by Dennis Ross
President-elect Donald Trump has understandably made destroying ISIS a leading national security priority. But to destroy ISIS, it must not only be defeated militarily and lose its territorial base; it must also be discredited. The choice of partners in this struggle matters. As Russia, the Assad regime, the Iranians and Hezbollah engage in a scorched earth policy in Aleppo, they make it far less likely that we can get Sunni governments and tribes to play their role against ISIS—and yet they are the ones who must not only replace ISIS on the ground but also discredit it.
The problem we face in both Syria and Iraq is that Iran’s use of Shia militias is deepening the sectarian divide not removing it. The Iraqi military may be leading the fight for Mosul but in nearby towns like Tel Afar the Shia militias are once again looting and removing Sunni males, much as they did in the earlier battles for Fallujah and Ramadi. Similarly, in Syria, as Putin and Assad relentlessly bomb eastern Aleppo, Iran is importing Shia militia to provide the manpower to root out the opposition forces on the ground. With the Syrian military having no more than the 25,000 deployable forces, it is Hezbollah and other Shia militias from Iraq and as far away as Afghanistan that are being brought in to help occupy these areas. Thus, even as ISIS faces the prospect of losing Mosul and Raqqa—the very symbols of its success and appeal—the conditions that produced it in the first place, Sunni oppression and exclusion, are being recreated. Unfortunately, in its early days the incoming Trump administration will have to contend with the aftermath of ISIS’s defeat in Mosul and the need for reconstruction, inclusion of Sunnis in governance, and the return of Sunni populations.
If that were not daunting enough, the new administration will also need a strategy on Syria. Here it will face hard choices on how to liberate Raqqa: do we rely on Turkey which has now carved out a safe zone of nearly 2000 square kilometers in northern Syria or on the Kurdish forces we have been working with? Clearly, if possible, it would be best to reconcile the two, but this, too, is likely to prove difficult. Turkey’s military intervention in Syria was designed to ensure that the YPG–the Kurdish forces we have found most effective fighting against ISIS–would not be able to create a contiguous corridor along the Syrian-Turkish border. Any effort to coordinate the two in the fight for Raqqa will necessarily require an agreement with Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
But no answer on Raqqa will eradicate ISIS and what produced it in Syria without an approach to the broader conflict with the Assad regime. Vladimir Putin is likely to present the incoming administration with a fait accompli: having enabled Assad to regain control of all of Aleppo—even if he depends heavily on Shia militia forces on the ground—Putin may be content to call for a ceasefire and the creation of a de facto partition of Syria. After all, the western, populated spine of the country from Aleppo in the north to Damascus in the south would be in control of the regime; Russian access to air and naval facilities would be assured; and, for Putin, it would be time to end the fighting in Syria.
Putin’s problem is that no partition is likely to end to the conflict so long as Assad remains in power; any ceasefire will almost certainly be temporary, amounting to little more than a pause. The devastation of Aleppo will only deepen the lust for revenge among an opposition that involves roughly 160 militias not counting ISIS.
Ironically, Putin’s current strength in Syria masks a weakness: while not wanting an endless war, he does not have the ability to force the opposition into ending the fight against Assad. Together with the Turks, Saudis, Qataris, and Emirates, we might be able to do so but only if the Assad clique goes.
President-elect Trump has a chance to influence Putin, ensure that Iran does not gain strategically in Syria (at a time when its military chief Hossein Bagheri is already speaking of establishing a naval base there), and succeed against ISIS if he recognizes our potential leverage. To do so, President Trump will need to tell Putin he is prepared to cooperate, provided the Russians fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 2254 and join us in pressing for a political outcome.
The Russians supported 2254, which requires a cessation of hostilities in Syria, an end to sieges, the opening of unrestricted humanitarian corridors, and a political transition of eighteen months. Assad has violated its provisions, and never accepted the principle of a transition of power. Trump can say we will fulfill our commitments on 2254 provided the Russians do as well. But should Assad fail to go along, once again resorting to barrel bombs and sieges, we will impose real penalties on him to include standoff air strikes to take out Syrian airfields.
Such a posture stands a good chance of gaining the support of Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates and others, particularly as it would finally offer protection and relief for the Sunni population in Syria. For Putin, it means jettisoning Assad and leaving the Iranians on their own in Syria if they won’t accept the implementation of 2254. Presently, Putin is abetting the growth of Iranian power in the region. Trump would be offering Putin a way out of Syria by aligning not with Assad and the Iranians but with Turkey and the other leading Sunni actors who have been part of the International Syria Support Group.
The choices in Syria are not cost-free. President-elect Trump’s desire to cooperate with the Russians can be realized provided he also exercises leverage that gives Vladimir Putin a reason to accept a real political process that neither empowers Assad nor the Iranians but does give Sunni-led states a stake in taking on an even bigger role with us in eradicating ISIS.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.