Tag: Assad

Does the White House Have a Syria Strategy?

With the news that the United States has for the second time attacked targets linked to Syria’s Assad regime—in this case a convoy near Western forces in Al Tanf—concerned observers may be worrying that the Trump administration has chosen to make a major change in its Syria strategy. Fear not! As Secretary of Defense James Mattis told reporters:

“We’re not increasing our role in the Syrian civil war, but we will defend our troops. And that is a coalition element made up of more than just U.S. troops…”

Instead, you should probably just fear the fact that the United States no longer seems to have a Syria strategy.

Certainly, the Obama administration’s strategy towards Syria was inconsistent and vague. From the President’s statements early in the Syrian uprising that “Assad must go,” to his infamous red line comment, the Syrian chemical weapons deal, and the decision to intervene against ISIS, it often seemed as though the Obama administration was unsure whether it was willing to accept the Assad regime as part of a Syrian transition or not.

Nonetheless, throughout Obama’s term, the United States took no direct military action against Assad, and—other than arming a small number of rebels early in the conflict—largely ignored the question of Assad’s future, focusing instead on the campaign against ISIS.

With his disinterest in human rights, and his willingness to cooperate with Russia, the Trump administration was initially expected to be more conciliatory towards Assad than Obama. Yet only days after senior U.S. officials publicly stated that the U.S. priority was not to remove Assad, the President fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian air base.

Yesterday’s attack marks the second such incident. That they don’t constitute an official policy change is in large part because they were apparently authorized by commanders in the field, reflecting Trump’s desire to delegate key military decisionmaking down the chain of command.

Yet in many ways, this highlights the dangers of such delegation: though the strikes may have been necessary to protect American and British Special Forces based near al-Tanf, they carry risks of retaliation for U.S. troops in Syria and Iraq, as well as the potential for escalation with Syrian regime forces, Iranian-backed militias, or even Russian forces.

Targeting decisions like this, made at the tactical level, are thus deeply worrying. As ISIS continues to decline, military advances will bring both sides closer, raising the potential for conflict that could drag the United States deeper into the Syrian quagmire.

Unfortunately, lack of clarity about the Assad regime and allied forces is only one of the important questions that the Trump administration has so far failed to address in Syria. Though the headlines largely focused on the disgraceful behavior of Turkish President Erdogun’s bodyguards in beating up protestors, his D.C. visit last week also yielded no apparent progress on the brewing Turkish-Kurdish conflict in Northern Syria.

Indeed, the Trump administration recently took the decision to directly arm Syria’s Kurdish rebels, one of the most effective forces against ISIS. This was probably the right decision, but strains relations with Turkey, our NATO ally, which considers these groups as terrorists, and is engaged in bombing them.

At the same time, Trump appears to look more favorably on Russian plans for resolving and ending the Syrian conflict than his predecessor, but has taken an openly hostile attitude towards Iran, one of the other signatories of the de-escalation plan, and a major player on the ground in Syria. These two positions cannot be easily reconciled.

Thanks to a recent boost under the new administration, there are now at least a thousand U.S. troops in Syria training and working with ground forces fighting ISIS. It is these troops—and the larger number of U.S. forces in neighboring Iraq—who are most placed at risk by the new administration’s incoherent approach to Syria.

Whether or not the White House realizes it yet, tactical decisions like the one made yesterday by commanders on the ground in Syria risk dragging the United States even further into this complex war. The only way they can avoid it? Develop a coherent Syria strategy. 

Safe Zones in Syria Are a Bad Idea

President Trump reportedly spoke with the king of Saudi Arabia on Sunday about imposing safe zones in Syria, presumably for the purpose of protecting civilians from rebels and Syrian and Russian bombardment. Such a policy carries a lot of risk, would likely violate international and U.S. law, and is strategically unwise.

Safe zones have a mixed record at best for protecting civilians. In the 1990s, Iraqi Shia in United Nations’ safe zones turned out to be not so safe from Saddam Hussein. Bosnian Muslims were unprotected in Srebrenica, the city now associated with a terrible massacre despite an established safe zone there. Even beyond the logistical challenge of setting up safe zones in the middle of a chaotic civil war, keeping the civilians safe inside is no piece of cake. Humanitarian relief would have to be supplied, which requires an additional commitment of resources and coordination. And it would be difficult to prevent Syrian rebel groups from infiltrating, targeting, or otherwise taking advantage of them. On-the-ground forces would be required to police the area and distinguish between militants and civilians seeking refuge. Moreover, safe zones would require, at the very least, sustained use of airpower to protect the skies over them and the territory around them. The Syrian air force and the Russian air force are already crowding those skies. U.S. intervention would be subject to direct challenge, or at the very least massively increase the chances of accidental confrontation.

Americans should also consider the legality of such a move. Establishing safe zones requires imposing on the territorial integrity of another sovereign nation and defending those zones with military force. Under international law, that’s illegal in the absence of host nation permission or an authorization from the UN Security Council. There is little chance Syria is going to give such permission to the United States and Saudi Arabia, and given Russia’s alliance with the Syrian regime, a Security Council authorization will not be forthcoming.

The Trump administration would be on similarly shaky ground as far as domestic U.S. law is concerned. U.S. military action in Syria during the Obama and now Trump administrations has no specific authorization from Congress. It has so far been justified legally by reference to the 2001 and 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), which authorized action against those groups and individuals who carried out the 9/11 attacks and then against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Neither authorization could plausibly justify imposing safe zones and no-fly zones in Syria, operations that would clearly be unconnected to those past missions.

The State of War in Syria — In Two Charts

The fog of war, coupled with the output from multiple propaganda machines, makes it difficult to determine which side has the upper hand in any conflict. In Syria, it appears from recent reportage from Aleppo that President Bashar al-Assad’s forces are getting the upper hand. But are they?

The best objective way to determine the course of a conflict is to observe black market (read: free market) exchange rates, and to translate changes in those rates via purchasing power parity into implied inflation rates. We at the Johns Hopkins–Cato Institute Troubled Currencies Project have been doing that for Syria since 2013.

The two accompanying charts—one for the Syrian pound and another for Syria’s implied annual inflation rate—plot the course of the war. It is clear that Assad and his allies are getting the upper hand. The pound has been stabilizing since June of this year and inflation has been trending downwards.

The Dissent Channel Goes Public

This morning, the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal published excerpts and summaries of an internal memo by 51 State Department officials calling for airstrikes against the Assad regime in Syria. The key idea expressed in the memo is simple: take military action immediately to stem the tide of violence in Syria. It’s an understandable sentiment, especially from those who have been dealing with Syria’s barbaric civil war on a daily basis, as many of the signatories have. Unfortunately, it is also an exercise in wishful thinking, ignoring the concrete problems with further U.S. military commitment in Syria which have formed the basis for the Obama administration’s refusal to overthrow Assad.

The memo criticizes the Obama Administration’s decision to eschew military action in Syria, arguing instead for the “judicious use of stand-off and air weapons” against the Assad regime. Though such internal memos contesting the administration’s official policy – known as a ‘dissent channel cable’ – are not uncommon, the large number of signatories is more unusual. The memo blames the Assad regime’s violence towards civilians for both Syria’s instability and the appeal of ISIS, arguing that the moral rationale for airstrikes “is unquestionable.”

Russia Raises the Stakes in Syria

What on earth is Russia doing in Syria? This question has no doubt crossed many minds in recent days, as Russia began to move substantial arms and troops into Syria. There are two possible scenarios: 1) with diplomatic ties at an all time low, and heavy sanctions already in place, Russia has decided it has nothing to lose in defying the West and backing the Assad regime militarily to the bitter end; or 2) Russia is maneuvering to give itself diplomatic leverage in any Syrian settlement by raising the stakes now. Though the latter is more likely, it’s difficult to know which scenario is accurate, further complicating already tortuous US policy towards Syria.

Over the last week, various news sources have reported an increase in Russian arms and troops flowing into Syria. On Monday, the Department of Defense confirmed that the Russians are setting up a Forward Operating Base at Latakia, including prefabricated housing and SA-22 anti-aircraft missiles. Open source researchers have found photos of Russian trucks and T-90 tanks near Latakia, increased shipments to Russia’s Syrian base at Tartus, social media posts showing that Russian troops are headed to Syria, and even satellite photos showing massive expansion of the runways, hangers and housing at Latakia.

In short, it seems that Russia is preparing to substantially increase its military presence in Syria, ostensibly to aid the refugee crisis and fight ISIS, but practically in support of the Assad regime. This doesn’t necessarily indicate an intention to commit ground troops, but certainly raises the possibility of Russian air support for Assad. There is no way to prevent this buildup: though NATO members like Bulgaria have closed their airspace to Russian flights, Iranian and Iraqi airspace remains open.

As Congress Prepares for Vote, Syria’s Inflation Hits 257%

As prospects of a U.S.-led military intervention in Syria hang in limbo, the foreign exchange black market for the Syrian pound (SYP) has become increasingly volatile. In countries with troubled currencies, such as Syria, black-market exchange rates provide a reliable gauge of economic expectations. Judging by the erratic performance of the black-market Syrian pound/U.S. dollar (USD) exchange rate, the Syrian people’s expectations have been on quite the roller coaster ride, as the U.S. Congress prepares for what will likely be a very close vote on a Use of Force resolution.

  • Following Secretary of State John Kerry’s initial call for military intervention in Syria, on August 26th, the SYP experienced a one-day drop of 24%—reflecting Syrians’ heightened fears of U.S. military conflict.  
  • On August 29th, two events occurred that reversed this slide. In Damascus, the Syrian government renewed its attempts to crack down on black-market currency trading. And, over 4,000 miles away in London, the British Parliament voted down a motion authorizing military action in Syria. In consequence, the SYP rebounded by a whopping 26% over the course of two days.
  • The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s consideration of a use of force resolution seems to have once again raised Syrians’ expectations of a U.S. military strike, as it set the SYP on another slide. Since September 3rd, the pound has lost 10% of its value.

For some perspective on how the West’s march to war has affected Syria’s currency, and ultimately inflation, let’s take a look at how things have changed over the course of the past month: On August 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate was 205, yielding an implied annual inflation rate of 191%. As of September 6th, the black-market SYP/USD exchange rate sits at 250, yielding an implied annual inflation rate for Syria of 257%.

For more on the Syrian pound, see the Troubled Currencies Project.

The Syrian Pound Zigs and Zags

Following U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s saber-rattling statements on the 26th of August, the value of the Syrian pound (SYP) has zigged and zagged. Indeed, the SYP lost 24.7% of its value against the U.S. dollar in the two days following Kerry’s announcement (moving from 225 to 270 SYP/USD). Then, yesterday, we saw a sharp reversal in the course of the pound. Over the past two days, the SYP regained 25.58% of its value, bringing the black-market exchange rate back down to 215 SYP/USD. At this rate, the implied annual inflation rate is 209.85% (see the charts below the jump).

So, what caused the recent strengthening of the Syrian pound? We have to look no further than the eroding support for a U.S.-led strike against Syria. Yes, the United States has lost support from important allies, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Italy.

In addition, Syrian authorities have cracked down again on black-market currency trading. In the past week, the authorities have shut down a number of currency traders; made “friendly” reminders to the public of the penalties of trading on the black market—imprisonment of 10 years and a hefty fine; and warned Syrians to stay away from “counterfeit” dollars that have supposedly been circulating. The authorities’ “get tough” policy followed speculation that the SYP/USD rate would surpass the 300 mark.

I have established a page to track current black-market exchange-rate and implied inflation data for the Syrian pound, as well as for troubled currencies in Iran, Argentina, North Korea, and Venezuela. For more, see: The Troubled Currencies Project.