On the Ides of March, the Syrian civil war began its eighth year of fighting. The original war, between the Bashar al-Assad regime and Sunni Arab rebels, is largely over. Additionally, the American-led fight against the Islamic State is ending.
However, these two facts do not equal an end to the fighting nor to the immense suffering that Syrian citizens continue to endure. Why is it proving so difficult to stop the hostilities? Why are efforts by global leaders, including the U.S., unable to push the warring parties towards a peaceful settlement? Perhaps it is because the global leaders themselves have new objectives in the region. If this is the case, what is current U.S. policy toward the war-torn region?
American credibility on the line
In October 2013, I was part of a Studium Generale panel at Maastricht University entitled Striking Syria. The interest in the war was significant, with nearly 500 students and interested citizens attending. My presentation centered on Barack Obama’s decision-making process of whether to punish Assad for the deadliest use of chemical weapons since Saddam Hussein used them against the Kurds in 1988. The August 2013 chemical strike, which killed more 1,400 Syrians, directly challenged Obama’s personal credibility because the president publicly declared a red line would be crossed if Assad used such weapons. But rather than immediately punish Assad, the White House’s first response was to stall, asking for more conclusive evidence, followed by an unpredictable and apparently uncontrolled policy-making process that left many frustrated.
Without a doubt, Obama had no risk-free choices and even fewer good options in dealing with Syria. Secretary of State Robert Gates at the time pointed out that recent interventions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya clearly illustrated how American military action could lead to unintended consequences and seemingly never-ending cycles of violence. With a view of avoiding similar unintentional outcomes, Obama remained cautious, preferring the costs of inaction to those of action. Obama’s avoidance strategy included the hope that the Syrian opposition would make important military gains that would force Assad to step down, although Obama refrained from supporting them with weapons or training until late summer 2013.
Does inaction have costs?
It is hard to assess a non-action, but what Obama hoped would happen did not happen. Perhaps timely airstrikes on Assad’s command-and-control facilities, his artillery systems and especially his runways could have brought the regime to its knees. In 2013, Russian and Iranian military and commercial planes arrived daily to offload weapons, ammunition and personnel. The U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) at the time counseled Obama that degrading Assad was possible. However, we will never know if early action could have changed the course of the war.
We do know what happened when the Trump administration did move to punish Assad for again using chemical weapons on Syrian civilians: nothing. In April 2017, Trump quickly approved Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ plan to fire 59 Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air force base. However, because the strikes were not part of any strategy, any leverage they might have given the Trump administration to push the warring parties towards peace was lost.
U.S. policy today
When Trump took office, he gave his Secretary of Defense more latitude to make policy in Syria than any other executive official, including the president himself. The policy that Mattis adopted closely followed that of the Obama administration—a policy of not being drawn into the Syrian civil war. Additionally, Mattis returned U.S. policy for the region to one that emphasizes interests over values. For better or worse, and Syrians are bound to feel it is for the worse, those interests are to achieve stability in an unstable region, to fight terrorism, to contain Iran and to support Israel.
From Mattis’ perspective, the best partners to achieve these interests in Syria are the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), with whom the U.S. currently occupies around a third of Syria’s territory. As this northeast portion of the country is also Syria’s most productive, in terms of oil fields, water sources and arable land, pro-regimes forces launched attacks in early February 2018 designed to seize territory from the Kurds. In time, the U.S.-Kurd partnership might also put the U.S. on a collision course with its NATO ally Turkey, which opposes Kurdish efforts to create a semi-autonomous zone on its border.
U.S. interests could also start an accidental war with Russia. U.S. airpower already killed between 80 and 100 Russian mercenaries and wounded some 200 more, who had been fighting alongside pro-regime forces in the February 2018 attack. No Americans were killed or injured in this fight. While it is reassuring that U.S. forces could easily defeat the soldiers of the Russian private military contractor known as the Wagner Group, as Neil Hauer writes in Foreign Affairs, it is unsettling to know that “the precedent of the group fighting U.S.-backed forces has nonetheless been set.”
When will this tragedy end?
Earlier this week, some four and a half years after my presentation on Obama’s reticence to get involved in the Syrian civil war, I was again on a panel discussing the toxic mix of dynamisms involved in the conflict. This time the Studium Generale panel title was more hopeful: The Future of Syria. However, none of the panel members saw an end to the fighting. All agreed that the war was entering a new phase—a phase sometimes referred to as “Syria 2.0”—pursued over the remains of Syria. Unfortunately, we panel members had to convey to the audience, which included many Syrians who had fled the war, that after seven years of fighting, some 465,000 deaths, a million injured and over 12 million displaced, there is no end in sight.