Pompeo vs. Tillerson on Syria

At the Aspen Security Forum, the same conference Scott discussed here, CIA Director Mike Pompeo discussed with clarity the situation the U.S. confronts in Syria. As Josh Rogin reports, Pompeo stated that we have two main enemies in Syria: ISIS and Iran. Our goals, in addition to finishing off ISIS in Syria, should be to stop Iran from establishing a zone of control that spans the region and “providing the conditions to have a more stable Middle East to keep America safe.”

Noting the obvious, Pompeo added that “we don’t have the same set of interests” in Syria as Russia does. What are Russia’s interests? “They love a warm water naval port and they love to stick it to America.”

Compare Pompeo’s analysis to that of the Secretary of State. According to Rex Tillerson, “Russia has the same interests that we do in having Syria become a stable, unified place.”

This may be true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far. Russia wants a stable, unified Syria that it dominates to the exclusion of the U.S. Curbing the influence of Iran, with whom Russia has worked closely in Syria, is not an objective. Nor are regional stability and American safety. Iran and Hezbollah, Russia’s allies in Syria, are committed to destabilizing the Middle East.

Tillerson’s top Middle East official, acting assistant secretary Stuart Jones, also spoke at Aspen. He served as ambassador to Jordan and then Iraq under President Obama.

According to Rogin, Jones conceded that the U.S. has effectively outsourced security in Syria to the Russians by having them police the cease fire President Trump and Vladimir Putin agreed to. He explained:

This is a real test of the Russians ability to lead this process. The solution is to put this on the Russians and, if that fails, it’s a problem.

He’s joking, right? Sadly, he isn’t.

Rogin notes that this almost exactly what John Kerry said when he negotiated Syrian cease fires with Russia in 2015 and 2016. Repeatedly, he insisted that Russia’s willingness to be a constructive partner must be tested. Repeatedly, Russia refused to be a constructive partner, instead electing (big shock) to promote its interests by helping the Assad regime expand its control and massacre civilians.

Russia already has its grade in Syria — an A from its perspective; an E from ours. There is no need for further tests.

It’s the Trump administration that is now under examination. Will it repeat the same mistakes committed by the Obama administration? So far, the answer appears to be Yes.

Will it commit a mistake that even Obama never made — abandoning non-jihadist rebels in exchange for nothing more than the promise of a cease fire? The answer is Yes.

Even if the cease fire in southwest Syria holds, it serves the interests of Russia and Iran, not those of America. As Rogin explains, the regime and its partners are using the cease fire to free up resources to advance in eastern Syria. This is where the key fight for control of the strategic region around Deir al-Zour is underway. That fight is central to Iran’s effort to establish the “zone of control” Pompeo said is antithetical to U.S. interests.

At the Aspen event, Jones acknowledged that the regime and its partners are using the cease fire for this purpose. Apparently, he’s fine with it.

I’d like to know how the Trump administration squares this apparent indifference over what happens in eastern Syria with its much heralded alliance with Sunni powers in the region. Sunni fighters from this part of Syria are off fighting ISIS. What, asks Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will they do upon returning home under fire from Iranian militias?

Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, where he seemed to forge an alliance of Sunni states, has been billed as the major foreign policy success of his administration. Arguably, it is the only one, to date.

Trump’s Syria policy risks undermining that good work.

Mike Pompeo has the right line on Syria and Russia. Unfortunately, President Trump has adopted the contrary line of Rex Tillerson and the Obama holdovers.