From Lebanon, Osama Gharizi shares his analysis about the clarity of U.S. objectives after retaliatory missile strikes targeting the Assad regime’s suspected chemical weapons facilities. Gharizi says these strikes sent a signal to Assad and his allies that there are limits to U.S. and coalition intervention in Syria. In turn, these limits strengthen Russia, Turkey, and Iran’s roles as the diplomatic arbiters to negotiate a peace deal. Separately, Gharizi addresses the risks associated with the suggestion of setting up an Arab force in Syria that could create further obscurity in terms of U.S. intent and objectives versus those of Arab countries forming such a force.
The transcript below has been edited slightly for content, clarity and brevity.
Tim Farley (host): Let's get some questions and put them to our next guest, Osama Gharizi, who is the regional program manager for Middle East programs at the United States Institute of Peace, joining us here to put in perspective the attack on Syria, or the missiles that were retaliation — I guess the word might be important here. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Osama Gharizi, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Osama Gharizi: Thanks for having me on.
Tim Farley (host): Is there certainty that indeed ... I understand there are inspections going on right now, but is it your sense that there is certainty that indeed, Bashar al-Assad did launch a chemical attack on some of his own citizens?
Osama Gharizi: I'll leave the certainty to the experts, but all indications point to that chemical weapons were used. But I would say irrespective of this, the regime still has access to and continues to use a deadly arsenal of conventional weaponry against opposition groups and communities. They retook, for example, eastern Ghouta a few weeks ago from the opposition after an intense 7-week military campaign with hundreds of innocent civilians killed and the city completely destroyed. So the reality is, the strikes have done little to change the regime's behavior or also the trajectory of the Syrian conflict.
Tim Farley (host): So if the intent was to send a signal to Bashar al-Assad, that signal is not being received, it sounds like.
Osama Gharizi: I would say, correct. The signal ... the strikes themselves were very limited in nature, and I think that in itself is a signal that the U.S. position on this is to keep things very targeted, for different reasons.
POTUS host: You know, it's interesting. Susan Rice, the former National Security Advisor, has a piece that she has posted recently which says that the problem that President Trump faces is the same problem that President Obama faced in Syria. Would you agree that that is the same problem? Or is it different now that it seems the Islamic State has somewhat moved away from this picture?
Osama Gharizi: I think one of the central problems is that there doesn't seem to be clear policy objectives for U.S. engagement in Syria after the defeat of the Islamic State. You have stabilization and ensuring that the gains made against the extremist groups are consolidated, are being worked towards and supported by the nearly 2,000 U.S. troops stationed in eastern Syria. But this is being undermined the recent freezing by the Trump Administration of the $200 billion in assistance allocated to stabilization work. So beyond this, there aren't really any clear policy objectives. And the policy objectives that are there are being undermined by certain actions by the administration itself.
Tim Farley (host): What's your sense of the British role in this and the French role? I mean, obviously, when you've got three together, it's a little different from just unilateral action taken by a president. Does this say anything to you about the operation?
Osama Gharizi: I would turn attention away from the military, the limited strikes that occurred, and focus more on the diplomatic efforts at play. If we look at the diplomatic efforts, U.S. diplomacy under the current administration has disengaged from peace processes designed to end the conflict and has really taken a backseat to Turkish, Russian and Iranian efforts. So while the British and French and the US might have interest in seeing the conflict resolved, the truth, the reality is that the U.S. engagement in peace processes using its diplomatic clout has not been there.
Tim Farley (host): Osama Gharizi, who is a Regional Program Manager for Middle East Peace Programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, discussing Syria with us today. And I think you've just mentioned something very important, which is this is not just the United States' action against Syria, this is not just United States, Great Britain and France against Syria, but it also involves Turkey, Russia and Iran. How much influence do each of those countries have on the final resolution to whatever the conflict is in Syria?
Osama Gharizi: The short answer is they have a lot of influence. Unfortunately though, the plan of the current administration seems to be to disengage from Syria while pushing and prodding U.S. allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt, to play a bigger role in helping to stabilize the situation in Syria. I mean, it was just reported yesterday that the administration's looking to get its allies in the region to create an Arab force that would essentially replace U.S. troops stationed in eastern Syria to hold and stabilize these territories. There are several problems with this plan, however. For one, it assumes that Arab allies have the same objectives in Syria and the U.S. And yes, while these countries wanna see ISIS remain defeated, the majority of these countries also wanna see the regime change in Syria and are more vocal about this outcome than the current U.S. administration has been. So putting an Arab force on the ground essentially gives these countries an immediate force presence that could seek out other military and political objectives beyond the defeat of ISIS. And this could further inflame the conflict or at the minimum, add a new dimension to it.
Tim Farley (host): Well, we've also heard from people we've talked to is that Saudi Arabia wants hegemony in the region so that therefore, they're gonna do anything they can to stop Iran from doing whatever it wants to do. Plus Saudi Arabia is also involved in Yemen. Qatar and the United Arab Emirates are having their own problems with each other. And therefore, whatever President Trump's talking to about the "Middle East allies," just to your point, is not ... there's no unified vision among those groups. Indeed, I don't even know if you'd call them allies, would you?
Osama Gharizi: No, I mean, that's a great point. I think another hiccup to the plan is that it would need the blessing of Turkey, which does not wanna see the areas in the east continue to be dominated by Kurdish entities. The Arab force that has been discussed would presumably continue to support and work with the Syrian Democratic Forces, which is a military force backed by the U.S. and comprised mainly of Kurdish fighters. There no reason to expect Turkey would welcome any arrangement that continued to nurture and develop these forces and the Kurdish-dominated governing institutions that reside near its southern border. So yeah, here's a NATO ally and there's a key discrepancy in how to approach the Syrian crisis in a very targeted location of the country.
Tim Farley (host): Osama, we have understood that Israel has launched its own attacks, quietly sometimes, on Syria. They've done so without making a big deal about it, but they are known to have done this. And I wonder what you see their role as moving forward, and what the United States should do with Israel. Should they cooperate? Should they join efforts? What should be done?
Osama Gharizi: The role ... the Israelis are very concerned about the border situations. To its north, Lebanese border, to its east. And so, yeah, there have been reports about the Israelis using their forces to seek out targets around the border. I would say their main concern is on the border situation and seeing the spillover effects entering into Israel. As to what can be done, I think this needs to be looked at in the broader sense of all countries in the region have a role to play in working towards peace in Syria. And that needs to be done through ... At the forefront of these efforts need to be the U.S. The U.S. needs to be using its diplomatic efforts, engaged more robustly in these processes. And bring in a range of states and actors to seek a piece of national security interests.
Tim Farley (host): This will not end soon. Obviously, it's an ongoing process. Osama Gharizi, we appreciate you spending time on POTUS today. Thanks so much.
Osama Gharizi: Thanks for having me on.
Tim Farley (host): Osama Gharizi is the Regional Program Manager for Middle East Programs at the United States Institute of Peace, discussing this very complicated situation in Syria. His days are numbered, Bashar al-Assad. Well, the numbers are continuing to rise as he's still in power and the U.S., still, is trying to figure out exactly what to do in this particular part of the world, if anything. The Twitter handle, by the way, is @USIP.