THO Panel Examines “Old Rivalries, New Dynamics” Surrounding The Syria Crisis

Former high-level government officials discussed the geopolitical impact of the Syria conflict
During THO’s December 7, 2017 panel at the National Press Club – “Lessons from the Syria Crisis: Old Rivalries, New Dynamics” – former high-level government officials addressed the effect of the Syria conflict on traditional relationships and tensions between actors like Russia, Turkey, Iran, and the U.S.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Sinem Vatanartiran (President, BAU International University), and featured the following speakers:
  • Amb. Lincoln P. Bloomfield, Jr. – Former U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Political Military Affairs; Distinguished Fellow and Chairman Emeritus at the Stimson Center;
  • Amb. Seyed Hossein Mousavian – Former Iranian Ambassador to Germany; Middle East Security and Nuclear Policy Specialist at Princeton University;
  • Barry Pavel – Senior Vice President, Arnold Kanter Chair, and Director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council.
The U.S. role in Syria

Amb. Bloomfield started the conversation by analyzing the Trump administration’s approach to the Syria crisis in the context of the Obama administration’s Syria policy. He explained that President Obama had a “clear” approach to the crisis, which aimed at keeping U.S. troops off the ground in Syria. President Obama’s policy was influenced by the U.S.’ quick withdrawal from Iraq and the subsequent violence that erupted in the country.

According to Amb. Bloomfield, the Trump administration, in contrast, recognizes that leaving Syria alone was not productive, leading to the rise of ISIS, security threats to the north of Israel, and an overwhelmed and unsuccessful effort by resistance groups at generating a constitutional democracy.

For Amb. Bloomfield, understanding the dynamics between countries like the U.S. and Russia over the Syria crisis requires recognizing that both countries are major powers that have differences but also responsibilities regarding the conflict.

He said that the way forward for the U.S. with regard to resolving the Syria crisis must be based on exploring what makes sense, what is needed, what the involved powers can agree on, and what can be done to solve the crisis.

He also argued that “administration after administration” has performed poorly with regard to strategic approaches to the Middle East. In order to play a more significant and effective role in the region, Amb. Bloomfield recommended that the U.S. needs to “rediscover” its principles and recognize that a good U.S. strategy is based on basic norms that must observed. 

The Astana process and the roles of Russia and Iran

In contrast to Amb. Bloomfield, Amb. Mousavian argued that the U.S. role in the conflict – and in the broader Middle East as a whole – should be more passive rather than aggressive. He posited that many of the current crises in the region have been triggered by the U.S.’ over-involvement, citing examples such as the invasion of Iraq and the intervention in Libya.

He praised the trilateral cooperation between Russia, Turkey, and Iran that is driving the Astana process, arguing that it was only when these three countries began working together that ISIS was able to be decimated in Syria and Iraq.

He underlined his belief that the trilateral cooperation should continue and that it should also incorporate a greater number of countries, including the U.S. He underlined that conflict and crisis management in the region cannot be effectively carried out without the involvement of the U.S. and Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Pavel pushed back on Amb. Mousavian’s remarks regarding the role played by Russia and Iran, arguing that both countries are anything but forces for good in the Syria conflict. Citing the Atlantic Council’s research, he said that Russia has deliberately bombed civilian locations such as hospitals in Syria so as to force locals to flee, thus flooding the region and Europe with refugees.

He noted that rather than direct involvement, Iran chooses to work through proxies in Syria; as such, its role is harder to unpack. Regardless, Iran – as with Russia – does not play a stabilizing role in Syria according to Mr. Pavel.

U.S.-Turkey relations in the context of the Syria crisis 

Mr. Pavel argued that stabilization in Syria cannot be done without U.S.-Turkey partnership. 

“The key to moving forward in terms of a U.S. role in the crisis would be to work closely with Turkey,” he said. “Turkey has very significant stakes – perhaps among the most significant stakes – in the ongoing crisis, has suffered a significant burden, and also has acted to protect and advance its own interests.”

Given the necessity of this relationship, he said that “[I]t’s imperative that there be some sort of reset between the U.S. and Turkey trying to dislodge some of the issues that are significant irritants but are not as geostrategically important...We need to prioritize and focus on what’s most important.”

The impact of the Trump administration’s Jerusalem decision

Coming as it did a day after the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and declaration of its decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, the panel touched on the possible impact of the announcement on the broader Middle East. 

Amb. Mousavian called the move a “historical, strategic, disaster mistake,” one that has effectively killed the peace process. He said the decision was a “clear violation of all UN resolutions.” 

Mr. Pavel expressed his belief that the move was counterproductive, noting that it can be viewed through the lens of waning U.S. credibility as a stabilizing and predictable player as well as an honest broker in the Middle East. He noted that this shift in perception of the U.S. began in earnest after the invasion of Iraq.

He argued that perceptions of this move in the Middle East matter, regardless of the intentions behind the Trump administration’s decision. He expressed that his hope is to see a Middle East that perceives the U.S. as a force for good and a stable partner.

Amb. Bloomfield had the most optimistic view, noting that in his speech, President Trump said that this move will not “prejudice” any final decision about the status of Jerusalem with regard to the peace process. 

He acknowledged that the move could “harden hearts” as well as negatively affect the region-wide focus on countering extremism, which could be unproductive given the conflicts in Syria and Iraq. However, he argued that this decision could even possibly have a constructive effect on the peace process by serving as a “kick” to bring the parties together to hash out difficult issues and to – hopefully – find a solution to the conflict.

Regardless of the outcome, Amb. Bloomfield emphasized that the decision is an example of a rhetorical test in which President Trump is “pushing the envelope” on a longstanding U.S. policy, a nontraditional approach that the president seems to be taking with many of his foreign policy decisions.