In Syria, hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, millions of people remain displaced and countless souls are physically and psychologically scarred. Throngs of children are without families or homes, entire villages and farming communities no longer exist, and cities are in ruins.
Fallout from the seismic Syrian civil war and upheaval besets the Middle East. Aggressor regimes and extremist groups have capitalized upon the chaos and despair.
It will be very difficult at this late juncture to get America’s Syria policy right, but the moral and strategic stakes are too high to keep getting it wrong. Instead of slouching toward a fatally flawed paradigm, the Trump administration should conduct an urgent policy review, such as it did for North Korea and Iran.
U.S. efforts in Syria are hampered by a narrow focus on defeating ISIS and corollary downplaying of the threat posed by the bloodthirsty Syrian regime and its allies; inadequate attention to atrocities and the plight of civilians; and failure to tackle the complexities and prepare for the future.
Obama administration officials were mostly idle and mute as the civil war and the tragic human toll escalated out of control. They did little or nothing in response to the Bashar Assad regime’s slaughter, disappearances, systematized torture, starvation sieges, and use of barrel bombs, heavy artillery and chemical weapons on civilians.
Even worse, the Obama administration deferred to Russian “peace plans” while resisting calls for strong sanctions on Syria, a humanitarian corridor and serious assistance for vetted pro-democracy rebels. This had the effect of buying the brutal President Assad time – often when time was running out for him.
Worse still, the Obama administration continued to defer to Russia and to suggest a “constructive role” for Iran, even after Iranian militias and Russian air forces entered the war on Assad’s side.
The vacuum created by U.S. and United Nations neglect allowed Iran and Russia – along with extremist groups from the al Quds unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, to al Nusra, to Hezbollah, to ISIS – to seize the day.
As ISIS metastasized, the Assad regime and Russia shrewdly positioned themselves as the best alternative to Islamist terror, even though they left ISIS mostly alone while brutally assaulting non-ISIS rebels and civilians.
By the time of President Trump’s inauguration, the wishful thinking of the Obama administration – that Russia could be a “partner” in fighting ISIS, that Iran could play a “constructive role” in Syria and Iraq, and that the Syrian people could “coexist” with a regime that caused so much horror and pain – were obvious delusions.
Iran had already doubled down on its violent and destabilizing activities. Russia had worked against American interests and assisted Assad at every turn.
The new Trump foreign policy and national security team at first seemed to chart a better course. It imposed significant new sanctions. It responded with limited military actions when pro-Assad forces used chemical weapons and threatened the American-led coalition.
With clarity that departed from Obama administration relativism, the Trump administration emphasized that “there can be no peace, stability or justice as long as Assad remains in power” and that Russia and Iran “support his killing his own people.”
But Russia again seized the day when it orchestrated the first Astana Conference, where it pushed a proposal for "de-confliction zones" to be enforced by Russia, Iran and Turkey. While skeptical about Russian intentions, the Trump administration didn’t provide alternatives.
The Syrian opposition knew where this would lead. “Ceasefires” sponsored by the Obama administration and Russia had allowed Assad to consolidate military gains and regroup. After a convenient lull in the action, regime forces had attacked opposition forces that stood down, along with defenseless civilians.
One need only look at "de-confliction zones” in Idlib and elsewhere to know that Astana conferences serve similar purposes. Assad has locked down victories in the west and turned to the north and east. Civilian casualties have soared as pro-government forces have launched bombing raids in areas designated for protection.
Having mostly defeated the “Arab awakening” opposition, pro-Assad forces targeted ISIS, but with the goal of beating other powers to the punch in taking ISIS-held territory. Now that ISIS is on the run and Syrian Kurds and the U.S. coalition have driven ISIS out of Raqqa, we are likely to see Syrian regime forces turn on the Kurds, as Iran-embedded Iraqi forces did in Kirkuk.
Populations fleeing ISIS in Syria and Iraq face serious abuses of Iranian and other militias. As the Hudson Institute’s Michael Pregent points out: “Iran has sold itself as a responsible actor in Iraq” and many Americans still downplay Iran’s significant and deleterious role in the Iraqi security forces, intelligence apparatus and ministries.
Ultimately, Iran wants a contiguous land corridor from Tehran to Baghdad to Damascus to Beirut. Russia wants to capitalize on its success in saving Assad and its now major presence in the Middle East. Turkey’s and Jordan’s increasing cooperation with Russia are testimony to Russian boldness and leverage.
Given all of this, the U.S. and U.N. need their own bold initiatives and assertion of leverage. Instead, there has been an increasing inclination to accept Assad as inevitable, and to view Russia and Iran as troublesome but necessary partners in the war against ISIS.
Although President Trump is improving relations with Sunni states that can counter Iran, and just announced strong penalties on the Iranian Guard Corps, sound strategy for Syria is desperately needed.
Accepting the status quo in Syria is a bad idea and will only make things worse, for nothing is stable in that land of suffering. Assad will find new ways to oppress, terrorize and murder opponents and civilians. Exhausted Sunni moderates, who we need on our side if we’re to defeat Sunni-Islamist terrorists, might once and for all lose faith in the “free world."
In addition, Iranian Shiite proxies will gain new strongholds and moderate Shiites will be pressed to join them. Although diminished, disparate anti-regime forces will continue to fight. Let us not delude ourselves into believing that as long as we defeat ISIS we can find some kind of equilibrium.
Early priorities of a new U.S. policy toward Syria should be: trying Assad for war crimes; deterring Russia and Iran; paying more attention to civilian suffering and casualties; forming safe zones; and pressing wealthy Gulf States to help refugees. It is far past time to consider the big picture and the long game.