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. This ambivalence, while understandable, has produced the worst of all worlds: Assad remains in power; Iran and Russia are emboldened; extremism has flourished; half a million Syrians have been killed; twelve million Syrians have fled their homes; and there is no end in sight.
While the United States has led the fight against ISIS, in the broader Syrian context it has been a secondary player reacting to adversaries who ignored the mantra that “there is no military solution in Syria.” As the fight against the Islamic State reaches its denouement, the Assad regime’s ongoing siege and massacre of over 20,000 civilians in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib are a reminder that the broader strategic context continues to loom. Yet in lieu of a Syria grand strategy that fits on a bumper sticker but lacks viability—i.e. “Defeat Assad” or “Let Assad Win”—the US must navigate multiple objectives concurrently, including the following:
- Recognize the Geopolitical Significance of Syria’s Humanitarian Tragedy
Any discussion of US strategy toward Syria must first begin with the horrific statistics: Among the 500,000 Syrians that have been killed, nearly 250,000 have been civilians, including over 27,000 children and 25,000 women. The displacement of 12 million Syrians —half externally—has fueled the greatest refugee crisis since WWII. More than 13,000 Syrians have been tortured to death, and thousands more have been killed by the Assad regime’s chemical weapons. In addition to the humanitarian urgency of helping Syria’s suffering masses, the radicalism and refugee crisis fueled by Syria’s devastation has imperiled the politics and security of key US allies in Europe and elsewhere.
Though politicians and analysts increasingly use apolitical language—“both sides are to blame”—to describe the Syrian tragedy, the primary role of Assad and his sponsors in ongoing massacres must be acknowledged. Assad’s breach of the Geneva Protocol and other norms of war—including the deliberate targeting of civilians, mass population transfers (less charitably called “ethnic cleansing”), the use of rape and sexual violence as a tool of repression, and the regular use of chemical weapons--will have a lasting and adverse impact on future conflicts.
- Finish Defeating ISIS and Prevent Its Return
While the defeat of the Islamic State’s Caliphate will not eradicate jihadism nor ISIS loyalists—many of whom will go underground to fight another day—it will strike a psychological blow to Islamist extremists the same way the collapse and proven failure of the USSR punctured the illusions of international communist supporters. It is critical, however, that victory not be declared prematurely, and that lands recaptured from ISIS are protected, secured, and replaced with decent governance. As Steve Coll illustrates in his important book Directorate S, the US government’s failure to secure the post-Taliban peace in Afghanistan—due in part to highly corrupt and incompetent Afghan governance—provided fertile ground for the Taliban’s reemergence.
- Counter and Expose Tehran’s Destructive Regional Policies
The 2015 Iranian nuclear deal—known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA—proved that pressure and engagement are often complementary tools of diplomacy. Although Barack Obama was keen to pursue a nuclear deal with Iran from the outset of his presidency, Tehran did not begin to seriously negotiate until several years later, when it faced a global economic embargo. Following the nuclear deal, the Obama administration used only half of this formula—engagement—to persuade Iran to reconsider its support for regional militias and clients, such as Assad. The results are self-evident: Tehran’s network of Shia proxies has expanded in size and reach, serving to project Iranian power, while affording it plausible deniability.
Given nearly 100 percent of Iranian trade is with countries other than the United States, Washington must work closely with Tehran’s largest economic and strategic partners--including China, Europe, Japan, India, and South Korea—to compel and coerce Iran to cease abetting murderous allies such as Assad. Persuading U.S. allies to do more to counter Iran’s destructive regional policies will require continued US adherence to the JCPOA—a worthy trade-off. Washington should simultaneously continue to expose the high costs of Iran’s regional policies—such as an estimated $700m annual support to Hezbollah—at a time of growing economic and political discontent in Iran. “Leave Syria alone, think about us” was among the numerous slogans chanted during Iran’s anti-government protests in December 2017/January 2018, a palpable sign that Tehran’s regional adventurism has become a source of internal resentment.
- Protect and Support America’s Kurdish Allies
The military defeat of ISIS would not have been possible without the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party or PYD—despite its moniker, an authoritarian party with a narrow base--and the Arab groups that coalesced around it. While these groups are prominent partners in helping to achieve Washington’s articulated objectives in Syria, danger is looming. Assad sees the PYD as the last obstacle to his plans to reconquer eastern Syria; Russia views it as a US lackey; and both Iran and Turkey oppose PYD ambitions, fearful that growing Kurdish autonomy in Syria would resonate among their own disenfranchised Kurdish communities. The Kurds themselves realize that Washington is an uncertain ally, and have begun hedging, by keeping open lines to both the Assad regime and Moscow.
Washington should recognize the limits of the PYD’s appeal and encourage it to allow greater political participation by other Kurdish parties and Arab factions in the governance of their territory. Importantly, the US should clarify to the PYD that its financial and material support is contingent on not cooperating with the Assad regime beyond movement of goods and people, distancing itself with militant Kurdish parties in Turkey (such as the PKK), and on reaching US-mediated security arrangements with Ankara.
- Manage Turkish Anxieties in order to Limit Turkish Intervention
It is increasingly hard to tell that Turkey is a U.S. ally, and the feeling is mutual in Ankara. Aside from the troubling authoritarianism of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Turkey regularly attacks America’s Kurdish allies in Syria, flirts with Russia, and threatens the EU over refugee flows. From Ankara’s perspective, it has paid the price for Washington’s strategic incoherence on Syria, including over 2.5 million Syrian refugees (the highest number in the world) and numerous jihadist attacks, including at the Istanbul airport. However problematic Turkey’s internal and external behavior, however, it is better managed as a NATO member than as an aggrieved power untethered from Western (and democratic) institutions. Its flirtation with Russia reflects realpolitik--balancing and securing its interests in Syria--rather than a strategic shift. Turkey’s January 2018 military intervention in the northern Syrian region of Afrin should compel the US and EU to try to foster a modus vivendi between Ankara and Syria’s Kurdish factions.
- Compel Russia to Phase Out Assad
The US should seek to exacerbate, not ease, Russia’s political and economic dilemmas in Syria. Given that Assad’s survival is dependent on foreign forces rather than on domestic support, Russia will be forced to mobilize resources continuously to keep him afloat. Yet the more Assad feels secure thanks to Russian help, the less inclined he is to make even the smallest concessions encouraged by Moscow.
Moscow wants Western donors to subsidize Syria’s reconstruction, and it also seeks an international imprimatur for a political settlement on its and Assad’s terms. The US and its allies should deny these benefits to Moscow, and elevate the costs for Russia of propping up Assad. The US could make it hard and costly for Assad to attract foreign investments by imposing sanctions on companies seeking opportunities there, especially Iranian and Russian companies seeking war booty. In parallel, the US should be prepared to offer a diplomatic opening to Russia that makes US flexibility conditional on phasing out Assad.
Achieving these objectives requires discipline, commitment, and leadership, all of which are lacking in a Trump White House marred by daily internal crises. Nonetheless, the US cannot ignore nor extricate itself from Syria without durably harming its regional interests and the post-WWII liberal order it helped create.