On Syria, Washington cannot simply throw up its hands

A Syrian army military tank is seen in the town of Morek, Hama district, Syria August 24, 2019. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki - RC15491ED960

Over the last year or so, I was honored to serve as one of 12 appointees to the bipartisan, congressionally-mandated Syria Study Group. We were tasked with examining and making recommendations for U.S. strategy toward the Syria conflict — now in its eighth year. We established a heavy rhythm of dialogues with numerous government officials, civil society members, and academic and think tank representatives from around the world who think about this issue. With the publication of our final report, here are four of my key takeaways from spending most of the last year examining this issue:

1While the conflict in Syria is dynamic, some elements are nevertheless clear: Bashar Assad continues to gain control over large swathes of territory, courtesy of Russia, Iran, and various clients; Assad has failed to establish security or stability (let alone normalcy) in recaptured areas; competition between and among Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime will deepen as the dust settles; and divisions remain rampant among anti-Assad elements. The Syria conflict can and almost surely will get uglier — particularly in and around Idlib. Yet, it’s impossible to realistically imagine a situation involving dramatic, positive change over the next five years.

2The magnitude of the Syrian war’s humanitarian disaster is massive and malignant. Across Syria, insecurity rages for approximately 6.6 million internally displaced people. Outside Syria, nearly 6 million refugees are trapped in transitory circumstances brimming with uncertainty. They are unlikely to flee these circumstances unless forced, but as countries like Lebanon and Turkey grow less welcoming, their options narrow considerably. As a playground for regional actors and with a long history of venal and feckless politicians, Lebanon is particularly vulnerable; however, a tanking economy coupled with the latest moves in the Israel-Hezbollah tit-for-tat tussle render Lebanon — and particularly its Syrian refugees — especially desperate and despondent. Millions of Syrians are building new homes in new countries, even if those homes mean tents in places that are increasingly intolerant, at best. Short of forced transfer, they’re likely to stay — and to continue draining resources on vulnerable countries.

3Great-power competition, the catchphrase of the National Defense Strategy, cannot be ignored in the Middle East, but should not become the United States’ overwhelming priority to the detriment of Asia and Europe. Russia, in particular, has done a superb job positioning itself at the helm of key Middle East dynamics, and the war in Syria is one of many examples in which Moscow is leading and convening — albeit in an irresponsible and ineffectual manner. On a recent visit to the region to discuss these issues, I continually encountered Russian political leaders and my discussions with regional actors quickly delved into queries about Russian goals and strategy. While few had any faith in Russia’s pseudo-solutions, all were desperate for external leadership ferrying ideas. Russian encroachment in Syria has not only enabled an operational testing ground for its military, but more broadly has spanned a deepening level of involvement across the Middle East. These discussions showed that not only do the Russians have a seat at the table in regional affairs; they increasingly are setting the table as well. Doing so enables Moscow to portray itself as an alternative to the United States, which almost surely will not be limited to the Middle East.

4The United States must recognize that its confused and contradictory approach to Syria has proven ineffective. While it’s unlikely that the Trump administration will take an active and effective approach to the Syria conflict, the administration should at a minimum avoid key missteps that would exacerbate it. An illustrative list of these blunders includes:

  • precipitously redeploying U.S. troops from Syria, particularly without consulting key coalition members;
  • failing to clarify the U.S. military’s mission, particularly whether ISIS is the priority threat;
  • maintaining a conventional rather than a counterinsurgency force mix and approach, despite the conflict’s shifting security trajectory;
  • ignoring the imperfections of our Syrian Democratic Forces partners in Syria — particularly as they transition to stability and governance operations and require real prodding to make meaningful and lasting political change;
  • engaging with the Assad regime;
  • allowing disagreements with Turkey to rupture the NATO alliance;
  • enabling Russia to solidify its regional convening role;
  • discounting the likelihood of an ISIS resurgence, especially as large swathes of the next generation of Syrians are trapped in festering places like al Hol refugee camp;
  • overlooking how and in what ways escalating tensions between the U.S. and Iran in the Gulf, and between Israel and Iran and its clients in Syria, could have spectacular Levantine spillover;
  • dismissing the profound vulnerability of key countries like Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey due to the overwhelming needs of their burgeoning Syrian refugee populations; and
  • de-funding or severely limiting assistance for what is currently the world’s worst humanitarian crises in decades.

Over the last eight years, the Syria conflict has inspired a mix of nervousness, neuralgia, and impotence in Washington as it has ravaged the region and resulted in the worst humanitarian disaster of the 21st century. While all three reactions may be valid, they betray a failure to recognize the ways in which Washington can play a more productive role.