A bipartisan panel tasked with offering the Donald Trump administration a path forward in Syria is already behind schedule as it prepares for its initial meeting Thursday.
The Syria Study Group is charged with bringing clarity to the state of play in the war-torn country as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies inch toward final victory in the 8-year-old war while the Pentagon scurries to convince allies to keep boots on the ground. The group was created after Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., tucked a provision authorizing the panel into a must-pass aviation bill in October.
But unlike the Iraq Study Group, which took six months to present the White House with 60 recommendations to fix a flailing US strategy in 2006, the new group owes Congress a final report in April.
Even as the US administration’s confused troop withdrawal has prompted questions about destroying the remnants of the Islamic State and potential risks to US service members, political headwinds have forced delays. The government-backed US Institute of Peace, which is facilitating the Syria Study Group, cut back operations during the 35-day federal shutdown. It’s not clear whether Congress will grant the group a grace period to wrap up its work.
“We’re all cognizant that Congress and the administration are looking for us to report back to them as soon as we have something constructive,” said Michael Singh, a co-chair of the group and a former National Security Council director during the George W. Bush administration. “We’re going to try to take as big picture a look of the problem as we can. We have to arrive at an assessment of where we are in Syria.”
While the group’s deliberations will likely be shaped by the Trump administration’s shifting Syria policy, members say it won’t be bound by current events. The United States “has lacked an overarching strategy to respond to the tragic civil war in Syria,” Shaheen said in a statement announcing the launch of the group last week.
“All of this is aiming toward some sort of political settlement in the future. The fact of the matter is all of these entities are still aiming for some sort of political settlement,” a Shaheen staffer said. “The Turks are in a difficult position, but I don’t think the US and Turkey are in a place where they see eye to eye in Syria. This is something we have to work out.”
Shaheen has called for a top-down review of American policy since visiting areas of Syria held by US allies last summer. As part of the tour, she visited a restaurant in the city of Manbij near the Turkish border frequented by US troops that was later bombed by the Islamic State, killing four Americans.
“We’re a congressionally mandated commission that’s not bound by the current policy,” said Dana Stroul, a former Democratic Senate aide and the other co-chair of the group. “The swings between what happened, the announcement by tweet in December, I assume the group would consider. The group is supposed to make recommendations about a diplomatic and military strategy. It is not bound by what the executive branch has done.”
The 12-member group is evenly split between Republicans and Democrats and includes a high-profile slice of Washington’s foreign policy establishment.
Kimberly Kagan, a close acolyte of Army Gens. David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal during the counterinsurgency campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, has called for the United States to push back against Iranian proxies in Syria. Meanwhile, Mara Karlin, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense during the Barack Obama administration, has called for a slimmed down US presence in the Middle East in the journal Foreign Affairs.
Anne Patterson, a retired senior diplomat, was floated by Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis for the Pentagon’s No. 3 job in 2017. And former Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has long been one of the most vocal critics of the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran.
Yet high-level panels have faced difficulty getting their message heard in past White House discussions. The image of high-level officials instructing the executive branch to withdraw troops was seen as a slight to the Bush administration, an Iraq Study Group participant told Al-Monitor.
"After the report there was a whole group of political cartoons [of] the adults are handing the little kid, George Bush, the answers to what he’s going to do," said the former defense official. "There was a surmise that he needed to be told what to do that led him to go in the opposite direction."
Even against the ticking clock and with the United States sorting out how to keep pressure on the Islamic State and Iran as the Pentagon looks toward the exits, experts hope the group will find a way to embrace tough debates without falling into partisan gripes.
“These kinds of groups are often too plodding and too consensus-oriented, and they often involve too many people who’ve previously flailed at the same problem themselves,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who served on a working panel of the Iraq Study Group. “All that said, the risks are low, so why not give it a try?”
O’Hanlon encouraged the group to move quickly and not to hash out policy fights in summarizing their findings.
“Better to have half the group endorse something really smart and creative,” he said, “than to have everyone agree on dribble.”
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