Rodi Said / Reuters A U.S. soldier near Raqqa, November 2016.

A U.S. Containment Strategy for Syria

To Beat the Russians, Let Them Win

The United States’ interests in Syria lie in formalizing its battlefield gains with a negotiated settlement and then leaving the country. To achieve this goal, it will need to find common cause in the short term with its greatest geopolitical foe, Russia. Doing so will require Washington to acknowledge a painful but obvious truth: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed the anti-regime insurgency, consolidated power in much of the country’s west, and received open-ended support and security guarantees from Moscow and Tehran. Assad will govern most of Syria for the foreseeable future.

For the United States, the impetus (and legal justification) for its presence in Syria was the war against the Islamic State (or ISIS), waged to deny the group safe haven and, in so doing, prop up the government of Iraq and ensure that ISIS fighters could not plot and execute terrorist attacks in the West. The success of this war, however, has raised uncomfortable questions about what Washington should do next. Tensions with Moscow and Tehran have helped galvanize support among some U.S. policymakers for an open-ended presence in northeastern Syria, meant to prevent hard-fought U.S. gains from being turned over to hostile powers.

The intention behind such a strategy is easy to understand, but the logic is backward. The United States does have an incentive to challenge Moscow where it can, but it has a losing hand in Syria. Washington’s best bet is to negotiate a withdrawal of its own forces, which would leave Russia to manage the costs of a seven-year-old civil war. Granting Moscow this short-term win, moreover, would leave it on the hook for the antics of the odious Assad regime.

U.S. forces at a YPG headquarters in Syria, April 2017.

U.S. forces at a YPG headquarters in Syria, April 2017.

Such a settlement would allow the United States to shift its focus toward planning for the long run, where its position is more favorable. Instead of getting dragged into yet more fighting in Syria, Washington should be opposing Russia by pursuing a policy of dual containment toward the latter’

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