US needs ‘coherent approach’ to Syria policy, says ex-Department of Defense analyst Melissa Dalton

Last month, American warplanes and missiles struck Assad government positions in Syria for the second time in just over a year, following reports of chemical weapons use in the country.

In Syria’s eastern desert, United States-backed Kurdish-majority forces—advised by American personnel and protected by American warplanes—control major swathes of the country and as much as 50 percent of Syria’s oil and gas wealth.

The US has entrenched itself in Syria. But to what end? 

Understanding US strategy in Syria today requires “a little bit of guesswork,” says Melissa Dalton, a Washington DC-based foreign policy analyst who has logged more than 10 years of service with the Department of Defense in both intelligence and advisory roles.

Dalton is a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), where her work primarily focuses on Syria and the Middle East. She has regularly testified before congress during hearings about Syria.

“It seems that if we continue on our current pathway, we’re on our way towards creating a semi-autonomous region in northeast Syria,” Dalton tells Syria Direct’s Justin Clark. “Are we prepared to bear the political consequences?”

“What’s still missing is the connection to a broader strategy, to a political settlement."

Q: Last month, the United States, the United Kingdom and France launched limited strikes against chemical weapons sites in Syria—how effective do you think these strikes will be in deterring the use of these weapons? How do these strikes fit into the broader US strategy in Syria?

The strikes were important to demonstrate an international commitment to deterring the use of chemical weapons, and they were well-calibrated to mitigate the risks of Syrian civilian, Russian, and Iranian casualties. Taken alone, however, they likely will not deter Assad from using chemical weapons again.

Hard-nosed diplomacy, judicial accountability and sanctions against the Syrian government, Iran, Russia and North Korea needs to follow to prevent further use.

The strikes do little to change US strategy in Syria, which continues to focus on a narrow approach and objectives: countering terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

[The US] has yet to commit to and mobilize an international strategy combining economic, judicial, and military commitments, diplomacy and coercion to address the underlying drivers of the conflict—poor and predatory governance—which Iran, Russia, and violent non-state actors such as the Islamic State exploit.

Moreover, risks remain high that Iranian and Russian military and economic investments in Syria will enable them to use it as a platform to project power and compete vis-à-vis the US in the region. Lack of follow-through for stabilization in northeast Syria will likely enable the regrowth of extremist groups like IS.  

In all of this, Syrian civilians lose the most.

Q: When we talk about American foreign policy toward Syria, it seems that there are vague goals to rebuild areas destroyed by IS and to block Iranian expansionism. But long-term goals, regarding oil fields and military bases in places such as the eastern desert, remain somewhat unclear.

As someone who worked with the Department of Defense until 2014 and visited Raqqa earlier this year, can you speak to what you see as driving foreign policy in Syria right now?

It’s a little bit of guesswork, honestly, because I don’t think there is currently a coherent approach.

The clearest articulation of a policy that we’ve had—at least publicly—was [former] Secretary [of State Rex] Tillerson’s speech in January, which sought to connect the longer-term goals and vision for Syria to US forces and personnel on the ground conducting stabilization.

But there is a yawning gap between those broad aims and the bottom-up approach the US is currently pursuing, which is the thrust of the report I wrote. [Ed.: Read Dalton’s January 2018 report for CSIS on stabilization efforts in eastern Syria here.]

It seems that if we continue on our current pathway, we’re headed towards creating a semi-autonomous [Kurdish] region in northeast Syria. Are we prepared to bear the political consequences of that with the Turks?

Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces at an oil field in Deir e-Zor province on Tuesday. Photo by Delil Souleiman/AFP.

[Eastern Syria] has a lot of potential. Self-sufficiency there would provide some leverage against central Syria [the Assad government] in political negotiations. However, you have to build up the capacity of the oil and agricultural sectors there because [the area is not currently] self-sufficient.

Oil [from eastern Syria] is still taken to be refined in western [government-held] Syria, and the SDF facilitates that. War creates very interesting incentive structures.

There are many disparate threads [to keep in mind] in terms of how to advance the idea of a semi-autonomous area [in a way that doesn’t] abandon our partners or rescind our leverage in trying to bring this conflict to an end. But how much of that is really informing the thinking in terms of the big policy choices that are going to need to be made in the next year? I don’t know.  

There has been no public articulation of [encouraging self-sufficiency in eastern Syria], which I think is important to fully reinforce that effort and mobilize international support for it.

Q: In your January 2018 report “Squaring the Circle,” you stress that it is crucial for the US to create diplomatic leverage with players in the conflict. What does that look like exactly?

This has proven quite elusive over the last seven years of the conflict, despite some good faith efforts to try to do so.

Part of the problem is that, at the end of the day, the other parties to the conflict have been shown to care more about Syria’s trajectory. They have been willing to expend more of their own personnel, to commit, and that gives them more leverage in the settlement that will hopefully come.

In part, leverage must be created on the ground, but the other piece must happen externally. Looking at the case of Russia, the US has a new national security and defense strategy that puts forward an idea of competition with Russia and, to a lesser extent, Iran. How does Syria nest within that strategy? How important is Syria as an arena in which that competition is taking place?

In my own assessment, I believe [Syria] is the active theater where this competition is playing out. Right now, Russia and Iran have the upper hand. It will require the US to take a step back and look at how important Syria is in the greater context of what it wants to do vis-à-vis Russia and eastern Europe. How does Syria stack up against that?

The bottom line is that, to create the kind of diplomatic leverage that I mentioned in the paper, the US must step back and look at where these interconnections exist.

Q: We have heard so much about Iranian expansionism—that if the US allows Syria to thrive economically then it will become a base for Tehran in the Levant. There are some analysts, Joshua Landis comes to mind, who say fears of a “Shia crescent” are overblown, and that the US should step back and allow the region to bounce back economically. What’s your take?

This gets back to this question of governance and what is sustainable. It’s clear that the seeds that allowed IS, and [their previous incarnation] Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), to thrive come down to governance.

Governance is the driver of the Syrian civil war. If Assad stays in power—and I’m not advocating for regime change—but if he stays in power, I think you can count on some level of semi-insurgency into the mid-term. With that come opportunities for actors such as Iran and Russia to further entrench their influence in the region in ways that will not benefit the US or our partners.

Without curtailing these ambitions in any way, [for example] there is currently a very sizable Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) force in Syria that has proven to have some expeditionary capabilities. The Iranians have actually deployed some of those forces that have experience fighting in Syria to Yemen to reinforce their fight with the Saudis through the Houthis.

[Ed.: The IGRC is a 125,000-strong elite military unit tasked with protecting the Iran’s revolutionary, Islamic governance. The IGRC fights alongside Assad government forces in Syria and it has been linked to terrorist attacks across the Middle East.]

Now, you have Iranians, Iraqis, Syrians, Lebanese, and Hezbollah buttressed by Afghan and Pakistani recruits with operational experience from the fight in Syria, and who can now deploy to other parts to the region to fight these proxy wars. This has incredibly dangerous potential.

Again, I’m not advocating for regime change tomorrow, but I think an eventual political settlement in Syria must include the governance, power-sharing and lessons to mitigate the potential for these behaviors to perpetuate.

Otherwise, I believe we are set up for more conflicts, even if that is through proxies. With that comes the potential for escalation at higher levels of warfare.

Q: You mentioned briefly, and wrote in previous reporting, that both IS and the Syrian Civil War are rooted in the same problem: bad governance. You argue that any long-term solution to the conflict will need to address that.

In territories recently captured by the SDF, such as Raqqa, do you see effective, long-term civil governance emerging?

I think there are nascent steps in that direction.

There is an attempt to fuse existing structures together, to empower local councils and institutions to make them a bit more robust, and to give them the tools and technical assistance they need to actually govern effectively at a local, community level. [This includes] providing services and security.

There is also the amorphous question of legitimacy, in terms of how they’re seen by the local community. Of course, all of these things are interconnected.

Arguably, you need security first in order to be able to provide services. However, other services must flow pretty quickly following [security] because people are in very dire circumstances. The credibility or legitimacy of these governments can start to erode if you don’t get services flowing.

But then, the ability to actually sustain security and deliver services depends on the credibility of the local government—it’s all very much intertwined.

In these particular areas, the coalition’s approach is somewhat hindered by the reliance on the SDF as the clearing force—the first wave, if you will—coming through to clear these areas [of IS].

The SDF has seen a bit of a transformation in terms of its composition, [due to] a real effort to try and include more Arabs and a small percentage of Turkmen, but the leadership remains predominantly Kurdish. So, after the ‘first wave’ of clearing IS, you have a period of adjustment and trying to work with local actors who have some legitimacy in the community.

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An SDF fighter walks through Raqqa city in October 2017. Photo courtesy of Delil Souleiman/Getty Images.

It’s hard coming in as an outsider to determine who those local actors are—sometimes folks claim they are, but you need a bit of intelligence gathering to determine how effective or legitimate they really are before you can start further empowering them.

Then, there is a transition period where the SDF is still providing security but slowly starts to hand some tasks off to indigenous representatives of the community. In Raqqa,  this means developing the police and internal security, which is very much a work in progress.

At least for the snapshot that I saw at the end of January [when I visited] Raqqa, the SDF was still primarily providing the perimeter security for the city, with coalition and technical advisors working with local police and security—people from Raqqa that are starting to fill those roles.

It’s very nascent and very tenuous, but some of the seeds are there.

Q: What are some main takeaways from your January visit to Raqqa?

It was really striking compared to Iraq and Afghanistan, where I’ve seen snapshots over time of stabilization efforts. Raqqa is fundamentally different. There has been a very small injection of financial resources, so there is no flooding of the local economy and distorting economic incentives that we’ve seen [elsewhere].

A very small international team, mostly technical advisors, is working on the ground, so the local people of Raqqa are truly the ones owning the initiative and implementing it with technical advice.

Of course, President Trump recently froze $200 million of stabilization assistance to northeastern Syria so they’re really trying to patch together the resources that they have, which is pretty minimal.

The scale of the destruction is so profound—Raqqa is totally obliterated. There are pockets that survived and there are still some shops and homes intact, but you drive around and the city is just totally leveled.

There is a lot of uncertainty as stabilization efforts try to scramble to bring local governance and services up to speed. At a certain point, patience is going to run out, and the realities of the seeping drivers of the Syrian conflict are going to move back in, depending on what the US and the international community decide to do in terms of their staying power.

There is a narrow window in which I think there are a number of key ingredients to make this work. But what’s still missing is the connection to a broader strategy, to a political settlement—how does this fit into the broader picture? Can they turn the tide within places like Raqqa itself in the timeline that is needed?

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.