On Time magazine’s cover in 1947 was Arnold Toynbee, the then world’s most renowned scholar, author of the monumental ten-volume, A Study of History, praised for “Taking all the knowable human past as his province, he has found rhythms and patterns which any less panoramic view could scarcely have detected.”
In January, the Trump administration unveiled its strategy for Syria. In an address at the Hoover Institution, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson laid out five key objectives, in the process, made clear that the top priority was containing Iran. The US, he said, would deny Iran the “arch” it is building from Tehran to the Mediterranean, and it would prevent Iran from using Syria as a springboard from which to threaten neighboring countries.
The Syrian crisis, which since 2011 has been the focal issue in the Middle East, has now entered a new phase, confronting the United States with fresh challenges. From the early stages of its evolution, the Syrian crisis has unfolded on three levels: domestic, regional and international. The Assad regime's success in capturing Aleppo in late 2016 marked a turning point in the war's domestic dimension.
The 24-hour news cycle has offered a sequential, fragmented vision of the Syrian conflict. A chemical attack here, a temporary cease fire there; a wave of hopeless refugees, a gruesome terrorist attack; the fall of a besieged city, yet another round of negotiations. Caught in the fractional details, few looked at the bigger picture of how the position of influence the US had secured in the Middle East from the mid-1970s unraveled.
In January 2018, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson described American strategy in Syria as including maintaining a troop presence in the region until at least 2021 while building a Kurdish-Arab force of 30,000 men, both with the ultimate objective of blocking Iranian influence. As laudable as that goal is, achieving it will require addressing a complex nexus of interrelated issues.
By definition “great games” are complicated with lots of moving parts. Battles on the ground, intense, myriad, and sometimes fratricidal, always connect, however indirectly, to the larger collision of great powers. In Syria, the tug-of-war is a lopsided affair, where Iran, Russia, and the Alawite regime of Bashar al-Assad are invested in winning. The opposing side—Syrian Arab Sunnis, Sunni Gulf Arabs, Israel, the United States, and Turkey—is barely an entente.
“Greetings, softer than the breeze of Barada …. I send my tears, which will never dry, O Damascus.” The opening line of Ahmed Shawqi’s famous poem was written as news of the Syrian defeat by the French in 1920 reached Egypt. Less than two years earlier, Faisal I had entered Damascus and raised the flag of Arab nationalism. The jubilation was felt across the Levant.
US policy toward Syria has been debilitated by an irresolvable conundrum. Empirical research suggests most civil wars are concluded by military victories, not political settlements. Yet in the war between the murderous regime of Bashar Assad—backed by Russia and Iran—and fractured Islamist rebels, the United States does not want either side to prevail.
With all the optimism of the Arab Spring, the Syrian rebellion began with the belief that the people of Syria deserve better than the cruelty meted out by Assad family rule. That aspiration alone ought to be sufficient grounds to stand with the democratic forces pursuing self-determination. Yet the United States has been hesitating, a legacy of the Obama administration’s preference for tyranny in Tehran over freedom in Damascus.