Tillerson’s Vague Plan for Syria has Serious Flaws

21.04.2017 Author: Salman Rafi Sheikh

45634123213While we did get a hint about Trump’s new strategy for Syria when the US decided, only a few weeks ago, to send more troops to Syria, no clear cut objectives were laid out at that time. However, it is quite obvious that the US is following a certain, but loosely defined, policy framework and is looking at how it can resolve the crisis to its own advantage. While deployment of troops is taking place in and around Syria, Rex Tillerson recently elaborated, using a very vague language though, upon the US plan for Syria and the steps it deems necessary for binging ‘stability’ back. Although coming from a top US official, the plan has the potential to send ripples of fresh conflict in Syria. It has flaws—some serious flaws—that can stir different actors, both state and non-state, into opposing positions and thus provide the necessary context for further infighting. In a way, the “new plan” is not much different from what the Obama administration had pursued in terms of creating “zones” in Syria. But the ‘new plan’ says much more than mere creation of “zones”–and that is precisely where it becomes self-defeating.

For instance, during his address atMinisterial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS at Washington, DC, on March 22, Tillerson talked about creation of “interim zones of stability” and gradual transfer of responsibilities to “local political leadership”, who would provide “stable and fair governance,” rebuild infrastructure, and provide essential services.Tillerson added, “a successful stabilization phase will set the stage for a successful normalization phase. In the normalization phase, local leaders and local governments will take on the process of restoring their communities in the wake of ISIS with our [US-led coalition’s] support.”

While this plan is still at a conceptual stage and is yet to become a policy, what is obvious is that it has too many flaws and mutually conflicting patches to be successfully implemented.

What stands as the most obvious flaw is who this “local political leadership” might include and exclude. For instance, with the US, according to this plan, taking the lead in creating “zones”, how it will push Iran out of the equation from areas it has liberated from ISIS?  That is to say, will the US definition of “local political leadership” include co-opting Hizbollah and other Iran backed militias into the new system?

This is one of the most important questions since the US has recently demanded an exclusion of Iran backed militias from Syria as a means to pave the way for a “political solution” of the crisis. Hence the question: how logical does it sound to ask for the exclusion of an actor that has played a pivotal role in defeating the terror group?  Is it then, we must ask, a step towards “stabilization” or igniting fresh avenues of conflict? In the same vain, we have to ask Tillerson, will Russia, Iran’s primary ally, agree to such an arrangement which envisages the exclusion of its key ally in the region?

Similar is the question with regard to the areas being liberated by the Kurdish militias. Tillerson cannot be oblivious to the fact that in northern Syria, especially along the border with Turkey, this leadership has to come from ethnic Kurds—something  that Turkey will not tolerate and, on the contrary, see in it a de facto existence of  “Kurdistan.” Since existence of a Kurdish “zone” on a Turkish border is all Turkey has been fighting against since the beginning of the crisis in Syria.

Woven into this plan is the US’ overt reliance on the Kurdish YPK militia, which Turkey brands as a sister organization of the PKK spearheading the insurgency in its eastern province but which the US sees as a vital force for the upcoming battle for Raqqaand a potential actor in its “stabilization” plan.

Hence the question: how will the US convince Turkey of conceding something that might have the potential to spill over in its own province in the years to come?

Even if we assume Russia, Turkey, Iran and Syria somehow agreeing to the US plan, the question remains as to how will the US make sure that the so-called “local political leadership” remains immune to infiltration by extremist elements who are still far from completely defeated in Syria?

As of today, the strategic city of Idlib and in some northwestern parts of Syria, Al-Qaeda and some other extremist groups continue to have a strong presence. Hence the other question: how will “local political leadership” emerge unless these areas are liberated?

While Tillerson did encourage the global US-led anti-ISIS coalition to “do more” to defeat ISIS, the US-plan against al-Qaeda and other Gulf supported groups remains conspicuously absent, leaving wide open the possibility of these groups ultimately becoming Tillerson’s  Syrian “political leadership.”

There are too many questions that overshadow the conceptual outline Tillerson drew on March 22. In addition to it, the vagueness surrounding the American narrative is part of confusion in the US policy circles about what precise policy must be followed.

Besides it, Russia’s role is a key aspect that the US has to handle carefully because any plan that doesn’t include Russia is bound to end up falling apart. Tillerson’s speech fell short of elaborating on how the US intends to engage with Russia—something that the US’ allies in the West and the East continue equally to wonder about.

The fact that Tillerson omitted details of his plan means that the US is still not sure about the feasibility of the plan and that the purpose of sharing this plan with allies was to test diplomatic waters against the grandiose policy the US is in the middle of preparing.

Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.