Op-Ed: Rex Tillerson’s magical thinking on Syria

Plumes of smoke rise on the air from inside Syria as seen from the outskirts of the border town of Kilis, Turkey on Jan. 20.
Plumes of smoke rise on the air from inside Syria as seen from the outskirts of the border town of Kilis, Turkey on Jan. 20.
(Lefteris Pitarakis / Associated Press)

In a speech at Stanford last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson outlined “the way forward” for the United States in Syria. He announced that the U.S. military would have an open-ended presence inside the country and envisioned a Syria free of Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Iran, weapons of mass destruction and President Bashar Assad. He also laid out a “new” strategy to achieve all this: Buttressed by its military, the U.S. will expend diplomatic energy on stabilization programs and the U.N.-led political process.

But nearly seven years after the Syrian uprising and civil war first erupted, the U.S. has yet to play more than a marginal role in the Syria story. New rhetoric from the State Department won’t put us on a new track.

When he was in office, President Obama limited military support for Syria’s Arab rebels, opted against targeting Assad’s forces, engaged militarily only with Islamic State and ultimately provided some support for Kurdish rebels.


Under President Trump, the level of U.S. involvement has stayed more or less steady. Trump ended a CIA program supporting rebels, lobbed bombs at a Syrian airbase in a one-off and has focused the fight on Islamic State. He also bolstered Kurdish rebels fighting under the umbrella of the Syrian Democratic Forces, arming and leading them in their effort to drive Islamic State out of Raqqa. Russia did the same for Assad’s forces in Deir Ezzor, and by the end of 2017, Islamic State had been pushed out of northeast Syria.

Nearly seven years after the Syrian uprising and civil war first erupted, the U.S. has yet to play more than a marginal role in the Syria story.

Now the State Department and the Agency for International Development are undertaking a massive stabilization effort in the northeast, in cooperation with the U.S. military. They are rebuilding infrastructure, extending services like water and electricity and creating local councils to undertake governance.

While this may seem like a significant commitment, the desert region is scarcely inhabited compared to the west and south, where 80% of the Syrian population lived before the conflict broke out. In its attempts to foster local leadership, the U.S. is clumsily balancing between Arab inhabitants and the well-organized Kurds, who liberated the area from Islamic State.

In the process, the U.S. is snubbing the Turkish government, which presides over a statelet in northern Aleppo and has recently launched a military incursion against the U.S.’s Kurdish allies in the northwest. The U.S. is also avoiding the Syrian government, which, assisted by Russia and Iran, has been recapturing territory across the country and is likely to eventually take control of the northeast.

There is potential for the U.S. to oversee a settlement between the Kurds and the central government, but Tillerson has not indicated if he will usher in any such process. So far, the U.S. has been party to only one ceasefire, in Syria’s south.

Meanwhile, supposed “de-escalation zones” in central and northwest Syria remain hot spots. In Idlib, the only Syrian governorate that Arab rebels control, the jihadist militant group and former Al Qaeda affiliate Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham is taking over, pushing out civilian and military elements of the more moderate Syrian opposition. Lately, Assad’s forces have made inroads in Idlib, newly displacing hundreds of thousands. Although Russia, Iran and Turkey have some sway over events in the region and other such zones, the U.S. does not.

There have been two different sets of negotiations on Syria. Russia, Turkey and Iran have presided over talks in Astana, Kazakhstan. Besides creating the de-escalation zones, the Astana talks may serve only to keep government and opposition delegates organized and prepared for other negotiations. The U.S. is merely an observer at these talks and plays no meaningful role.


Then there are the U.N.-led negotiations in Geneva. The U.S. has participated in all eight rounds of the U.N. talks, but it hasn’t taken on a leadership role, and so far the talks haven’t yielded anything concrete. It’s unclear what Tillerson’s renewed commitment to the ongoing process would mean, if anything.

The U.N.-led process aims to implement Resolution 2254, which calls for U.N.-supervised elections and constitutional reforms. But since 1945, only one quarter of more than 100 civil wars have ended in a negotiated settlement. Most of the time, one party militarily defeats the others.

Assad now has control over all of Syria’s major population centers, where reconstruction contracts are already being forged. He has refused to concede that he is fighting anything but a war on terror. And he retains more popular support in Syria than the West has ever been willing to acknowledge.

Tillerson may envision a Syria free of violence, one to which refugees and displaced people could return. But the U.S. is doing little to make it so.

Rana B. Khoury is a doctoral candidate in political science at Northwestern University.

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