When President Donald Trump last week became the first American president in the history of the six-year Syrian civil war to overtly attack Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, he said, “Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria.”
How? How will America help to end the Syrian civil war? How do you get from Tomahawks to the peace table to Assad’s surrender and a new Syrian government while “totally obliterating” ISIS along the way?
In the six days since the U.S. cruise missile strike on al-Shayrat, Trump’s administration struggled publicly with the same basic question that vexed the Obama White House for years: should Assad stay or should he go? The dueling messages about top priorities inside the White House spilled out into headlines and on camera. But at least U.S. officials are unified now in calling for talks.
“We are ready to throw our weight and resources behind diplomacy. We are ready to help bring this conflict to an end,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said Wednesday at the UN Security Council, one day after UN special envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura traveled to the White House and met with Defense Sec. Jim Mattis, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, the national security advisor, and members of the National Security Council to discuss the Geneva peace process.
With last week’s strikes, Trump added the air of unpredictability he said he’d bring to U.S. foreign policy during his presidential campaign. He said he did not want adversaries to know when he would use military force, and he has achieved that. He has complicated how the White House is perceived in Syria and by Assad’s backers, Russia and Iran. It is no longer certain that Washington won’t get involved on behalf of Syrian civilians if chemical weapons drop down on mothers, fathers, and children trying to survive the civil war.
What is clear is that the negotiating table is the only place this war ends given the number of actors and foreign backers involved. The Geneva process is exhausting and frequently has felt futile to those participating in it, but it still exists and offers a framework to end these wars.
At the fourth round of Geneva talks on Syria’s future held late last February (not even six weeks ago) America’s lack of presence was visible and left other Western diplomats talking about the need for U.S. leadership. Will Trump put America at the helm, next time?
All sides agree Geneva is the answer. But Russia continues shape facts on the ground in the Assad regime’s favor with minimal resistance from Washington, until now. How is Russia convinced to eventually give up on Assad, and in what timeframe? How do all Syrians feel represented in that transition? When is the U.S. military’s advise-and-assist mission to fight ISIS complete? What kind of post-war governance will be constructive, inclusive, and well-funded enough to keep America from ever having to go into Syria again? Trump has answered none of these questions. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Tuesday there has been no policy change – the U.S. is fighting ISIS in Syria and Trump’s one-time retaliatory strike for Assad’s chemical weapons use was not an entrée into the Syrian civil war.
For his part, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is keeping the focus on the talks, the table, and the end of Assad. In Moscow on Wednesday, he said, “Clearly, our view is that the reign of the Assad family is coming to an end. And they have again brought this on themselves with their conduct of the war in these past few years. We discussed our view that Russia, as their closest ally in the conflict, perhaps has the best means of helping Assad recognize this reality. We do think it’s important that Assad’s departure is done in an orderly way — an orderly way — so that certain interests and constituencies that he represents feel they have been represented at the negotiating table for a political solution.”
But he indicated the U.S. does not yet know the road map to that end.
“How that occurs,” Tillerson continued, “we leave that to the process going forward. We do not think one has to occur before the other can begin. And it will take a pace of its own. But the final outcome in our view does not provide for a role for the Assad — for Assad or for the Assad family in the future governance of Syria. We do not think the international community will accept that. We do not think the world will accept that.”
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said his side “appreciates” the Geneva process but rejected the U.S. position and compared calls to oust Assad with the American military interventions to oust Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, and Libya’s Mohammar Gadhafi, which he argued violated international law. “This insistence on removing or ousting a dictator or totalitarian leader, we have already been through it. We very well know only too well what happens when you do that. I don’t remember any case of a dictator being removed smoothly without violence,” he said.
“We are simply insisting that everybody sits around a table and talks about it and comes to agreement,” Lavrov said. “And removing or ousting a particular personality from this scene is not on our agenda.”
Russia is, however, “willing to achieve an absolute defeat of ISIS,” he said.
The ghosts of President George W. Bush’s Iraq War and Barack Obama’s Libyan intervention have shaped every decision Washington has made when it comes to Syria. But Geneva has been the one thing all sides agree upon. Even if they don’t agree on anything else once they reach the table.