U.S. heavy on rhetoric, light on strategy in Syria

Weaknesses in the new U.S strategy in Syria are being exposed less than a month after it was rolled out, writes journalist Thomas Seibert in The Arab Weekly.

The strategy, announced by U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson in mid-January aims to prevent the re-emergence of ISIS and block Iran’s advance into the region.

Part of the plan involved the creation of a 30,000 strong force in Syria for which Washington would heavily rely on the Kurdish Peoples’ Protection Units (YPG), its local partner in the fight against ISIS.

Shortly after this force was announced, Turkey sent troops into Afrin, a region of north-west Syria controlled by the YPG, which Ankara views as a terrorist group. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and several of his ministers also threatened US soldiers deployed alongside the YPG in the city of Manbij should they not withdraw.

Further east, attacks across the Euphrates River by pro-government Syrian troops and Russian mercenaries resulted in deadly US air strikes in the oil-rich province of Deir ez-Zor on February 7.

Such events suggest that the war in Syria is far from over, but the U.S. strategy assumed otherwise, says, Joe Macaron, a fellow at the Arab Centre in Washington.

The strategy announced by Tillerson is also short on specifics, offering support for the U.N sponsored peace talks in Geneva, but unclear on whether Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad should be allowed to remain in power.  

“A strategy requires both actions and resources and Tillerson didn’t have much to say about either,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Programme at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, a think-tank in Washington. “It is hard to cover up this basic fact: The United States is less committed to shaping an outcome in Syria than any of the major antagonists — the Assad government, the Turks, the Russians, the Iranians or any of the combatant groups on the ground,” 

The situation is further complicated by the emergence of competing power centres in Washington. Tillerson’s influence on decision making has been doubted following public rebukes from President Donald Trump. Earlier this month, U.S. generals rejected Turkish demands to withdraw from Manbij just days before Tillerson’s visited Ankara in an attempt to defuse tensions.