Two new U.S. moves related to Syria raise the inevitable question of what is going on in foreign policy under the new administration of President Donald Trump. The first is an increase in the U.S. force level in Syria, announced Thursday, of 400 Army, Marine and Special Forces personnel, in effect doubling U.S. troops there involved in the now six-year-long multiparty civil war. The ostensible reason for the increase is to aid Kurdish and other, Turkish-backed forces in the campaign to take Raqqa, the Islamic State group’s declared capital in Syria.
The other new U.S. enterprise, also announced Thursday, is the convening of an international conference in Washington, March 22-23, to discuss fighting terrorism. Some 68 nations and international organizations are invited. Russia is not — which in effect abandons the idea that it is on our side in the battle against international terrorism. Also, perhaps snubbing it takes some of the starch out of the suggestion that the Trump administration is too close to Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin. China isn’t invited, either.
There may be some thought in Washington that Raqqa can be made to fall either before or during the U.S.-hosted meeting, although that is a risky gamble given the months it has taken for Iraqi and U.S. forces to take Mosul from IS, a feat not yet accomplished.
There are some flaws in what appears to be the new, two-pronged U.S. effort. The first is that Raqqa, the town the new U.S. forces are being sent to take, doesn’t amount to much. A hundred miles east of Aleppo, population 200,000 or so, under IS control since 2013, it is likely that IS forces will simply fade away from Raqqa rather than fight and die to hold it. Victory there would be a minor prize, considering the U.S. investment put into it.
A second problem is that the Kurdish troops the U.S. is supporting in the effort to take Raqqa are considered by NATO ally Turkey to be a bitter enemy. (Turkey also has troops in Syria engaged in the effort to take Raqqa.) So who takes Raqqa and who will govern it after the presumed victory?
Not inviting the Russians to the Washington anti-terrorism conference is probably a mistake also, although the argument for excluding them is somewhat clear. Russia does honestly consider itself engaged in the global war against terrorism, based in part on the Moscow government’s own problems with Islamic extremists in the Caucasus and elsewhere. It could be better to take them at their word on that issue and include them in the late-March Washington deliberations.
China, also not invited, considers Muslim Uighur separatists in the west of China to be Islamic terrorists.
There aren’t that many issues that the United States, Russia and China agree on, but fighting international terrorism is definitely one of them. Besides, the Washington-based media could occupy themselves during the conference trying to figure out with whom in the Trump administration the Russian delegates are meeting, publicly and privately.