As investigators rush to connect the dots between the recent spate of tragic terrorist attacks in Istanbul, Berlin, Ankara, Zurich and Karak – we must not lose sight of the fact that in one month, President-elect Donald Trump will come face-to- face with one of greatest man-made humanitarian disasters of the modern era.
Nearly half a million people have died, millions have been wounded, and half the population of Syria displaced in five years of civil war, while the flood of hundreds of thousands of refugees into Europe has profoundly shaken the security and political climate of the continent.
To make matters worse, the president-elect is taking over from an administration whose Syria policy was not merely a resounding failure, but was so middling and contradictory that the most important takeaway isn’t self-evident.
Put simply, the Trump administration should jettison the Obama administration’s assumption that the Islamic State (ISIS), Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly known as the Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra), and like-minded Salafi-jihadist groups in Syria constitute the paramount threat to American interests in the country.
While ISIS has directed a multitude of deadly terror attacks in Western countries over the past two years, this capability hinged on its direct access to Syria’s long northern border with Turkey — more a result of U.S. diplomatic failure vis-à- vis Ankara than of the innate strength of ISIS.
Now that the border has been closed, the ability of ISIS to dispatch operatives to the West and bring in recruits from abroad has been seriously hampered. Though some operatives have no doubt already been planted in Europe and more still can be recruited from refugee populations there, lack of easy access combined with improved domestic intelligence and border controls mean that the ISIS assault on Europe has probably passed its high-water mark.
Another reason for patience in reducing the remaining strongholds of ISIS in Raqqa and eastern Syria is that there is not yet a credible local force to take over those areas.
While the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have proven to be a useful ally in fighting ISIS in Syria, they should not be forced into operations to retake these predominantly Arab areas, which will be deeply hostile to a Kurdish military presence.
The Obama administration’s obsession with fighting ISIS and slow progress toward that goal ultimately led to its acquiescence in Russian military intervention on behalf of the Iranian-Syrian regime axis.
This amounts to a de facto alignment with Iran, which remains deeply hostile to U.S. interests in the region – a much bigger threat in this regard than the Islamic State – and is committed to Israel’s destruction.
The U.S. response has largely focused on futile diplomatic gestures in the hope that the regime and its backers would see the wisdom of a broader political settlement with moderate rebels so as to forge a united front against ISIS. Even those counseling greater American intervention have argued that increasing support to the rebels and thus putting military pressure on the regime will facilitate such a settlement.
But prospects for a negotiated political settlement in Syria have long since evaporated. Simply put, the regime will not compromise on Assad’s continuation as head of state, while all major political and military opposition groups representing the country’s Sunni majority refuse to contemplate a settlement that doesn’t end the political dominance of his minority Alawite Sect.
Recent regime successes have sharpened this divide, as the rebellion looks set to become a chronic peripheral rural insurgency – unable to threaten regime control of the most important urban centers but capable of defying Assad’s bid to fully reconquer Syria for years to come.
Rather than obsessing over driving the last nails in the coffin of ISIS or modulating its involvement in Syria to advance some chimerical peace plan, the Trump administration must focus its attention on more realistic aims. While it is perhaps too late to challenge Russia’s presence in a country Vladimir Putin sees as the cornerstone of his expanding zone of influence in the region, neither should Washington accept it.
Though there have been hints from the incoming administration of ending support for rebel groups. It would make better sense to continue the support and perhaps increase it, not in the belief that one can bring about a political settlement, but rather to bog down the regime and its allies and minimize the future threat they may pose to U.S. interests in the region.
Gregg Roman is director of Middle East Forum, a research center headquartered in Philadelphia, PA. Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi is a Jihad-Intel fellow at the Middle East Forum.