Many forces are waging war in Syria, all of them willing to fight to the last Syrian. But in this conflict, the United States is MIA. Thank goodness for that. The war in Syria is likely to devolve into another interminable, unwinnable conflict.
Fighting recently flared in the Syrian province of Idlib. A year and a half ago, Russia and Turkey had negotiated a demilitarized zone in the province, one that separated the area controlled by the forces of President Bashar Assad from the territory held by rebels. Russian and Turkish patrols made sure that zone remained heavy-weapons-free until late last month, when the Syrian army moved in with the assistance of air cover from the Russians.
From a military perspective, what happened next could not have gone worse for the Syrians. Years of war had already decimated their air and ground forces. Now, the Turks have gutted what was left. The Syrians lost the equivalent of two mechanized divisions and virtually all of its fixed wing and helicopter air force.
Bottom line: the Syrian military won’t be taking back any territory anytime soon. It’s also worth noting that the regime is pretty much dead broke.
Assad is now a very weak strongman, and it doesn’t seem as though any of his allies are interested in picking up the slack. Hezbollah has its own problems: the ranks of its militia have dwindled, and the terrorist group has plenty of troubles back home in Lebanon. Meanwhile, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has been targeted by a relentless Israeli air campaign that has decimated the regime’s footprint in Syria.
As for Russia, by now even Putin must be able to see that he has built himself an empire of ashes in Syria. Yes, Moscow has consolidated its long-held influence in Damascus and secured the Syrian ports so crucial to Russian power projection in the Mediterranean. Still, Putin has little more than what he started with, and much of that is covered in rubble.
So far, Islamic extremists have been unable to steer the chaotic situation into a resurgence of the caliphate. Further, there are no signs of that happening anytime soon. The likes of ISIS and Al Qaeda have found some pockets to survive in but managed little more.
Turkey looks to have control of the situation on the ground and in the air, conditions that the Russians don’t seem interested or really capable of challenging. That’s why Putin brokered yet another cease-fire last week.
Ankara, on the other hand, has its hands full. From butting heads with Syria, Libya and Cyprus to grappling with yet another refugee crisis with Greece, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has plenty to keep him busy.
Turkey finds itself balancing among Russia, Iran, the U.S., NATO and the EU, an act of geopolitical gymnastics that leaves Erdoğan little room for maneuvering. He can’t lean very far one way or another without tipping over.
As a result, there isn’t a big problem that Turkey can solve on its own. Nor does there seem to be a combination of small maneuvers it can make that would produce an outcome wholly favorable to Ankara.
Put another way: Turkey is likely to be part of the resolution of many issues, but unlikely to be the sole author of its own fate, let alone the decider-in-chief when it comes to resolving the conflicts of the Greater Middle East.
That leaves the U.S. sitting in not-the-worst position of all the players. We still have some small teams in Syria conducting anti-ISIS operations, but no one seems to want to challenge them.
In addition to hounding terrorists, the U.S. has a vested interest in keeping the problems of Syria from spilling over and destabilizing Iraq. As long as the U.S. can maintain a presence in Iraq, Washington can keep up that effort and continue to pressure and isolate Iran.
In short, Syria is a big headache for many world leaders, but Trump has more to be happy about than most. A stable Middle East is important to the U.S. The three biggest threats to stability are extremists, terrorists and Iran. At present, the U.S. military footprint there seems adequate to keep them all contained.