February 28, 2018
TSC IntelBrief: The U.S. Confusion Over Syria
United States policy in Syria has been at odds with itself since the war began in 2011. Recently, the U.S. has tried to reposition some rebel groups from fighting the Assad regime to fighting the so-called Islamic State. This has been exceedingly difficult, with considerable setbacks and increased tension between the U.S. and Turkey as one consequence. Still, the anti-Islamic State military campaign is succeeding, and in doing so is revealing the contradictory stances of the White House, the State Department, and the Defense Department over what comes next for the U.S. in Syria.
In January 2018, Secretary of State Tillerson spoke about the goals of the U.S. in Syria. He stated there were essentially five: ensure an ‘enduring defeat’ for the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria; resolve the civil war through a United Nations-led process that includes a post-Assad government; diminish Iranian influence in Syria; create the conditions on the ground that will allow for the return of Syrian refugees and displaced persons; and ensure Syria is free from weapons of mass destruction.
Tillerson stated emphatically that the U.S. would remain militarily in Syria not just to ensure the lasting defeat of terrorism, but also to ensure the removal of Assad. He stated that ‘a total withdrawal of American personnel at this time would restore Assad and continue his brutal treatment against his own people.’ He further emphasized that the U.S. presence in Syria would counter Iran’s influence, saying 'U.S. disengagement from Syria would provide Iran the opportunity to further strengthen its position in Syria.’
This speech is at complete odds with the February 23 statement by President Trump. When asked about the U.S. military presence in Syria, Trump stated ‘We're there for one reason: to get ISIS and get rid of ISIS and to go home.’ He then added ‘We're not there for any other reason.’ While a disconnect between White House statements and the agencies it runs is commonplace these days, this disconnect involves the use of military personnel at great risk and expense to the U.S. There are at least 2,000 U.S. military personnel in Syria, a number that is likely to grow and be sustained for years to come.
The Defense Department and State Department appear to have made the assessment that the 2001 Authorization of the Use of Military Force (AUMF), as well as international law, give the U.S. all the legal justification it needs to stay in Syria indefinitely, and contend that a withdrawal of U.S. troops would endanger the security of Iraq as well as create more terrorist safe havens in Syria. Mary K. Waters, the assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs, wrote ‘The United States does not seek to fight the government of Syria or Iran or Iranian-supported groups in Iraq or Syria,’ a statement consistent with a counterterrorism mission but inconsistent with the sweeping goals set out by the Secretary of State last month. Until the U.S. administration gets on the same page as it relates to the full extent and intentions of its Syria policies, it will continue to see its already limited influence over the conflict further diminish.
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