The ongoing partnership between Iran and Russia in Syria has proved effective and successful since the outbreak of civil war in the country in 2011, preventing the fall of the Assad regime, contributing to the defeat of the Islamic State group (IS), and significantly increasing both countries’ geopolitical, diplomatic, and military footprint and influence in the region. Yet Syria remains a dysfunctional state with multiple challenges to its sovereignty, security, and economy, in addition to human right violations against its population resulting in a continuing refugee crisis and a smoldering insurgency.
The path forward for reconciliation and reconstruction will be determined by great power competition and cooperation. Syria is facing colossal reconstruction costs in addition to ongoing humanitarian difficulties that are unlikely to abate any time soon. The United States has lost significant leverage as a result of inaction when self-imposed red lines were crossed and an incoherent foreign policy in recent years, which opened the door for increased Iranian and Russian influence. The small remaining U.S. military presence in Syria has become more of a burden than an advantage, since it gives Washington little diplomatic leverage while tying up considerable military support assets and corresponding legal liabilities. Nevertheless, the U.S. has strong motives to stabilize the country in order to prevent the resurgence of IS, reduce the Iranian proxy threat against Israel, and avert the reoccurrence of another refugee migration crisis.
U.S. policy towards Syria should recognize the primacy of great power competition and necessity of pragmatic engagement with Russia. The decisive Russian intervention in Syria provides Moscow opportunities for engagement with the West. In the long term, Russia knows that the West seeks a political transition from the Assad regime. However, in the short term, the U.S. should incentivize Russia through diplomatic and economic engagement and pressure to stabilize areas it controls, reduce Iranian proxy militia presence and weapon build-ups near Israel’s borders, and continue cooperation with counterterrorism and deconfliction operations. When the time is right, Washington should reengage in the political reconciliation process and reconstruction. Taking action on restrained, short-term goals with higher probability of success is preferable to maintaining the status quo.
Many thanks to Ted Reinert who edited this paper, Rachel Slattery who provided layout, and Brookings fellows who reviewed and provided significant feedback.
President López Obrador's extension of the term of Supreme Court chief Arturo Zaldívar is part of his strong effort to recentralize power in the Mexican presidency and hollow out the independence and power of other Mexican institutions. His other moves to bend the justice system to his will include a reform that lowered the salary of judges but did not improve the quality of prosecutors and his unwillingness to allow an independent selection of the attorney general, with López Obrador himself retaining the power of appointment. His latest move with the two-year extension of Zaldívar’s term is especially worrisome. Zaldívar is also the president of the powerful Federal Judiciary Council. The council appoints and dismisses judges, sets career advancement rules and disciplines judges. Zaldívar will be setting the council’s and, thus, the whole judiciary’s, agenda and priorities for two years. This allows López Obrador to influence how courts will rule in cases regarding the executive branch, what cases they take up and the legality of new policies. These moves are taking place when the effectiveness of the judiciary in Mexico remains limited and deeply concerning. The attorney general’s office has proven weak, unwilling to take up key cases such as against the suspects in the brazen attack on Mexico City’s security minister, Omar García Harfuch—an event that symbolized the impunity with which Mexican criminal groups operate. Mexico’s justice system showed itself equally meek and disappointing in inadequately investigating the alleged complicity of former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos and dismissing the case, potentially the most significant case of corruption and criminal collusion charges against a high-ranking Mexican official in two decades. A decade and a half after Mexico initiated its justice system reforms, 95 percent of federal cases still go unpunished. President López Obrador has scored some points, but the already precariously weak rule of law in Mexico, and thus the Mexican people, will suffer.