A new report from an outside panel appointed by Congress contradicts the narrative President Donald Trump has been promoting about Syria, raising questions about his strategy in a country that proved equally confounding for his predecessor.
Iran is entrenched in Syria for the foreseeable future, Russia has made huge political gains by backing the Syrian regime and Islamic State fighters detained in the Arab country pose a growing threat, the panel found. As recently as Friday, Trump boasted that he’d “defeated” the Islamic State, days after the terrorist group released a recording purportedly of its fugitive leader exhorting its fighters to pursue their violent cause.
In their final report, released Tuesday, members of the Syria Study Group lay out dozens of suggestions for U.S. strategy in Syria, including the need for a continued U.S. military presence to battle terrorist groups and the importance of holding Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad accountable for war crimes.
But the core idea animating the report? American leaders must stay consistently engaged in Syria because it holds long-term risks for U.S. national security and because the conflict there, now over eight years old, is nowhere near finished.
The panel makes the argument for engagement even while acknowledging Americans have grown tired of the Syrian issue. Those weary Americans include President Trump, who has roiled Washington’s national security establishment by trying to pull U.S. troops out of the country.
“Syria is now a breeding ground for terrorist organizations committed to attacking the United States, the front line for Iranian power projection, and the main stage for Russia’s return to the region,” the report warns. “Each of these actors is now better positioned to influence Syria’s future than the United States and its allies and partners.”
The roughly 80-page report largely echoes an interim version POLITICO wrote about in May. The final version, however, lands amid unusually high tensions in the Middle East, with the U.S. and Iran trading accusations over a series of attacks on Gulf Arab states’ oil infrastructure.
The Syria Study Group’s experts were appointed by members of Congress from both parties. The panel, housed at the U.S. Institute of Peace, is modeled after the Iraq Study Group, which was established in 2006 to recommend policy following the 2003 U.S. invasion.
The final report devotes significant attention to Iran’s role in Syria.
It says Iran’s “two-track policy of military entrenchment and political and economic activity” appears designed to make it a major player in Syria “for the long term.” Israeli airstrikes have disrupted some of Iran’s activities, but Tehran’s “overall objectives appear unchanged.”
Iranian leaders’ efforts to gain influence in Syria include setting up cultural centers and schools that offer scholarships and stipends for Syrian students.
The U.S. should stick to its objective of expelling Iran from Syria, but “recognize that this is best accomplished in phases,” the report states.
The immediate goal should be to prevent more Iranian entrenchment, including by supporting Israeli air strikes and sanctions on Tehran. In the long run, the U.S. should insist any political settlement for the Syrian conflict include the withdrawal of Iran’s direct and proxy forces, the report states.
The Syria Study Group says the United States underestimated Russia’s ability to gain regional influence by intervening in Syria to support Assad against a popular rebellion. The cost to Russia has been relatively small, the report adds: “Most estimates suggest that Moscow spends only around $4 million a day in Syria.”
“Governments in the Middle East are deepening ties to Russia across multiple sectors — military, diplomatic, economic, and energy — to hedge against perceptions of U.S. retrenchment and unreliability,” the report states. As one example, “In Iraq, Russia has opened an intelligence-sharing center to facilitate cooperation with the Iraqi military.”
In fact, “the threat to Israel posed by Iran in Syrian territory has motivated Israeli leaders to seek accommodation with Russia,” the report states, adding: “Although Russia has acquiesced to the Israeli campaign against Iran, there are few signs of a wider divergence between Moscow and Tehran regarding aims or tactics in Syria.”
Moscow will seek to leverage its influence in the Middle East in other global arenas, including its relations with NATO countries, the report predicts. It recommends, among other moves, that the U.S. pressure Russia to help deliver a political settlement to end the Syrian conflict, including by exposing Russian war crimes in Syria.
The panel also urges that the U.S. “maintain consistency” in advancing its objectives and “rally allies and partners by taking their concerns into account and ensuring that, going forward, they are never surprised or undermined by U.S. policy actions or announcements.”
While the report does not single out Trump on this front, the unpredictability of the president’s foreign policy moves, including in Syria, have deeply unnerved many longstanding U.S. allies, not to mention even some of Trump’s fellow Republicans in Congress.
The American military intervention in Syria, which began falling to pieces in 2011, has largely been aimed at fighting terrorist groups such as the Islamic State and al Qaeda or its affiliates.
Starting under former President Barack Obama, the U.S. rallied dozens of countries to help local forces, including Kurdish fighters, take back territory in Iraq and Syria occupied by the Islamic State. The Trump administration continued that fight, eventually seizing back all the land.
But the Syria Study Group’s report says Islamic State, also known as ISIS, remains a danger both inside Syria and beyond.
“ISIS no longer holds significant territory in Syria or Iraq, but it is not defeated,” the report explains. “The group has morphed into an insurgency with the will, capability, and resources to carry out attacks against the United States.” In Syria, ISIS retains “excellent command and control capability,” the report says, adding that a burgeoning campaign of prison breakout operations in both Syria and Iraq mirrors a similar effort that preceded ISIS’s 2014 rise.
Other terrorist groups also abound, making it all the more necessary for the U.S. to keep a presence in Syria, even if it’s a small one, the report argues.
“Although the U.S. military mission in Syria is often lumped together with the Iraq and Afghanistan missions in the ‘forever war’ category, the Syria case offers a different—and far less costly—model,” the report states.
The report covers a range of other issues, including: tensions between the U.S. and Turkey in Syria; the humanitarian suffering caused by all the fighting and the strains caused by refugee outflows.
It pays special attention to the struggle for the area of Idlib, where one al Qaeda offshoot has formed a government and a second has “the capacity and the desire to conduct external attacks.” The Idlib area remains largely outside the reach of the U.S. military.
The report urges the U.S. to prioritize devising a long-term solution to the problem of thousands of detained Islamic State fighters, as well as the many more family members of the fighters in camps.
Many are children who were indoctrinated with Islamic State ideology. Many of the fighters, meanwhile, are citizens of European and other countries beyond Iraq and Syria that are reluctant to take them back.
The U.S. should help “develop an internationally coordinated strategy for addressing the ISIS detainee problem set and designate one senior U.S. official charged with implementing a coherent strategy to address all ISIS detainee populations,” the report offers, among several recommendations on the issue.
The report bemoans Assad’s brutal treatment of civilians, as well as his flouting of international norms against the use of chemical weapons. It acknowledges, however, that Assad is unlikely to face accountability for his actions anytime soon, not least because Russia holds a veto on the United Nations Security Council.
It advises that the — along with its ongoing efforts to diplomatically isolate Assad and economically sanction him — the U.S. nonetheless plan for a long-term approach to accountability.
One way is to robustly ”fund documentation efforts and support organizations focused on building evidence for third-country prosecutions.”
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