others have argued that the United States should provide additional resources to help manage the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of the conflict or assist the millions of refugees it has created.

What is Russia’s role in achieving a sustainable end state for Syria?

While running its own peace process involving Turkey and Iran, Russia has consistently supported the Assad regime. Indeed, its response to the currently-contemplated strikes against Damascus highlight its role in providing cover for Assad’s crimes. Russia appears to be a necessary participant in any lasting peace but far from a constructive partner in achieving one.

KEYWORDS: IRAN, TURKEY, SYRIA, BASHAR AL-ASSAD, ISIS, DEPARTMENT OF STATE, PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP, REX TILLERSON, MIKE POMPEO