After nearly nine years of fighting, the Syrian Civil War still challenges the American foreign policy community. The strategic landscape in Syria has changed drastically since Russia’s intervention in 2015. Vladamir Putin brought back the Assad regime from the brink, but fighting still remains stalled in Idlib province. Experts believe that Russia’s main goals in the region are to consolidate Assad’s regime as client state and maintain a strong military presence, especially at the Russian naval port at Tartus. The U.S.- Kurdish alliance hangs in the balance due to Donald Trump pulling troops out of YPG held areas in North Eastern Syria. Turkey has launched multiple offensives into Kurdish held territory, in fear that the Kurdish controlled territory might support the PKK terror group in Turkey. Turkey’s acquisition of the Russia S-400 A2AD system further strains its relationship with the NATO alliance. Iran has also intervened on behalf of the Assad regime, where it is attempting to build a logistical supply network to its proxies in Lebanon, spurring Israeli preemptive airstrikes. With the multitude of actors with diametrically opposed interests, the situation in Syria shows no clear end in sight. Like the actors in Syria, the current candidates for the 2020 U.S. Presidential election also have varied positions and plans for establishing lasting peace in Syria.
The Sitting President
The only thing consistent with Donald Trump’s position on Syria is that it frequently changes. During his first campaign, he vacillated between anti-interventionist and fully fledged troop deployments. On two occasions in both 2017 and 2018, President Trump ordered airstrikes that destroyed Syrian airfields and chemical weapons facilities. In October 2018, he spontaneously announced the withdrawal of all U.S. troops based in Syria before then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis convinced him to leave 1,000 troops behind. In 2019, he once again announced a total withdrawal of U.S. troops, leaving the U.S.-Kurdish alliance in tatters. Even after the pull-out, Trump sent troops back to Syria to protect oil fields in eastern Syria, a key source of currency for the Assad regime. Current US policy has focused primarily on eliminating Islamic State held territory through Operation Inherent Resolve. With the fall of Baghuz and the killing of Islamic State leader Abu Bakar al-Baghdadi, the President has claimed victory over the terror group in spite of multiple warnings from the policy community that ‘victory’ might not look so simple.
Even in the cyber domain, US Cyber Command’s effectiveness in targeting of Islamic State’s cyber infrastructure remains debated. Trump’s Syria policy has also become a new extension of its ‘Maximum Pressure’ campaign against Tehran, as U.S. forces remaining in Syria still control the strategic point at al-Tanf, a vital lifeline of Iran’s land bridge project. In other fronts of Syrian policy, the administration has relied on sanctions–sanctioning Turkish officials for their 2019 offensive, Russian companies for oil smuggling, and Syrian officials for human rights abuses. It still remains unclear if these actions will effectively lead to success for the U.S. in the region, but it is still unclear what success really looks like. The Congressionally funded Syria Study Group even admitted that there remains no easy answers in Syria. This provides ample opportunity for Democratic challengers to lay out better policy proposals.
Tulsi Gabbard’s position on Syria marks her as a lone wolf in the Democratic Presidential Primary race. Ms. Gabbard visited Syria in 2017 and met with Assad, labeling his opposition as “terrorists.” In February 2019, Gabbard doubled down on MSNBC’s show “Morning Joe” and stated that Assad “is not an enemy of the US.” Per Gabbard’s candidate website, she states that she believes that the removal of Assad will lead to the collapse of human rights in Syria, ignoring the fact that human rights violations already occured under Assad’s watch, including indiscriminate bombings of civilian areas and use of chemical weapons. Gabbard’s stance on the Syrian Civil War has been criticized as a complement to Russia’s policy to keep Assad in power and paint the rebel groups as terrorists.
The Rest of the Pack
In comparison to Gabbard, the remaining Democratic candidates are united in their opposition to Assad. During the October 15th debate, all candidates on stage decried the recent withdrawal of troops from Syria. However, there are key differences in their plans for moving forward and resolving the Syrian Civil War and humanitarian crisis. So far, only Bernie Sanders and Andrew Yang have expressed their willingness to renew diplomatic negotiations with Assad’s government, although Sanders believes Assad is a war criminal and condemned him as a dictator. Sanders favors a diplomatic approach to removing Assad from power while Yang hasn’t openly discussed his preferred method. Sanders gave harsh words for Trump’s 2018 airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, calling the strikes “illegal and unauthorized.”
Buttigieg and Warren oppose opening diplomatic relations with Assad. Booker and Steyer also oppose re-opening diplomatic relations, but have not gone on record since declaring their candidacy as to what they believe should be done in Syria. Warren advocates for troop removal, but outside of that action she has not provided any other definitive ideas. Buttigieg believes that troops should be pulled out of Syria, but he also favors leaving a contingent force behind as a part of the peace process.
Biden and Klobucher are less transparent and have not offered any definitive answers at the time this article is being written. No Democratic candidate has offered a comprehensive path forward for Syria that addresses all involved parties, indeed at this point it may not be possible to broker a cease-fire that meets the demands of all actors. All candidates oppose Trump’s rapid policy reversals, the US end goals, ways, and means of achieving itl remain unclear. If the democratic ticket wishes to put forth a better Syrian policy, they must provide strategic objectives that go beyond campaign rhetoric.
The Iowa caucus is less than a week away, and Syria is eclipsed by health care, wealth inequality, and other domestic issues in anticipation of the caucus and primary season. Whether Syria will continue to be a top policy issue for Presidential candidates or will fade until the general election is up to the voters.
Owen Helman is a Master of Arts in International Affairs candidate with concentrations in International Security and Technology Policy. He concentrates on defense industrial capacity, cyber security and applications for military power. He currently performs research at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Jessica Jost is a Master of Arts in Security Policy Studies candidate at The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. She concentrates on conflict resolution and inherited trauma in conflict-affected communities. She currently works in international education and language exchange.