Trump, Mattis, Bolton: On the same page?

Frederic C. Hof / The Daily Star

Recent remarks by national security adviser John Bolton suggesting that the United States will maintain a presence presumably military in Syria until the departure of Iranian-led forces from that ruined country have inspired a flurry of media commentary, questioning and speculation. Only a few months ago U.S. President Donald Trump was calling for a near-term American evacuation of Syria. And Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has stressed time and again that his military mission the one for which he has the appropriate authorities is to defeat Daesh (ISIS). Has Bolton “hijacked” the Syria policy? Is Mattis along for a ride with someone else at the wheel? The view here is that there is less to the story of a Bolton-Mattis disconnect than some in the media would pretend, but that there is an interesting story of presidential policy evolution regarding Syria to be pursued.For nearly four years, the United States has been overseeing a military campaign aimed at defeating Daesh in Syria east of the Euphrates River: once the heart of the self-proclaimed caliphate. That campaign continues. According to the secretary of defense, Daesh is down to about 2 percent of the territory it once controlled in Syria.

Presumably there will come a time in the not-too-distant future when all traces of Daesh military activity in Syria will have been erased.

The defeat of Daesh, however, will not be defined by the final shot fired in anger. In Syria, Daesh the putrid combination of Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Saddam Hussein dead-enders was an imposed presence on the local population. Although the ersatz caliphate surely considered Syrian President Bashar Assad to be an apostate worthy of torture and death, Daesh was never part of the Syrian opposition to the Assad regime. It, like the regime, concentrated most of its firepower on opposition forces and the civilian populations associated with them. Despite occasional flare-ups over valuable real estate (such as Palmyra), the relationship between Daesh on the one hand and the Assad regime along with Iran and Russia on the other was one of live and let live. A living and breathing caliphate featuring gruesome, broadcast atrocities enabled Assad the barrel bomber and part-time chemist to pose as an alternative to the dark ages. And for Daesh, the promiscuous war crimes of the Assad regime were a recruiting gift in the Sunni world that just kept on giving.

Were there reasonable and civilized governance in Syria west of the Euphrates River, the United States might well be in a position to depart Syria rapidly and completely once the shooting stops. Daesh, after all, made few Syrian friends during its barbarous tenure in northeastern Syria. There would be no popular outcry for its restoration. But the tolerance of this vicious caliphate demonstrated by the regime, Iran and Russia gives pause to the notion of bolting from Syria just as soon as the smoke clears. Permitting those forces to occupy Syria east of the Euphrates would be to run the risk of having wasted four years of effort to kill off murderous extremists who almost effortlessly filled a vacuum of governing legitimacy created by Assad in the first place.

The complete defeat of Daesh requires more than bullets. It is hard to know what accounts for insufficient appreciation in the news media of the need for post-combat stabilization efforts; this despite the horrific examples of Iraq in 2003 and Libya in 2011, where stabilization was all but ignored. The objective of stabilization is to pre-empt the defeated enemy from resurrecting himself; to seal the victory.

In northeastern Syria, the idea would be to provide the local populace with humanitarian assistance to address pressing nutritional, medical and housing needs, and technical assistance to enable locals to establish governing institutions capable of maintaining law and order, opening and staffing schools, picking up the rubbish and providing other essential public services.

Capable employees of the Syrian government might well be needed to help restore water, power and even oil fields. The idea is to keep the defeated enemy dead.

If one were to design a scenario whereby Daesh or something like it could rise from the dead, its key elements would entail the introduction to eastern Syria of the Assad regime’s military forces and intelligence units accompanied by Shiite militiamen recruited by Iran from Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon and elsewhere. This would be the pouring of jet fuel on still glowing embers. Although Daesh itself would hardly be seen as an attractive alternative by most Syrians who experienced the criminal band firsthand, surely other extremists perhaps even some surviving Daesh operatives would work hard to rally a predominantly Sunni population to support a violent Sunni Islamist alternative to the violent Shiite Islamist extremism of Iran and the larcenous and murderous agenda of its Syrian client.

No doubt the Trump administration can do a better job of explaining the connection between the stress placed by Mattis on beating Daesh and the emphasis of Bolton on getting Iran and its rapacious militias out of Syria. No doubt it would be interesting to hear President Trump expound on the evolution of his own views about seeing things through in Syria. But the bottom line is clear: The United States will not waste four years of hard effort to defeat one form of murderous extremism only to risk its resurrection by turning liberated land and people over to another form of murderous extremism.

No one neither in the administration nor outside it wants an open-ended commitment of American lives and treasure to Syria. Ideally ways will be found to give United Nations Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura the leverage he needs to oversee genuine and productive peace talks in Geneva. Helping liberated Syrians build a governance alternative to Iran and Assad would be the ultimate in leverage for the cause of peace. But what stares Washington in the face right now is the prospect of handing over land and people liberated after great effort from Daesh to Iran and its client. Thankfully there seems to be no inclination to do so.