A Syrian family is carried to safety from areas controlled by Islamic State jihadists near Raqqa in Syria on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman
A Syrian family is carried to safety from areas controlled by Islamic State jihadists near Raqqa in Syria on November 9, 2016. Photo: AFP/Delil Souleiman

The address by the US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at the Ministerial Plenary for the Global Coalition Working to Defeat ISIS at Washington, DC, on March 22 offers for the first time the Trump administration’s perspective on Syria following the liberation of areas under the control of Islamic State.

The focus remains on fighting the ISIS in Raqqa, but Tillerson has spoken of creating “interim zones of stability” through ceasefires to enable displaced people to return home.

Tillerson looked ahead at “a new phase defined by transition from major military operations to stabilization.” The transition would involve providing minimal conditions for refugees to return – clearing land mines, providing water and electricity and so on.

The accent is on working with “local political leadership” who would provide “stable and fair governance,” rebuild infrastructure, and provide essential services.

Tillerson cautioned that this will not mean nation-building or reconstruction, but would be an attempt to rebuild institutions and improving daily lives of people and prevent ISIS resurgence.

Looking ahead, 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.”

The US state department spokesman later qualified that Tillerson spoke on conceptual lines and “we’re still discussing specifics about how that looks” not only with coalition partners, but within the administration as well.

Three contentious issues need to be addressed here. First and foremost, identifying the “local political leadership” is going to be highly problematic.

In northern Syria, especially along the border with Turkey, this leadership has to come from ethnic Kurds and Ankara will not acquiescing with that, which it will only see as a “Syrian Kurdistan.”
Woven into this is the US’s overt reliance on the Kurdish YPK militia, which Turkey brands as a sister organization of the PKK spearheading the insurgency in its eastern provinces. Indeed, embedded within this is also the delicate three-way US-Russia-Kurdish pantomime.

The US prefers to continue with its Kurdish partners, which it sees as vital for the upcoming battle for Raqqa. Equally, Russia has strong impetus to keep links with Syrian Kurds in a conceivable future, no matter what Turkey thinks of it.

In the northwest Idlib province of Syria bordering Turkey, Al-Qaeda and the extremist groups affiliated with it, command an estimated 10000-strong fighting force. Unless Idlib is liberated from their clutches, a local political leadership cannot emerge.

The Syrian government has Idlib in its sights. But, will the US, Turkey and Gulf Cooperation Council states, which used to support some of these extremist groups, stand by passively if a large-scale Syrian government operation with participation by Iranian and Hezbollah forces and Russian air power commences?

There are no easy answers.

Moving on to the southern borders of Syria, again, the Lebanon-Jordan-Israel borderline has specific characteristics. Who would replace, for instance, the al-Qaeda elements ensconced near Golan Heights?

Suffice it to say, it will be the regional powers – Turkey and Iran, in particular – who would play a major role in chartering the future of reclaimed territories. Therefore, Trump administration’s handling of relations with Turkey and Iran will have critical bearing on the stabilization of Syria.

Turkey is easier to handle, since US has channels of communication. (Tillerson will visit Ankara next week.) But Iran is a hugely problematic relationship.

Second, the US may end up repeating the old mistaken assumptions it had made earlier devolving upon a “moderate” Syrian opposition. Experience tells us that in such situations of high fluidity, the “local political leadership” may inevitably end up in the hands of dubious elements with greater life force and ideological motivation.

Besides, the prolonged US military presence that is almost certainly going to be necessary in such a scenario will bring attendant problems emanating out of a perceived western “occupation” of Syria – inciting resistance eventually. Given the backlog of Ottoman history, a prolonged Turkish military presence in Syria also faces similar risk.

Finally, where does Russia figure in all this? This could, in fact, be the single most crucial aspect of the stabilization of Syria, given Russia’s capacity to influence the leaderships in Ankara and Tehran as well as Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Yet, Tillerson didn’t speak a word on this count, knowing fully well that Russia is the elephant in the tent. Perhaps, he intends to discuss this aspect in confidence with the Kremlin officials during his trip to Moscow on April 12.

Russia and the US are tactically on the same side with regard to Syrian Kurds. However, in the battle for Raqqa that is shaping up, the US is sequestering the war theatre from Russian and Iranian interference and is determined to handle the offensive its own way in league with Syrian Kurds.

Russia has been hoping to use its strategic presence in Syria to leverage the overall Russian-American relationship. Russia cannot be liking that it has been practically cut off from the US’ Raqqa campaign.

Nonetheless, it is exercising strategic patience, as it keeps the “big picture” in mind, and is still pinning hopes on Trump acting on his past pledges to improve relations with Moscow.

All in all, the bottom line is that ISIS is staring at defeat. It is a matter of weeks before Trump redeems his pledge to vanquish it from Syria.

What lies ahead? The agenda of divvying up political power in the reclaimed territories and ensuring good governance and security so that ISIS doesn’t stage a comeback through a network of “interim zones of stability” funded by the Sunni Arab states and under US monitoring and so on, constitutes a grandiose vision. But the devil, as always in such complex situations, lies in the details.

The starting point, arguably, would be to ask the Syrian people whether they want a “confederation” to replace their existing unitary state.