Any doubts that Syria would join Afghanistan and Iraq as another Forever War were laid to rest on Tuesday, when Defense Secretary James Mattis said U.S. troops would stay in that country until the chances for peace improve.
The U.S. military must complete three objectives in Syria before the 2,000 U.S. troops in the country can come home, Mattis told reporters on Tuesday.
“We have to destroy ISIS,” Mattis said. “We also have to have trained local troops who can take over. We’re doing that training as we speak. Third: We need the Geneva process – the U.N.-recognized process – to start making traction toward solving this war.”
“If the locals are able to keep the security, obviously during this time we might be reducing our troops commensurate with their ability to deny ISIS a return,” he added, “but it really comes down to finding a way to solve this problem of [Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s] making.”
The United States will take part in talks scheduled for Sept. 14 in Geneva that are meant to help broker a political settlement to the Syrian civil war, a State Department official told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.
“We will remain engaged with the UN and other parties, including Russia, to encourage all possible efforts to advance the political process,” the official said.
Now in its eighth year, the Syrian civil war is one of the greatest humanitarian disasters of the 21st century: Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed and millions more have become refugees. Diplomatic efforts to end the bloodshed have failed so far and the only indication that the conflict may be nearing its end is the Syrian government is capturing more rebel-held territory with the help of its allies: Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah.
“Our goal is to move the Syria civil war into the Geneva process so that the Syrian people can establish a new government that is not led by Assad and give them a chance for a future that Assad has denied them with overt Russian and Iranian support,” Mattis said on Tuesday.
But the peace talks in Geneva have no chance of actually succeeding because Assad “maintains a very strong position on the battlefield” that offers no incentive for retreat, said David Adesnik, director of research at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.
There are two ways to interpret Mattis comments about the Geneva process needing to “start making traction” before U.S. troops can come home, Adesnik told Task & Purpose on Wednesday.
“Is that just a casual way of saying, ‘the process is working’?” he said. “In that sense, Mattis could effectively be saying: ‘We’re keeping our troops in Northeast Syria indefinitely’ – for as long as Assad is in power, and he knows the Geneva process won’t change it. But by citing the Geneva process you have a justification grounded in international law.
“Another reading of the words ‘start making traction’ would be just the appearance of success at Geneva. If you could come up with a piece of paper that people can agree on – even if doesn’t really resolve the fundamental issues, then Trump can say: ‘We got what we need and we’re pulling out.’”
Retired Ambassador Ryan Crocker knows the region well. He has served as U.S. ambassador to Syria and then in Iraq and Afghanistan. While he believes the United States should support the Geneva peace talks – which he calls “the only realistic game in town” – he told Task & Purpose that he does not see any prospect for a political solution in Syria right now.
The Syrian regime has allowed rebels to withdraw to Idlib province while it cleaned out strongholds in the rest of the country, Crocker said. Now Assad’s troops and allied forces are poised to crush Idlib itself.
“That’s what I think is going to happen next and the Geneva process is not going to stop a regime/Iranian/Hezbollah onslaught on Idlib province,” Crocker said.