Five reasons US comments on staying in Syria matter

US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says US is shifting to stabilizing eastern Syria, which will mean more diplomats and contractors.

Jim Mattis (photo credit: REUTERS)
Jim Mattis
(photo credit: REUTERS)
US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis indicated the US will remain in eastern Syria in 2018 with comments about a continuing, multi-faceted American presence on the ground.
“What we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive, shifting from an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing... you’ll see more US diplomats on the ground,” Mattis told reporters, according to Reuters, adding that he expected there to be more American contractors there as well, as the fight against Islamic State nears its end and the focus turns toward rebuilding and ensuring the terrorists do not return.
This adds to comments he made in November saying the US would not walk away and Pentagon comments in December claiming the operation against ISIS would continue “as long as we need to.” This has several important implications for the US, Syria and the region.
The new US term for Iraq and Syria: stabilization
The US-led coalition is stressing that it is moving from major combat operations to “stabilization” in Syria and Iraq. This is the key word that indicates how Operation Inherent Resolve will grow to include staying for a longer term by continuing to train and to hunt down what remains of Islamic State. With ISIS losing 99% of its territory in Iraq and Syria, its threat is different than in the past.
The US wants to “stabilize” eastern Syria. Mattis said “what we will be doing is shifting from what I would call an offensive terrain-seizing approach to a stabilizing [approach].”
This means clearing IEDs, and ensuring peace and stability.
Critics will wonder if this is an open-ended mission creep. The Assad regime will continue to demand the US leave Syria. It has called the US presence “illegal.” The US will continue to work with partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces and local authorities such as the Raqqa Civil Council.
Defense Department leads the way
Mattis made an interesting comment about what the US presence in eastern Syria will look like. “You’ll see more US diplomats on the ground,” Reuters quoted him as saying. US policy in Syria has been driven from the Pentagon which pioneered the work with the SDF. The SDF is a multi-ethnic force that includes Arabs and Kurds from the People’s Protection Units (YPG). For the US this partnership has worked well against ISIS and achieved more than the other programs the US ran under the CIA with the Syrian rebels, and also more than the State Department was able to achieve on the diplomatic track.
Now that the heavy part of the war against ISIS is winding down, with US artillery being withdrawn from eastern Syria, a different kind of relationship is emerging. Yet the US Defense Department continues to lead the way. Eventually this will run into controversy because the deployment of diplomats to Syria would indicate that something more than a military operation is taking place. This has already been clear with US anti-ISIS envoy Brett McGurk’s visits to liberated areas where reconstruction was discussed.
Who leads reconstruction efforts?
“Well, when you bring in more diplomats, they are working that initial restoration of services, they bring in the contractors, that sort of thing. There is international money that has got to be administered so it actually does something, it doesn’t go into the wrong people’s pockets,” Mattis said.
Who gets the money and how that happens is important. Some Kurds in eastern Syria have wondered why more efforts are not being invested in reconstructing Kurdish cities and areas, such as Kobani, while the coalition seems to want to focus on Raqqa, the former ISIS capital.
There will also be questions about the agendas and ideologies behind any contractors hired to do the reconstruction work. The Assad regime and also groups closer to the Syrian rebels, and other groups with Islamist connections, all would like to be involved in eastern Syria. This is because there is a competition for the hearts and minds of the Euphrates Valley. The regime wants to use international aid to regain loyalty and spread its influence. Other groups want the same.
Symbols are important. In Raqqa when images of Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) leader Abdullah Ocalan appeared in October, it angered Turkey where Ocalan is imprisoned. Turkey will want the role of the YPG or other groups close to it reduced and want to see groups more palatable to Turkey involved. Turkey has recently called Bashar Assad a “terrorist.” There will be competition over reconstruction. In October Saudi Arabia Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan visited eastern Syria. There may be a role for the Saudis as well.
Balancing Turkey and US Kurdish allies
The US will need to balance Turkey’s interests in Syria with its own allies. Because Turkey views some of the Kurdish groups in Syria as terrorists affiliated with the PKK, the US has tried to bifurcate its relations in the SDF, keeping the YPG at arm’s length, while working closely with Arab parts of the SDF. The US will have to continue to navigate this mosaic, but not appear to be abandoning its allies. After Baghdad attacked the Kurdish region in Iraq in October there were worries the US would also abandon its Kurdish allies in Syria. Every US move will be watched closely.
Syria and Russia
Asked about the Syrian regime wanting to reassert its control in eastern Syria, Mattis responded, “That would probably be a mistake.” The regime is still fighting ISIS near Abu Kamal but eventually it wants all of Syria back.
The Russians have begun to withdraw their troops from Syria, so the regime no longer has the same backing it did in the fall of 2017. However, there will be questions about when the regime’s demands will be met or if eastern Syria will become more autonomous. Russia and Syria both want Syria’s territorial integrity preserved, and Turkey and Iran also support this notion.
The US has been sidelined at peace conferences such as Sochi and Astana. Unless the US can find a way into those rooms, its policy in eastern Syria will continue to be orphan of the country’s future. Unless of course the US intends to set down roots for the long term.