1) How long will Washington back Syrian rebel fighters?
Will the U.S. stay engaged with its Syrian Kurdish and Arab allies who fought and lost brothers- and sisters-in-arms to liberate Raqqa? What will America supply? Guns? Money? Legitimacy?
Last week, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford convened a second meeting of roughly 75 of his foreign counterparts: defense chiefs who are combining their efforts to fight violent extremism. “The key takeaway is we realize that the most effective action against these groups is local action,” Dunford said. “And that’s what we spoke about today, is enabling these local coalitions to deal with the challenge.”
U.S. special operations forces on the ground in Syria say they want to keep supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF, they have trained and fought alongside. Indeed, they see these forces as a bulwark against rising Iranian influence and a secular force in the region. Now, Raqqa has fallen, and the Syrian rebels have won the respect and praise of U.S. leaders of the ISIS war, who crowed last week about how well they performed but also how the fight against extremism is expected to continue in Syria and beyond.
“I was in Syria last week,” said Brett McGurk, special envoy to the ISIS war, following the defense chiefs’ meeting at Fort Belvoir, in Virginia. “You can really get a sense of the momentum that’s really building now. Our training classes for the forces we’re training are all full. We have more recruits than we can train. So, it’s really kind of taken on a really positive momentum, a snowball effect, so we feel pretty good about that.”
But what comes next, in Syria?
“I think we need to structure ourselves to be prepared for a long-term commitment to building partner capacity in this area,” Lt. Gen. Paul Funk, commanding general of U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria, said recently. “I think that is exactly the way we’re leaning but that will be a decision for the policymakers.”
The top special operations commander under Funk, Maj. Gen. James Jarrard, told Pentagon reporters this week that he expected U.S. troops, along with civilians from the State Department and USAID, to remain engaged with Syrians for some time. The job for Americans is far from over.
“What I can say is that we are committed to support the SDF through the military defeat of Daesh,” Jarrard said, on both sides of the Euphrates River. “But there’s a long process after that: making sure that we have the security in place, the stabilization efforts in place to allow the IDPs [internally displaced persons] to return home. That is all part of the military defeat of Daesh, making sure that we treat the symptoms that allowed Daesh to take over this area in the first place. And we are committed to supporting the SDF throughout that process.”
This commitment sounds like it reaches far beyond a military mission of sending American troops to help Syrian rebel fighters re-take Raqqa and return home. What Jarrard describes is a whole-of-government goal that could take months or, more realistically, years. It sounds like the entire mission of the last Iraq War and the ongoing Afghanistan War, only without U.S. infantry leading the war on the ground.
Just consider one city, the final ISIS enclave of Raqqa.
“We are all supporting the Raqqa Civil Council, or RCC, the local governing body, who is working to stabilize the city that Daesh destroyed,” Jarrard said. “There will be several months of tough work to clear each building.” Indeed, as we saw in August, the city is devastated. And mined. Clearing buildings and getting civilians home will take us well into 2018.
Eventually, the plan is for the SDF to hand security control over to the RCC and its own Raqqa Internal Security Force, or RISF, “at some point in the near future.” But the grim and sizable job of clearing the IEDs and booby traps will require U.S. assistance, he said. Just “the other day” saw the first significant rain of the winter season. It rained so hard, he said, some IEDs began detonate. Even the rain can kill you, in Syria.
Beyond that initial clearing, if U.S. commanders believe erasing the conditions for a resurgence of ISIS – the “symptoms,” Jarrard mentioned — are part of their mission set, then how long will that take? Years? Decades? A generation?
U.S. military officials like Funk and Jarrard, whose careers have been shaped by the post-9/11 wars and led the campaign against ISIS, now are awaiting guidance from Washington. They’re waiting on President Donald Trump’s war cabinet, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and commanders like Central Command’s Gen. Joseph Votel. So are a lot of people outside of the administration, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman. The Raqqa Civil Council is waiting, too, for additional U.S. support in the form of dollars to help support critical services.
Will America will continue to back the Syrian Kurds and Arabs who served as their proxy ground force against ISIS since 2014? Or will Washington opt to make decisions about its own security interests – choices that may leave Syrian Kurds feeling as unsupported as Iraqi Kurds? This would please Turkey, which wants the U.S. to back away immediately from the Syrian Kurdish forces who constitute the majority of the SDF and for whom the U.S. forces now feel great kinship and sympathy.
2) What’s Trump’s plan if Russia/Assad advances?
What will America do if Syrian regime tanks backed by Russian airpower come through those towns the US-backed forces liberated and the Syrian Kurdish and Arab leadership of the SDF now hold?
“You know, that is obviously a policy decision, and how long we will be there supporting the SDF is not for me to answer,” said the special operations forces leader, Maj. Gen. Jarrard. The 2-star Army general was asked directly about a Syrian-Russian hypothetical push. He repeated that the U.S. is committed to supporting the SDF “through the military defeat” of ISIS, which includes the conditions that would allow ISIS to come back. But he did not answer if it is permissible to the United States for Syrian regime and Russian armed forces to forcibly take SDF-held territory in the name of the same objective. Nor should he.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, for his part, noted in Hill testimony that he envisions a situation in which the Syrian regime “holds its positions and not try to overrun or retake areas that were liberated by others.”
The Pentagon must have a plan. Trump must have red lines. Or is this a situation in which events have overtaken plans — as they have throughout — and everyone is waiting to see what the regime does with help from its Russian backers? Members of Congress seem to have little appetite for getting into another fight in the Middle East — particularly one in which they can find little American interest to defend. But those who have led the ISIS fight and put their lives on the line to battle for Raqqa, and now Deir Ezzor, are waiting to see if their American allies will stand by them if the regime rolls in to retake the lands they now hold.
3) What is the roadmap to peace and who is in charge of it?
How and when will the Syrian civil war end and what would force the regime to the negotiating table given its recent gains? Everyone says the war ends in Geneva. But does it go through Washington? Who gets a seat at the table? Will the White House lead or trail from behind? Will Assad be in power long after the current crop of Washington policymakers, yet again? Is today’s policy that “the time has come for Assad to step aside,” as President Barack Obama stated in 2011, or more like “Assad can stay for now,” as seems to be the reality?
Tillerson and leading U.S. military officials speak about the need for a diplomatic solution to the conflict. Tillerson last week repeated America’s support for the Geneva process, which is scheduled to resume on Nov. 28, to bring peace to Syria following the gruesome and bloody civil war. But the “how” of it all has long been missing in action, and that has not changed in the aftermath of the Raqqa campaign.
After all of former Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempts, Trump is not positioning himself or any other U.S. leader to take Syria into peace. There is no Dayton on the horizon. No Richard Holbrooke. Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has personally involved himself, if only to try to control the Geneva process and build bridges with Syrian Kurds if their friends in Washington leave them wanting. Moscow has coordinated with Iran to plan its own peace talks, scheduled for Nov. 18 in Sochi, but Turkey and Syrian opposition leaders both rejected invitations. All eyes are on Geneva, still, for now.
4) Where are the Saudis and Gulf states?
Will the Saudis and other Gulf nations really be willing to help pay for the reconstruction of Syria in a meaningful way? Clear eyes are needed here. Obama tried to cajole the Saudis at Camp David, to little end, and the Saudis are said to have been deeply dismayed by the 2013 Obama decision not to launch air strikes against the Syrian regime. How can Trump, with a skeleton State Department team, do better to bring in the Gulf states, which have pursued their own agenda throughout the Syrian civil war?
Thus far the Trump relationship with Riyadh has been robust. And Baghdad and Riyadh relations have warmed of late: flights between the two capitals recently resumed for the first time in more than 25 years. McGurk, recently visited Raqqa with Saudi Gulf Affairs Minister Thamer al-Sabhan alongside. Still to be determined is how much Saudi leaders — or American ones for that matter — will come up with to restart services and support the Raqqa Civil Council as it fights to assist a city devastated by ISIS and the military campaign to oust it.
Dunford last week noted that “credible Islamic voices” were most effective in countering and discrediting ISIS. Saudi Arabia’s initiative to start a counter-messaging center, he expected, “will start to pay dividends.”