January 14, 2019 | By Brian Hanson, Robert S. Ford, Tamara Cofman Wittes

Deep Dish: The New US-Syria Policy

As the Trump administration prepares to withdraw from Syria, former US Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford and Tamara Cofman Wittes, former deputy assistant secretary of state for near east affairs, join this week's Deep Dish podcast to dissect the withdrawal's implications for US-Syria policy. 

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Brian Hanson: This is Deep Dish on Global Affairs, going beyond the headlines on critical global issues. I'm Brian Hanson and today we're talking about US strategy in the Middle East. From Syria to Saudi Arabia to Iran to Israel, the Trump Administration has set out to repudiate its predecessor's policies and overhaul America's role in the region. During a recent speech in Cairo, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called this shift a, "Real new beginning." To help us decipher what's real, what's new, and what's a beginning, I'm joined by Ambassador Robert Ford. He was a career foreign service officer and also served as US Ambassador to Syria from 2011 to 2014. Welcome, Robert. It's good to have you back on Deep Dish.

Robert Ford: It's nice to be back. Thank you.

Brian Hanson: Also with me today is Tamara Cofman Wittes. She was deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs from 2009 to 2012. Welcome, Tamara. It's great to have you on Deep Dish as well.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Great to be here.

Brian Hanson: As both of you know, there is a ton going on in terms of US policy and actions towards the Middle East. Just recently, President Trump has announced that he's going to pull US troops out of northeastern Syria. National Security Advisor John Bolton, went and visited allies. Out of that there was a bit of uncertainty about what the pullout plan is and possible conditions for that. As well, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has been on a tour of the Middle East, including giving a prominent speech on US policy toward the Middle East in Cairo. And at the same time, we've got Congressional actions which range on things from the war on Yemen to responses to the Khashoggi murder. I want to focus our discussion on what this all adds up to. Clearly, there are a bunch of mixed messages and different people saying different things and contradictions. I'm sure we'll get into that. But I want to start our conversation off by trying to identify through lines and priorities for the Trump Administration when it comes to the Middle East.

Brian Hanson: Tamara, do you see things that are relatively constant and relatively important anchors for the policy in the Middle East?

Tamara Cofman Wittes: I see one through line that I think actually goes through both the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration, which is a reflection of changes in global politics and changes in America's role in the world. That's really that the Middle East, in a way, matters less to the United States, relatively speaking, today than it has through most of the last several decades. That's partly because of changes in global energy markets and the rise of more domestic American energy production. We see that trend reflected in low global prices. It's also because the United States is finding itself increasingly needing to invest its foreign policy energy in other regions of the world where new challenges and opportunities are presenting themselves. And so President Obama, who was of course elected with a mandate to get the United States out of wars in the broader Middle East, sought to do somewhat less in the region. He ultimately got pulled back in a bit by the rise of ISIS in 2014, but he wanted to do less. And President Trump also was elected wanting to do less in the Middle East, wanting to bring American troops home. Although President Trump is contending with some constituencies within the Republican Party and some anxious partners in the region, both of whom would like to see the United States do more, he's still resisting that. I think it's that tug of war between other constituencies who want the US to do more and this fundamental trend and shift in American interest that's the tug of war that you partly see reflected in the Trump Administration's mixed messages. Of course, you also see reflected a lot of incoherence in their policy process and gaps in understanding among senior officials.

Brian Hanson: Yeah, and we'll have a chance to talk about those things as well. Robert, are there additional things that you see as through lines and consistencies in the Trump Middle East foreign policy?

Robert Ford: Well, first I think Tamara was absolutely right that more and more the United States is diverting attention and time resources especially to Asia, but even more to Europe because of Vladimir Putin's antics in Eastern Europe. So there's just less time, fewer resources, and frankly, less interest after the horrible experience of the Iraq War to spend a lot of new time and new resources on the Middle East. I think she's absolutely right about that. Second, a corollary to that is the Trump Administration would actually like countries in the region to step up and do more, whether it's finance, reconstruction projects in Eastern Syria, or to create some kind of new Persian Gulf alliance between Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates and Qatar and some other countries involving even Egypt. Something that the Trump Administration was sort of trying to roll out called the Middle East Strategic Alliance, like if you want to a kind of NATO for the Persian Gulf. Didn't get very far. They would like, in general, as the Americans step back, they would like the regional state to do more. I think that's a theme that Pompeo is stressing behind closed doors in his meetings. The Americans aren't abandoning you, but you need to step up and do more.

Brian Hanson: That's terrific background and kind of a big frame for this discussion. I appreciate that. I want to take us then into the discussion, debates, and activities surrounding US troops in Syria. Of course, President Trump made an announcement that he was pulling troops out, which had a lot of reactions including, it seems, the resignation of his secretary of defense. And then John Bolton headed into the region and appeared to put some conditions on the pullout, that ISIS truly be defeated, that Turkey promise not to attack the Kurds. What is going on here? What's happening?

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Well, look. I think that there's been a degree of incoherence in American policy towards Syria for a long time. But primarily I think what we've seen in the last couple of months with the Trump Administration is that there were several senior officials in the administration who wanted to use this small American military presence in Syria, these 2,000 or so mainly Special Forces, and use them as leverage on behalf of broader regional policy goals, including trying to push back to some degree on Iranian influence in the region and trying to leverage them on behalf of a diplomatic negotiated settlement to the Syrian civil war. I think it was always a stretch to use this very limited American deployment on behalf of these broader goals. But what's really striking is that these folks, including National Security Advisor John Bolton, managed to get the president to sign on to an articulation of those policy goals just back in September against his own inclinations. He'd been very clear through the campaign and through the first couple years of his presidency about his desire to get American forces out of Syria. So ultimately that brokered agreement didn't last very long and President Trump, it turns out, in a conversation with Turkish President Erdogan decided on his own, all of a sudden, that now is the time to leave. I think you've probably heard a number of people say that, well, the decision to leave Syria isn't a crazy one in and of itself. At some point, the American fight there against ISIS was going to wind down and then that presence becomes harder and harder to justify, and that's true. But I think the real damage that President Trump did in making this decision the way he did, is the process. There was no process. There was no intra-agency debate. There was no discussion about how to talk to American partners in the region about an intention to leave, how to implement that departure in a way that mitigates the risk to American interests, including the risk of a resurgence of ISIS. As a result, the decision itself created a lot of chaos and a lot of uncertainty. I think it's that uncertainty about American intentions that Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Advisor Bolton are really confronting in the conversations that they are having around the Middle East now. Our foreign partners don't know if what they are saying represents the actual views of the President of the United States, and our foreign partners don't know whether to credit the stated intentions. In other words, might not the president just change his mind suddenly again? That creates just a huge challenge for American diplomacy.

Brian Hanson: In this context, Robert, you wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post in which you called the president's decision on Syria essentially correct and then go on to make an argument for how he can make the most of this decision. What did you mean when you called his decision correct? And what has to happen in order for this to be successful if we do pull out?

Robert Ford: A friend of mine with whom I worked overseas, he was with the Central Intelligence Agency. His name is Paul Pillar. Paul had a short written piece maybe two weeks ago and he said, "Even a broken clock is right telling time twice a day." That's kind of how I feel about Trump's decision on Syria. In this case, the broken clock actually got one right. We can't, as Tamara was just saying, 2,000 troops are not going to deliver all of the things that the hawk in Washington, DC, would like to achieve. Get rid of Iranian troops out of Syria, that's a relationship that goes back decades. They're not going anywhere. Get rid of Bashar al-Assad. Guess what? He just won the war. His side got more weapons. They got Russians and Iranians in fighting for them. They won. He's not going anywhere. 2000 troops aren't going to change that. They were never going to get the things that people like Bolton and Ambassador Jim Jeffrey, the special envoy for countering ISIS and dealing with Syria they were talking about, he was never going to get it. And frankly, they were out in front of where the president was anyway. The thing I wrote in the Washington Post, I highlighted that then again, that the process is broke, what Tamara was just talking about. Going forward, we just had recently John Bolton in Turkey. Beyond the insults to John Bolton from the Turkish president who, very much indicative of the chaos in Washington that Tamara was just talking about, the president of Turkey actually said, "I don't want to deal with Bolton. I like dealing with Trump because who knows what Bolton is saying and whether or not it represents Trump. I deal with Trump personally." But they also said to the Americans, "We are not going to promise to help your Syrian Kurdish friends in Syria. We're not going to leave them alone. We're not giving you that promise." If the Americans leave, which I think is pretty clear they're going to, that's what the president wants, the Americans can't hold the Turks to a promise anyway. It seems to me it makes much more sense now rather than focusing on Turkey, which is what the American administration has been doing, much better to focus on Russia. Russia can talk to the Turks, but Russia also can talk to the Syrian government. And there will be no stability in Eastern Syria after the Americans leave until the Syrian government reasserts control over Eastern Syria. Nobody hates Bashar al-Assad more than I do, but the guy won the war. Let's be honest, there is no ISIS in the part of Syria that he controls. He's mean. His secret police are nasty. They deal with problems when they want to. If we want to get rid of ISIS in a permanent way, much better to deal with the Syrian government through the Russians and manage the Turks in a way so that the Syrian Kurds and the Turks don't start fighting each other. If the Americans, as Bolton wants to do and as Jim Jeffrey wants to do, bring the Turks into Syria, that is a certain recipe for new fighting.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Robert, I'm really struck by what you just said. The logic is very compelling, but it sounds to me as though what you're saying is that Vladimir Putin was right all along. He's been arguing since ISIS emerged in Syria that the only counter-terrorism solution in the Middle East or frankly in Chechnya and Dagestan and other parts of Russia, that the only solution is a strong man, and you have to back these strong men because they're the ones who can defeat terrorism. It sounds to me as though what you're saying is that the Syria case has proved him right and proved wrong an American model, which has presumed that you need to work with people at the local level and address their grievances so that terrorists don't have fertile soil within which to operate.

Robert Ford: I think, Tamara, that's a fair point. I'm very uncomfortable relying on authoritarians for stability over the long term. My guess is that Bashar al-Assad's forces when they do go into Eastern Syria will be fighting against extremists there for years and years. They will always have the upper hand, but they'll be fighting them for years and years. In a perfect world, you would have governments that are responsive to citizens' needs, where citizen input is accepted, pluralism is allowed, certain minimum standard of civil liberties are respected. I think that's the American model and I think over time, that provides a more durable and more durable peaceful way of managing the desire on the street level for change and accountability. But there is no way to get that in Eastern Syria right now. There are too many foreign countries involved, whether it be Turkey or Russia or Iran or the Americans. It's a bridge too far. Under those circumstances, the least common denominator and I hate to say it. I long ago was advocating that we help the Syrian opposition by trying to set up a pluralist system in Syria, but they lost the war three years ago. So now the least common denominator, sadly, is Bashar al-Assad's government in Damascus.

Brian Hanson: And Tamara, do you agree?

Tamara Cofman Wittes: I certainly agree with Robert's point about the alternative to Assad's reasserting control likely being a meddling in Syria by Turkey that really does risk a broader interstate confrontation. I agree with that. I think though, Robert, that the point you just made about the likelihood that Assad, even after he reasserts control in Eastern Syria, facing ongoing challenge from extremist groups, that to me points to the real likely outcome here. This is not going to be stability, and I don't think it's going to be effective counter-terrorism. I think it's going to be a weak Bashar Assad ruling from Damascus through a set of Mafia-style subcontracts and fighting constantly an extremist insurgency. I guess the benefit to the United States will be that we won't be the ones doing the fighting. But I think that one lesson we've learned not only from Syria but from plenty of other conflicts since the end of the Cold War, is that these kinds of problems don't tend to stay localized. So I suspect that what's happened here is that this withdrawal will give the United States a bit of breathing space. But given that ISIS has not been soundly defeated even if it's possible to entirely root it out and that's a different debate, it's quite likely that the US and it's regional partners will find themselves fighting this conflict against ISIS 3.0 or 4.0 some years down the road. We don't know quite where or quite how, but the notion that this stays inside Syrian borders, I'm quite skeptical of.

Robert Ford: I think, Tamara, I mean your points are fair. I guess what I would say is in a lot of foreign policy conundrums there is no perfect solution. The 2,000 American soldiers, in any case, can't fix the ISIS problem in Eastern Syria. We have 5,000 soldiers in Iraq right now and ISIS is staging a comeback in provinces like Diyala and Salah ad-Din. That's with many more forces and with a government that frankly is much friendlier to the United States than the government in Damascus. The problems in these countries, places like Iraq and Syria, Yemen, Libya are so deeply rooted that the Americans, I've come to the conclusion after having worked on this up close, Americans really can't fix these things. These are problems which only the societies themselves can really address. So we're in sort of a damage control mode and frankly, I'm perfectly happy to let the Russians, in this case, or even the Iranians be the first ones to take a stab at this while the Americans focus maybe a little more on back over the horizon to an extent and more focus on other parts of the world as you were saying at the start of the program.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Yeah. Look, I don't mean to suggest that there is a grand alternative here that I would put forward. I simply am mindful of the downsides of what seems at this point to be an inevitability. But as I said, I do think it creates a bit of breathing space for the United States. You're suggesting that that breathing space might be used for priorities outside the region, and I think it's also true that there are other priorities within the Middle East where the United States could do well to give some extra attention.

Brian Hanson: I really appreciate the discussion that you just had because it gives our listeners, I think, really important places to focus their attention as things continue to unfold with respect to Syria. I want to pivot our conversation to another priority that the Trump Administration has made which is also a difficult situation, which is Iran. Clearly in public statements and in actions, like ending the nuclear deal with Iran, this administration has focused on taking a hard line vis-a-vis Iran. What does that mean? What is the Trump Administration actually doing? And what are the implications of the approach that it is taking toward Iran?

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Well, one of the things that I find quite striking in Secretary Pompeo's statements and in American policy, and this was true not only in the speech he gave in Cairo, but in previous speeches he has given about US-Iran policy here in Washington. What I find striking is the chasm between the ambitious policy objectives that Secretary Pompeo has articulated for the United States with regard to Iran and the actual means, the resources, the activities that the Trump Administration has been prepared to invest in achieving those outcomes. So the administration, Secretary Pompeo, has laid out these 12 demands of Iran, that it wants Iranians to meet that essentially mean, don't be an Islamic republic any more. Stop being a religious, ideologically-driven, abusive, autocratic regime and turn into a friendly, rights-respecting, democratic regime. Stop interfering in the business of your neighbors. Stop trying to extend your influence in the region. In other words, stop being who you are. That's exceedingly unrealistic in the best of circumstances, but it's clear that at the same time, and at the same time that the Trump Administration withdrew from the JCPOA, this multilateral nuclear agreement that was negotiated to constrain Iran's nuclear activities, it's also clear that the Trump Administration is not looking for a major confrontation with the Iranians. Secretary Pompeo talks about building a strong coalition for unprecedented sanctions to push the Iranians into a more congenial policy direction. But the fact is that the coalition the Trump Administration has for its Iran policy is smaller and less effective and less meaningful than the wider international coalition that existed before around the JCPOA and around Iranian ballistic missile development that Trump fractured by withdrawing from the JCPOA. To me, it's just an incredible mismatch between ends and means, which means that it's a bad strategy or maybe not really a strategy, just a bunch of aspirations.

Brian Hanson: And Robert, do you agree? And what do you see as the implications of the approach the administration is taking?

Robert Ford: Yeah. I think Tamara hit it right on the head. The American administration does not want a military confrontation with Iran if that can be avoided. I think if the Iranians go too far, if say, some of their speedboats in the Persian Gulf actually fire at US Navy ships ... They've come close, but never done it. But were they to do so, I think Trump's directions to the Navy are shoot back and shoot to kill. But the Iranians, I don't think are trying to push that either. So that leaves then the Trump Administration with just one big tool in the toolbox, which is sanction. The Trump Administration's goal, very clearly, is to sort of strangle the Iranian government's access to foreign exchange and shut off its input. No oil exports out of Iran to the maximum extent possible. And then hope that under this hard economic pressure, the government in Tehran will either bend or break. I think a lot of people, like John Bolton, would be happy if it broke. If we learn nothing out of the Iraq War, at least we've learned that if you don't know what's going to come after the fall of a government, you probably shouldn't get that business in the first place. In any case, I don't think that this kind of sanction policy's going to work, precisely for the reason Tamara said. Barack Obama got the Russians, the Chinese, and the Europeans, and everybody else, even India, all to agree to go into sanctions with the United States. That was a huge achievement by the Obama Administration. The Trump Administration does not have that. The Russians and the Chinese are not on board based off the agreement under the Obama Administration for Iranian nuclear inspections and such things. That was a good deal. The Europeans are not enthusiastic. So this would be a sanction policy probably that's going to have a lot of big holes in it, as it did during the time of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton. I don't know that it's going to bend or break the government in Tehran.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Robert, can I ask you a follow-up question? Your point at the beginning of your comment just now about Iranian speedboats in the Gulf put me in mind of something that, I guess, has been a little niggling worry, and I'd be interested in your evaluation of it. You had said earlier that the administration doesn't have a very coherent policy process or approach, and I said that we have a president who's capricious and changeable. It strikes me that these are sort of the ideal circumstances in which a minor crisis like an Iranian dinghy buzzing an aircraft carrier in the Gulf could inadvertently escalate into a confrontation. I wonder if you think about that. You've been in the foreign service long enough. You've lived through some unintended escalations. Do you think that's a real worry?

Robert Ford: The only reason I sleep well at night is I was in Iraq for five years and working literally shoulder to shoulder with colleagues from the American military. I just was so amazed at how professional and serious and how thoughtful they are as they go about their jobs. They're not warmongering hawks, like a lot of people might think they are. The people who are probably the least enthusiastic about going into a war fighting situation are the people who actually have to do the fighting. They're the ones who suffer the most. So I'm not too worried about the US Navy doing something stupid. I think they're exceptionally professional. I worry much more about hawks back in Washington who have never been in the military and have very, very little concept of what war really means on the ground. I worry about them giving orders that could then drive us into that kind of a confrontation. I think that's why people get a little nervous that Jim Mattis left the defense secretary job because he was the one who would kind of calm people down if we got to that situation. We don't know how Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan would act in that situation. We don't know about Mike Pompeo who was in the military, how they would react. But yeah, you're right. It's a fair question. But I don't worry about the Navy. I worry about people in Washington.

Brian Hanson: As we close, I want to ask each of you, there's so much going on in the Middle East right now, and there's so many different places to look. As we think about US interests and what's most important to the United States, what would each of you encourage our listeners to pay most attention to as having the greatest potential consequence for us here at home?

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Robert, you want to kick it off?

Robert Ford: Sure. I think the scenario that Tamara just painted is what we have to worry about the most in the short term. That could be, say, an unexpected confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria. So far the Iranians have kind of laid back. They haven't struck out at Israel even though the Israelis have bombed various Iranian targets in Syria. But if the Iranians change and shoot back hard at the Israelis and it escalates and pulls in the United States, that would be concerning. We were just talking about a scenario in the Persian Gulf. Those are the kinds of things that worry me in the short term. As I think about the Middle East over the medium and longer terms, I worry much more about American reliance on dictators to bring stability. And while there may be a nice, cozy, short-term aspect that they don't want to be back and they press unhappy jihadis and things, that is not a winning recipe for stability in the long term and we need to figure out ... We can't make other countries democracies, but how do we assist people who themselves want to improve their lot, improve their government, and do it in a way that has the lightest buy-in possible. Do not try to impose the American system, but rather with the people on the ground who are there, who are themselves trying to live, to help with change. I think that's the long term recipe for stability.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: I'll pick up where Robert left off. I agree very much with his comments. I think when I worry about the prospects of renewed conflict in the region, I probably worry most about another Israel-Hezbollah military confrontation that I think would have horrific civilian consequences both in Lebanon and Israel. But when I think about the longer term, I also think about these societies and the ways in which they have changed and the upheaval and battering that they have been through over the last decade or so. The Arab uprisings came about because the 300 million citizens of this region have had enough of autocratic governance and of governments that don't deliver basic services and basic needs of their people because they're more focused on their own survival. I don't think that that frustration and impatience has gone away. I think that this region is full of dynamism and creativity and possibility, especially amongst its younger generation, which is its majority. Beyond worrying about unmet expectations and uprisings, I think about the opportunity costs in this region of the authoritarian backlash we've seen in the last few years. Not only do the people of this region deserve better, I think they are increasingly insisting on better. So I could not agree more with Robert's view that lasting stability in this region is only going to come when the countries of the region have governments that their people deserve.

Brian Hanson: Thank you both for really a terrific conversation on an important part of the world. I think you gave our listeners a lot to think about, as well as some guideposts for understanding what's happening there. So Robert Ford of the Middle East Institute and Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution, I want to thank you both for being on Deep Dish.

Tamara Cofman Wittes: Thanks a lot.

Robert Ford: It was my pleasure.

Brian Hanson: And thank you for tuning into this episode of Deep Dish. If you enjoyed the show, I want to let you know that the council is hosting a live event on US strategy in the Middle East on Thursday, January 31st, at 5:30 p.m. Central Time. If you're in the Chicago area, please come and see the event live. It will feature Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Lebanon, as well as Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. If you're in the Chicagoland area, please reserve your tickets by clicking on the events tab on our website, thechicagocouncil.org. If you're not in Chicago, you can watch the event on our live stream, thechicagocouncil.org. If you like the show, do me a favor and tap the subscribe button on your podcast app so that you get each and every new episode as it comes out. You can find our show under Deep Dish on Global Affairs wherever you listen to podcasts. If you think you know someone who would enjoy today's episode, take a moment, tap share, and send it to them so they can hear as well. I'd like to invite you to join our Facebook group, Deep Dish on Global Affairs. There you can ask questions of our guests, follow up on things you heard on the show, and also submit questions for upcoming guests and ideas for episodes. That's Deep Dish on Global Affairs on Facebook. As a reminder, the opinions you heard belong to the people who expressed them and not the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. This episode of Deep Dish was produced by Evan Fazio. Our audio engineer is Andy Czarnecki. I'm Brian Hanson, and we'll be back soon with another slice of Deep Dish.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

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