Trump administration adjusts policies to new realities in Syria and Iraq

Syrian Kurdish leader Mazlum Kobane has suggested in an interview new confidence-building measures with Turkey. Meanwhile, Donald Trump and Barham Salih have managed expectations in their meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

al-monitor US Vice President Mike Pence delivers remarks to US troops at al-Asad Air Base, Iraq, Nov. 23, 2019.  Photo by REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst.

Jan 24, 2020

The Donald Trump administration continues to adapt its policies toward Syria and Iraq in response to three major developments: the territorial defeat of the Islamic State (IS); the Turkish invasion of Syria and the consolidation of Damascus’ control over most Syrian territory; and the fallout in Iraq from both the recent popular uprisings and the US killing of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force Cmdr. Qasem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.

All three merit a reassessment that also takes into account a potential diplomatic opening offered by Mazlum Kobane, secretary-general of the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), and a steady-as-we-go approach in Iraq to sustain the US security commitment that Iraq desperately needs to prevent an IS resurgence and counter Iranian influence.

US-led defeat of IS does not get the credit it deserves

The US campaign against IS does not get the credit it deserves, especially given a cascade of concern that the United States has been stepping back from its commitments in the region under presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump. This comes amid frustration on both the American left and right with "endless wars" in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The territorial defeat of IS in March 2019 and the US killing of IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in October 2019 were huge wins for US policy. Alone, these two events would necessitate a recalibration of US policies.

So let’s take a minute to reflect. In 2014, IS had established what it called a caliphate, which was essentially a reign of terror in large swaths of Syrian and Iraqi territory, including the major cities of Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. In response, the Obama administration assembled an international and regional diplomatic and military coalition, spearheaded a relentless military campaign using air power and Special Ops forces, worked effectively with the SDF and bucked up Iraqi security forces, which had initially suffered some withering defeats. The campaign had bipartisan support in the United States, featured textbook diplomatic and military coordination, and experienced a smooth transition from the Obama to the Trump administration, which finished the job on its watch.

This stunning success doesn’t mean it’s time for the United States to pack up and go home. But it does constitute a shift in mission and argue for some type of rethink and recalibration. You can’t stay the course when the course has changed. The United States and its partners will, of course, need to be vigilant against a reconstituted IS. The terrorist group will find another figurehead to succeed Baghdadi.

The likelihood of instability and fragile or even failing states in Syria and Iraq foreshadow fertile ground for an IS 2.0. James Jeffrey, special envoy to the global coalition to defeat IS and special representative for Syria, said this week there are 14,000-18,000 active IS fighters in Syria and Iraq. This does not include 20,000-30,000 al-Qaeda-linked terrorists in Idlib, according to UN and US estimates.

Nonetheless, Jeffrey added that there has been no "uptick" in IS activity in Syria and Iraq since the US drone attack on Soleimani’s motorcade Jan. 3.

Syrian Kurdish leader offers three-part road map to ease tensions with Turkey

In Syria, the defeat of IS coincided with the Turkish invasion of the northeast in October 2019 in an effort to establish a security corridor and ostensibly to deal with the threat from the Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG); Russian diplomatic efforts to broker a peace deal between Damascus and Ankara; and the on-again-off-again Syrian and Russian military campaign against Idlib to uproot and defeat remaining armed opposition groups there.

We reported here this week on Russian President Vladimir Putin’s latest shuttle diplomacy to end the hostility between Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, including an extraordinary meeting between Turkish intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and his Syrian counterpart, Ali Mamlouk, in Moscow Jan. 13 — the highest-level contact between the two bitter enemies in nine years.

If successful, Putin’s effort could signal an endgame in the Syria war. But one tragic loose end remains: how to deal with Idlib, which risks a possible surge of tens of thousands of Syrian refugees to Turkey. Erdogan’s fixation with the YPG, which he considers a terrorist group inseparable from the Kurdistan Workers Party, has made this process mostly slow going.

In an exclusive interview with Amberin Zaman, Mazlum Kobane offered his own suggestions for a road map in Syria, which should get the attention of Erdogan, Trump and Putin.

Kobane dismissed the notion that the SDF, which is made up primarily of the YPG, is a threat to Syria.

Referencing the SDF' agreement with Damascus following the Turkish invasion, Kobane told Zaman that “we no longer have any point of contact with the Turkish forces. The regime forces are currently deployed along the length of the Turkish border in northeastern Syria — that is to say, they replaced our forces there. Turkey would constantly cite our presence along its border as a threat to its national security. That argument is now dead.”

Kobane did not see much prospect for Russian mediation between Erdogan and Assad “because Turkey is openly supporting opposition groups against the regime and most significantly the Muslim Brotherhood. Turkey’s ties with the Muslim Brotherhood are strategic in nature and are not confined to Syria."

But then Kobane presented his own three-part plan to build confidence between the Kurds and Turkey, including:

  1. Assisting with the repatriation of the remains of Suleiman Shah, grandfather of Osman I (d. 1323/4), the founder of the Ottoman Empire, to a location near Kobani. The remains had been removed from the tomb near Kobani in 2015 because of the threat from IS. Turkey claims sovereignty of the tomb based on the Treaty of Ankara (1921); Syria disputes this claim.
  2. Allowing the resettlement of Idlib refugees into SDF-controlled areas of Syria.
  3. Sharing intelligence on IS activities.

Kobane’s offer may be dead on arrival in Ankara — or not, depending on whether Putin picks up the thread. Our guess is that the Russian president incorporates Kobane’s goodwill gesture in his diplomatic arsenal.

Trump, Salih meeting steadies US-Iraq relations

The meeting between Trump and Iraqi President Barham Salih at the World Economic Forum in Davos lowered the temperature on the US role in Iraq following a resolution in the Iraqi parliament calling for the Iraqi government to ask US forces to withdraw following the US killing of Soleimani and Muhandis.

Salih, who faced threats from Iranian-backed militias for taking the meeting with Trump, struck both a nationalist and statesman-like tone — which likely played well at home — by emphasizing Iraqi "sovereignty" and that Iraq should be “stable, friends of the neighbors, and friends of the United States,” as Laura Rozen reports. Both leaders emphasized the need for continued cooperation against IS.

Trump and Salih finessed the question of any "withdrawal" of the 5,000 US forces currently in Iraq. The Iraqi government has appointed a committee to discuss the future of American and coalition forces in Iraq. Those discussions are probably overdue, given the changes in the counter-IS mission, and our guess is they will go on for some time.  There is also talk of a NATO lead, or cover, for the mission in Iraq. While there were protests today in Iraq calling for US forces to leave, which would be Iran’s objective, many Iraqi leaders value the role of US military training and cooperation against IS, whether they say so publicly or not, as Rozen reports. And those Iraqi leaders not beholden to Iran understand that US security cooperation is essential to maintaining Iraqi sovereignty.

Salih’s separate speech at Davos “was prepared perfectly,” Ali Mamouri reports, as the Iraqi president kept “the balance between Iran and US from one side and among different Iraqi forces from the other side.”

With the Trump meeting behind him, Salih can turn his attention back to building a coalition for reform in Iraq that includes a new electoral law and appointment of a prime minister who would at least in part accommodate protesters’ demands for change.

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