U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, March 7, 2017.

U.S. forces take up positions on the outskirts of the Syrian town, Manbij, March 7, 2017. Arab 24 network, via AP

Rex Tillerson's Syria Policy Is Sensible—But It's Fanciful

The resources the administration is willing to commit are at yawning variance with its ambitious goals.

Secretary of State Tillerson’s speech on U.S. Syria policy, delivered at Stanford on Wednesday, was both sensible and fanciful. It was sensible in that it gave a history of Syria’s grisly war, stated clearly America’s interest in continued involvement even as isis is defeated, and outlined policies consistent with those interests. It was fanciful in that the policies outlined would require a much greater measure of American involvement than has been in evidence by this administration—or were committed in yesterday’s speech—to succeed.  

It sounds pedantic to insist Tillerson’s speech represents a policy, not a strategy.  But the semantics connote an important distinction, which is that Tillerson’s speech in no way demonstrates how to turn the ambitious objectives he articulated into actuality. Strategy connects objectives to outcomes through means—it tells how things will be achieved. As quick-draw Tamara Cofman Wittes has already pointed out on Twitter, Tillerson’s speech was short on the essential connective tissue that is strategy.

The five objectives listed in the speech lasted about 10 minutes in the telling and contained numerous subordinate clauses. It was a vast expansion of America’s anti-isis war aims, to include: long-term presence of U.S. military forces engaged in combat operations; expansion of the military mission from defeat of isis to also preventing Iranian influence in post-isis Syria; “stabilization” (that is, provision of humanitarian, economic, and political assistance) of areas under rebel control; national elections under United Nations supervision; and “[rallying] the Syrian people and individuals within the regime to compel Assad to step down.”

Tillerson’s arguments sounded very much like the president’s national-security team knew what it wanted, which was a policy similar to what the United States carried out in northern Iraq after the 1991 Gulf War (providing security through continuous military operations in conjunction with local forces, facilitating humanitarian assistance and stabilization of controlled territory, reestablishing political processes to bring forward indigenous leaders supportive of America’s political agenda, refusal to legitimate the national government, calls for regime change), and then slipped it past a president who opposes doing all of those things. Tillerson was at pains to emphasize that “stabilization is not a synonym for open-ended nation building.”

So a president who is against regime change, long-term military commitments, nation building, and democracy promotion has now adopted a Syria policy that incorporates all those elements. As a supporter of those things, I support what Tillerson announced Wednesday. For a brief, fleeing moment, I thought I had misjudged the National Security Strategy released by the administration a few weeks ago. I was dismissive of the NSS because, while sensible in numerous ways, it was so obviously at variance with the behavior of the administration.  Yesterday I began to think the national-security wing of the administration was ascendant, that the president had become so enervated or bored by the job that he was letting the professionals run policy.

But the resources the administration is willing to commit to this problem are at yawning variance with achieving those ambitious goals. It is unlikely the Trump administration will actually implement the Syria policy outlined by Tillerson Wednesday. Nothing he called for was freshly invented—all of these elements have been floated before. They have never been achieved for the simple reason that greater means have been brought to bear against their success. Rebels did not beat back government control of territory because Russia and Iran cared more about the outcome than America did. Turkey remains unreconciled to U.S. policy and willing to prevent its success. Rebels have not unified under a political leadership suffering Syrians will support, because the rebels are fighting for different Syrian futures. None of those things become more malleable as a result of Tillerson’s speech; none of them will unless the United States is willing to push an awful lot more effort into the mix. And that seems unlikely, given the president’s opposition to all of the means necessary to change that equation.

Still, it matters that the secretary of state gave a detailed accounting of Syria’s Civil War: its origins in peaceful protest; Bashar al-Assad’s brutal attempts to bleed Syria’s population into submission; the human catastrophe it has become with 5 million refugees fleeing Syria and 6 million displaced within the country; Iran and Russia’s military assistance, preventing Assad’s overthrow; and the American degradation of Syrian airpower in retaliation for Assad's chemical weapons use, alongside its tolerance of Assad's continuation in power. Even if the policy doesn’t have an implementing strategy, Tillerson’s speech was an important statement of what the United States sees as the nature of this tragic conflict, and who bears responsibility for its depredations.

Perhaps the speech will turn out to be useful in the way American refusal to acknowledge Soviet conquest of the Baltic states, or America’s speaking publicly about dissidents jailed in other repressive countries, was useful: by giving heart to suffering people that we see their struggle and hope for their success. It is unlikely to result in much more than that.