Pentagon & Congress

Muddled messaging on Syria could pull the US into a greater conflict

The White House released a statement Monday night claiming the U.S. had "identified potential preparation for another chemical weapons attack," and warning the Syrian regime that it would "pay a heavy price" should it unleash such weapons in the ongoing civil war.

But by making such threats in the absence of a clearly defined broader strategy, the U.S. risks slowly wading into a broader conflict with the Syrian government and its ally in the civil war, Russia. 

Officials at the Pentagon have consistently argued that the U.S. war in Syria is against ISIS and not the Syrian government. Attacks by U.S. or coalition forces on Syrian government troops have come only in response to actions that threaten U.S. and allied forces battling the Islamic State, they say.

Such was the case June 19, when a U.S. Navy F/A-18 Super Hornet shot down a Syrian Su-22 after it attacked U.S. Kurdish allies south of the Syrian city of Tabqa. Two Syrian drones have also been shot down in recent weeks.

The White House statement on Monday reiterated the U.S. focus on ISIS. "The United States is in Syria to eliminate the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria," it stated. But the clearly drawn red line presented to Syrian government, even if justified, is one of a series of messages that have been at odds with U.S. actions on the ground and contradicted statements by officials on U.S. goals in the region.

"The Trump administration continues the Obama policy of treating IS apart from the broader Syrian war and only engaging the pro-Assad coalition on force-protection grounds," said Kyle Orton, a senior fellow at the Henry Jackson Society, an influential British think tank. "It's all one war and the U.S. now has to start accepting that it is deeply involved in Syrian internal politics, and acting to defend its allies and shape that situation, or it will be forced out of the anti-IS fight."

Moreover, conciliatory remarks by senior U.S. officials — aimed at signaling to the regime that they do not want a broader war — may be emboldening the Assad regime, believing that it can carry out chemical attacks and gross violations of human rights with impunity.

After an April 4 chemical weapon attack by the Assad regime provoked a retaliatory U.S. cruise missile strike against the Syrian Shayrat airbase, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the U.S. will no longer call for Assad to step down.

Republican Sen. Marco Rubio chastised the Trump administration for sending the wrong message.

"It's my belief that if you're Bashar al-Assad and you read that it is no longer a priority of the United States to have you removed from power — I believe that that is an incentive to act with impunity," Rubio said at a news conference, as reported by ABC News.

On Friday, Col. Ryan Dillon, a spokesperson for Operation Inherent Resolve, welcomed the participation of the Syrian regime in anti-ISIS operations, which some analysts believe was a strategic blunder and may also have signaled an overly conciliatory message to the regime.

"Now that the regime has moved in, and they have made some significant, you know, progress, as it looks, towards moving to Abu Kamal and perhaps Deir ez-Zor, if they want to fight ISIS in Abu Kamal and they have the capacity to do so, then, you know, that would be welcome," Dillon said

U.S. special operations forces working alongside Syrian partner forces have been operating out of a small garrison called Tanf, a small outpost in southern Syria located near the Iraq-Jordan border. That base has come under increasing scrutiny as the U.S. has launched self-defense attacks against pro-regime militias operating outside the base. In recent weeks, much of the area controlled by U.S. Syrian partner forces near Tanf has been surrounded by Syrian regime and pro-regime elements, cutting off the U.S.’ ability to target ISIS in the vicinity of Abu Kamal.

"But if our access to Abu Kamal is shut off because the regime is there, that's okay, Dillon said. "If the Syrian regime wants to do that… that means that we don't have to do that in those locations."

Jennifer Cafarella, an expert studying the Syrian conflict for the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, said Dillon's remarks about Syrian forces getting involved in the war on ISIS are disturbing. "It shows that the "CJTF [Combined Joint Task Force] thinks it's a tactical issue, when it is in fact strategic," she said.

Orton said they were "reminiscent of the last go around, when senior Trump officials said they accepted Assad staying and then two days later he attacked with sarin," a deadly nerve gas.

The regime may be "forcing the administration's hand, to decide whether it's actions against Assad/Iran in the last few weeks have been force-protection measures solely, or the start of a strategy to challenge the Iranian revolution in Syria," he said.

Meanwhile, some senior officials in the Trump administration have been pushing to widen the war in Syria.

Ezra Cohen-Watnick, the senior director for intelligence on the National Security Council, and Derek Harvey, the NSC’s top Middle East adviser, have been advocating the use of U.S. patrol bases in southern Syria, which includes the garrison at Tanf, to go on the attack against Iranian militias in Syria backing the Assad regime, according to a report by Foreign Policy.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, however, has rejected that approach.

Even so, U.S. objectives in southern Syria are unclear. U.S. officials have been vague about the purpose of the forces currently operating at Tanf, for example, especially in light of the fact that Syrian and Iranian forces have cut off partner forces there from moving against ISIS.

"The Coalition is training partner forces to conduct counter-ISIS operations. We don't need ISIS present to do that," said a spokesperson at U.S. Central Command regarding the purpose of the mission at the Tanf garrison. "The Coalition is encouraged to see pro-regime forces taking the fight to ISIS in the Hamad Desert and the Euphrates River valley, because it will mean fewer terrorists the Coalition needs to face," he added.

But some analysts contend that Tanf's purpose is to check Syria and its Iranian proxies, meaning the existence of the American garrison is not only a threat to the Syrian regime but it contradicts statements from government officials that the U.S. is solely focused on battling ISIS in Syria.

The Trump administration sees Tanf as a means "to block the progress of Iran and not facilitate the Russian victory without obtaining compensation," said Dr. Fabrice Balance, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute. "

In this case, it must support its allies and strengthen the American presence on the ground."

Following the Trump administration's announcement Monday night that it was drawing a red line regarding the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley issued a warning not only to Syria, but also Iran and Russia, on social media.

"Any further attacks done to the people of Syria will be blamed on Assad, but also on Russia & Iran who support him killing his own people," Haley said on Twitter.

Although Trump administration officials adopted President Obama’s policy of limited engagement in Syria, they are finding themselves slowly getting caught up in the politics of the broader civil war in Syria. Lacking a clear strategy to address this, the messaging will likely remain reactionary to daily events, at times contradictory, overly conciliatory to the regime and muddled.

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