Five Ways to Stabilize Syria Tillerson Should Consider

In his January 11 opinion article for The Hill, Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran, participant in international policy forums, including the Policy Studies Organization’s 2016 Middle East Dialogue, discusses Rex Tillerson, former CEO of ExxonMobil, who is faced his Senate confirmation hearing for Secretary of State on that day.

The crisis in Syria and rising tensions in the Ukraine are some of the problems that the new administration will face. 

It is no surprise that President-elect Trump promised to start his presidency with détente with Russia. A number of U.S. presidents, including Barack Obama, started their terms with similar promises as key elements of their foreign policy agenda.  Tillerson’s pick fits that approach. However, President-elect Trump’s candidate for Secretary of State needs to understand the assumptions support the U.S. foreign policy.

The Syrian crisis is the most important issue facing the incoming administration. Shahram Ahmadi Nasab Emran outlines five things relating to Syria to watch for in Tillerson’s confirmation hearing.  These points are reproduced below:

1. Differentiating between root causes and effects.

Part of the problem in drafting a U.S.-Syria policy is its inherent complexity. For example, while it is true that ISIS is a brutal actor, the group is not the major issue in Syria, nor did ISIS play a role in igniting the crisis.

Contrary to the view shared by many — including the Obama administration— ISIS is a result of the bigger issue, namely the brutal rule of Assad’s regime. In 2011, the Syrian people launched peaceful protests, demanding that Assad step down.

He responded by targeting civilians with chemical weapons and barrel bombs, torture, and mass murder. When the international community failed to back up its rhetoric, notably the infamous red line drawn by President Obama, Assad doubled down.  

ISIS took shape in that fertile soil for extremism. Therefore, isolating ISIS from the root cause of the problem, i.e., Assad’s regime, would be futile.

2. Supporting Assad’s regime cannot be the basis of stability in Syria.

Stability is arguably the most important national security interest America has in Syria. Since Assad’s regime is the root cause of the Syrian crisis, supporting Assad would only inspire the cause of the Islamists — who portray the U.S. as the patron of dictators.

Any pro-Assad shift would substantiate current perceptions of America as an indecisive and unreliable partner. From another angle, such a policy would immeasurably embolden Iran, already wreaking havoc in the region after its nuclear deal with the U.S.

American support for Assad would additionally motivate regional powers, such as Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to increase their support — including anti-aircraft weapons — for the Syrian opposition, further escalating the conflict.

3. Distinguishing the mainstream Syrian opposition is both possible and crucial.

While it is generally true that the battleground in Syria is a mixture of different groups with conflicting agendas, U.S. foreign policy needs to find and support the mainstream popular opposition, such as the Free Syrian Army, in order to influence Russia, Assad and his backers.

Negotiating with Russia without backing the Syrian opposition would unnecessarily deprive the U.S. of its most effective leverage on Assad. On the contrary, the U.S. needs to repair the damage to its image resulting from the Obama administration’s feeble and confused approach to Syria. 

4. Supporting regional friends and allies is in America’s interest.

The lasting impression of the Obama administration’s foreign policy is his abandonment of regional friends and allies, while unsuccessfully trying to make friends with adversaries such as Iran and Cuba. Therefore, Syria provides an opportunity to urgently reassert American support for its allies and partners in the region, including Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries.

Such a policy switchback is key to containing Iran. An American re-emphasis on support for friends and allies would deescalate the conflict in Syria.

5. An assertive U.S. policy in and of itself is part of the Syrian solution.

Since the Syrian crisis is one of the most pressing international issues, it would be prudent to start cooperation with Russia from there. However, as President-elect Trump has repeatedly emphasized, the U.S. can only improve its foreign relations from a position of strength, not weakness.  A U.S. president who is not willing to stand by his promises and values cannot contribute to stability and order. American indecisiveness has been a factor in increasing tensions in Syria, creating a vacuum filled by reassured adversaries such as Iran and Hezbollah.

The first step towards the goal of stability in Syria should be showing resolve.