US Navy guided-missile destroyer USS Porter (DDG 78) conducts strike operations while in the Mediterranean Sea which US Defense Department said was a part of cruise missile strike against Syria on April 7, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The debate is still on regarding Donald Trump’s missile strike on Syria: Was it a one-off gut reaction to Bashar Assad’s use of chemical weapons, will he respond to non-chemical atrocities, does he now believe that Assad must go, will he just stay focused on taking out ISIS and what does he believe should be the end game for Syria after six bloody years of a civil war that has claimed some 500,000 lives and caused untellable destruction. Does he even have a clear policy on Syria?
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson met yesterday in Moscow with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Tillerson said after the meetings that relations between the two countries had reached “a low point” with “a low level of trust.” Prior to his trip to Moscow, Tillerson had told the Russians they would have to choose between the United States and Assad, Iran and Hezbollah.
But despite the administration’s tough talk, at the end of the day it will need to recognize that Moscow has invested heavily in Syria and will not easily back down from its investment.
If Trump is looking for a realistic Syria policy he could do worse than look at recommendations made in a recent RAND Corporation policy paper authored by James Dobbins, a former assistant secretary of state for European affairs; Philip Gordon, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Persian Gulf Region; and Jeffrey Martini, a Middle East analyst for the corporation.
The RAND paper, released prior to the latest events in Syria, suggests freezing the conflict in place more or less along existing battle lines, together with decentralization of Syrian governance and policing with security guarantees by outside powers.
In other words, for the foreseeable future they recommend dividing up Syria along ethno-sectarian lines into a Alawite regime-controlled area; Sunni zones backed by the Turks; two Kurdish zones separated by one of the Turkish backed areas; and an international zone in the Raqqa region that would replace ISIS after its inevitable ouster from the capital of its self-proclaimed caliphate.
At the same time they propose commencing negotiations among all relevant local and international actors for eventual political reform in Syria. As for Assad – they suggest leaving that question to a more propitious moment, one that has perhaps arrived with the dictator’s renewed use of chemical weapons.
Dividing Syria more or less along current battle lines is the only realistic option to bring an end to Syria’s hell as political agreement between the myriad parties involved in the conflict is nigh impossible, as is total military victory for the Assad regime.
The Trump administration should use the leverage obtained by its willingness to use force to regain its leadership position in the region, bring Russia on board for a partition of Syria that protects its interests, and at the same time seek to curtail Iranian ambition by aiming to drive a wedge between Moscow and Tehran, which have grown increasingly closer since Putin first intervened in Syria in 2015. Assad can be dealt with at a later date.
Israel would likely be amenable to such a solution. Several Israeli officials have gone on the record in the past as saying that partition is the only way ahead for Syria. “I think that ultimately Syria should be turned into regions, under the control of whoever is there,” former Mossad deputy Ram Ben Barak said last year while still serving as director- general of the Strategic Affairs Ministry. Former defense minister Moshe Ya’alon put it colorfully: “We know how to make an omelette from an egg. I don’t know how to make an egg from an omelette.”
Whatever transpires for Syria, however, Israel will need to safeguard its vital interests: maintaining its ability to strike where necessary and prevent any attempt to transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah and to prevent the Shi’ite militia and its Iranian patron from establishing a presence on its Golan border.