As its role in Syria grows, U.S. fum­bles for strat­egy

Mount­ing vi­o­lence high­lights chal­lenges as Trump pur­sues sev­eral some­times con­flict­ing goals.

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By W.J. Hen­ni­gan

WASH­ING­TON — The U.S. mil­i­tary’s role in Syria has steadily es­ca­lated since Pres­i­dent Trump took of­fice, but even as fight­ing in­ten­si­fies, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has said lit­tle to the pub­lic about its goals, nor has it re­leased a long-stalled up­date on its strat­egy for the wartorn coun­try.

The lat­est es­ca­la­tion came over the week­end as U.S. forces shot down a Syr­ian at­tack plane near Raqqah, Is­lamic State’s self­de­clared cap­i­tal, where mul­ti­ple war­ring groups have been en­gaged in in­creas­ingly in­tense fight­ing.

The Pen­tagon has now twice de­lib­er­ately tar­geted Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad’s mil­i­tary and launched three other airstrikes against what it calls “pro-regime” forces — a sharp re­ver­sal of the hand­soff stance to­ward As­sad that the U.S. took dur­ing the open­ing weeks of Trump’s pres­i­dency.

De­spite that shift, how­ever, ad­min­is­tra­tion of­fi­cials have not made clear the full ob­jec­tives of U.S. pol­icy or its lim­its.

“Right now what we have is a pol­icy of am­bi­gu­ity,” said Ilan Gold­en­berg, di­rec­tor of the Mid­dle East se­cu­rity pro­gram at the Cen­ter for a New Amer­i­can Se­cu­rity. “And what do ad­ver­saries do when there’s am­bi­gu­ity? They test.”

Syria and its al­lies will con­tinue to grab ter­ri­tory un­til they are told there are con­se­quences, he said.

Ad­min­is­tra­tion state­ments since the down­ing of the Syr­ian jet have done lit­tle to clar­ify the pol­icy.

“The es­ca­la­tion of hos­til­ity among all the fac­tions that are op­er­at­ing there doesn’t help any­body,” White House Press Sec­re­tary Sean Spicer said Mon­day. “The Syr­ian regime and oth­ers need to un­der­stand that we will re­tain the right to self-de­fense for coali­tion forces aligned against ISIS,” he added, us­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pre­ferred acro­nym for the Is­lamic State mil­i­tants who still con­trol a large swath of ter­ri­tory in eastern Syria.

The mount­ing vi­o­lence around Raqqah and Syria’s eastern bor­der re­gion il­lus­trates the dif­fi­culty fac­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tion as it seeks to si­mul­ta­ne­ously ac­com­plish sev­eral some­times con­flict­ing tasks: fight Is­lamic State, co­or­di­nate and de­fend Syr­ian rebel groups that are try­ing to over­throw the govern­ment, and counter the in­flu­ence of Iran, which, along with Rus­sia, has backed the As­sad govern­ment.

The prob­lem is not unique — the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion was widely crit­i­cized for lack­ing a co­her­ent Syria strat­egy — but Trump’s dif­fi­culty in de­vel­op­ing one comes as the U.S. mil­i­tary pres­ence in the coun­try has steadily es­ca­lated.

The Pen­tagon has de­ployed hun­dreds of U.S. spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces to work along­side Syr­ian rebels fight­ing Is­lamic State. Else­where in the coun­try, U.S. war­planes and a Ma­rine Corps ar­tillery unit pro­vide fire­power on a daily ba­sis for the ad­vanc­ing forces.

The risk of fur­ther es­ca­la­tion is steadily mount­ing. Armed forces be­long­ing to the U.S., Rus­sia, Syria and Iran are op­er­at­ing in an in­creas­ingly com­pressed en­vi­ron­ment as they con­verge on Syr­ian cities now con­trolled by a com­mon en­emy: Is­lamic State.

Once that ter­ri­tory is re­taken — and Is­lamic State mil­i­tants are gone — the White House will have to de­cide whether it will con­tinue to deepen its in­volve­ment and pro­tect its part­ners against As­sad’s forces and their back­ers.

The U.S. has been on a po­ten­tial col­li­sion course with the Syr­ian govern­ment at least since Pres­i­dent Obama au­tho­rized airstrikes in 2014 and in­tro­duced spe­cial op­er­a­tions forces a year later.

Un­til re­cently, how­ever, Syr­ian forces and the U.S. and the rebel groups it backs had largely fo­cused on dif­fer­ent parts of the coun­try. That changed when two dif­fer­ent groups of U.S.-sup­ported rebels launched sep­a­rate cam­paigns for con­trol of Raqqah and Dair Al­zour, eastern Syr­ian prov­inces in which Is­lamic State holds sig­nif­i­cant ter­ri­tory.

Their ad­vance prompted Da­m­as­cus and its al­lies to step up their own op­er­a­tions in the two prov­inces.

Those moves have led to clashes be­tween armed groups backed by the U.S. and those backed by the Syr­ian govern­ment.

On Sun­day, As­sad’s forces at­tacked a U.S.backed al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab mili­tia fight­ers known as the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces in the town of Jadin, south of Raqqah. The Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces have been part of a largescale of­fen­sive aimed at cap­tur­ing Raqqah.

The at­tack drove the mili­tia fight­ers from the town, so the U.S. scram­bled an air­craft to roar over the bat­tle­field in “a show of force” that halted the pro-govern­ment forces’ ad­vance.

In the air, how­ever, a Syr­ian Su-22 at­tack air­craft bombed the Amer­i­can al­lies. That prompted a U.S. F/A-18 fighter jet to shoot it down — the first air-to-air kill by U.S. forces in two decades.

Af­ter the shoot-down, the Pen­tagon is­sued a state­ment em­pha­siz­ing that it took a de­fen­sive ac­tion and did not seek “to fight Syr­ian regime, Rus­sian, or pro-regime forces part­nered with them.”

That was the same rea­son given for launch­ing three airstrikes against forces loyal to As­sad in the town of Tanf, far­ther south along the Iraqi-Syr­ian bor­der, where U.S. forces train Syr­ian rebels at a small mil­i­tary base. This month, a U.S. fighter jet shot down an Ira­nian-made drone that dropped a bomb near forces pa­trolling the base.

U.S. of­fi­cials have been em­pha­siz­ing that they have no plans to es­ca­late fight­ing against As­sad.

Mean­time, As­sad’s forces have re­peat­edly tested the U.S. to see how much they can get away with. Their goal ap­pears to be to prompt the U.S. to state on record that it has no busi­ness in­side Syria af­ter Is­lamic State mil­i­tants are de­feated, said Jennifer Ca­farella, a Syria an­a­lyst at the non­par­ti­san In­sti­tute for the Study of War in Wash­ing­ton.

“The goal is to get the U.S. to re­peat­edly con­firm that it has no mil­i­tary in­ten­tions in­side Syria, aside from elim­i­nat­ing the Is­lamic State,” she said. “That cedes the rest of Syria to the regime and its part­ners to do what they want.”

Un­like the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion, Trump has not called for As­sad to leave power to a tran­si­tion govern­ment. Nor has the new ad­min­is­tra­tion made a ma­jor diplo­matic ef­fort to per­suade the war­ring fac­tions into a cease-fire and peace ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Gen. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was re­peat­edly asked dur­ing an ap­pear­ance Mon­day at the Na­tional Press Club in Wash­ing­ton what the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s strate­gic poli­cies were in sev­eral Mid­dle Eastern and African coun­tries where the U.S. mil­i­tary is ac­tive.

“We’re try­ing to sup­port our part­ners on the ground in driv­ing the level of vi­o­lence down to where lo­cal se­cu­rity forces can actually deal with se­cu­rity chal­lenges with a min­i­mum amount of in­ter­na­tional sup­port,” he said. “And we’re try­ing to do that from West Africa to South­east Asia be­cause what we’re deal­ing with is a tran­sre­gional threat.”

wil­liam.hen­ni­gan @la­times.com Twit­ter: @wjhenn

Delil Souleiman AFP/Getty Images

MEM­BERS OF the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, a U.S.-backed al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab fight­ers, walk through Raqqah. The U.S. has strug­gled with co­or­di­nat­ing rebel groups while fight­ing Is­lamic State in Syria.

Jim Lo Scalzo Euro­pean Pressphoto Agency

GEN. Joseph F. Dun­ford Jr., chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was re­peat­edly asked about U.S. poli­cies in the Mid­dle East at an ap­pear­ance Mon­day.

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