The weak American hand in Syria

The weak American hand in Syria
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The Syrian civil war at last shows signs of coming to an end. That end will be a bitter humanitarian disaster, and it will result in the temporary consolidation of power by the government of Bashar Hafez Al-Assad. None of this is in doubt. What is in doubt is what role, if any, the United States might play in the final weeks.

The source of that doubt lies in a major shift in U.S. foreign policy brought about by Donald Trump’s election as president and a growing realization that the Cold War practice of exchanging stability for justice has returned with a vengeance.

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The endgame in Syria’s civil war will be a humanitarian disaster because the political interests of Assad, the Russian Federation, and Hezbollah (Iran) will give priority to the consolidation of political power — in Syria, that translates to allowing the government to murder any political opposition — over the fate of noncombatants. Turkey and the United States have armed forces available to deploy in Syria, but their interests are opposed (Turkey hates the Islamic State of Iraq in the Levant, but also the Kurds; the United States wants to eliminate Salafi jihadists such as ISIL, and create a safe haven for political opposition to the Assad regime). Whichever the case, their forces remain seen as more foreign (and therefore less powerful) in a civil war marked by incredible diversity of participant nationality.

But Assad’s victory will be temporary. Once the Russian Federation can openly boast that it beat the United States in Syria, most of its armed forces will depart, leaving Assad with a choice of presiding over a devastated economy with a radically diminished army and secret police, and forever indebted to Iran, or cashing out and going into exile. Syrian refugees, now numbering in the millions, are not coming back.

Assad’s successor likely will be just as brutal and short-sighted. In the digital age, the only way for a dictatorship to survive is to go the way of China and build a separate internet, or to go the way of Russia and Iran and make it unpatriotic or sinful (respectively) to believe anything online that is critical of your government. Syria has the resources to do neither.

And what of the role of the United States? Since the end of the Cold War, a major plank of the U.S. foreign policy platform was supporting democratic transitions in dictatorships or near-dictatorships. Though well-intended, two of its most public efforts — the wars in Iraq (2003–2011) and Afghanistan (2001–) — have proved to be costly failures and underscored the claim, “Better a stable dictatorship than a chaotic justice.”

As the Israelis and the Russians tried to point out after the Arab Spring of 2011, dictators are far easier to deal with because, unlike democracies, their interests are entirely predictable and relatively inexpensive to satisfy — for example, vulgar displays of wealth, medals at international competitions (by any means) and periodic displays of force. The failures of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan dramatically weaken U.S. efforts, including military efforts, aimed at laying the groundwork for an eventual transition to democracy in the Middle East. 

The United States would like an outcome in Syria that accomplishes two objectives — first, to eliminate a habitat for ISIL and its fellow Salafi jihadists, and second, to preserve enough of a thorn of opposition to Assad to negotiate his early retirement. It also would like very much to avoid a humanitarian disaster — the deaths of thousands of noncombatants, including children, or another mass refugee crisis. This war already has torn apart Europe, shifting political power to the right and threatening the European Union and NATO as alliance structures.

Ironically, the Russia- and Hezbollah-led final destruction of the last rebel stronghold of Idlib will allow Assad to consolidate power and will accomplish the first U.S. objective without any additional help from the United States. The second objective — Assad’s early retirement — will be met, not as a result of U.S. efforts but by Russia’s withdrawal. Russia will argue that it left Syria with Assad firmly in power, and that it achieved a major military and foreign policy victory at U.S. expense.

Sadly, the elimination of a safe haven for ISIL and other Salafi jihadists will not be reached without major costs to noncombatants; Russian and Syrian forces do not accept the concept of “noncombatant” as valid in practice. Expect heavy artillery and air strikes in populated urban areas, along with the use of (and denial of use of) chemical agents. We also are likely to see promised “safe corridors”— invitations for any who wish to be spared destruction, a safe path to another country or promised safe haven — that actually will not be safe.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpCorsi sues Mueller for alleged leaks and illegal surveillance Comey: Trump 'certainly close' to being unindicted co-conspirator Trump pushes back on reports that Ayers was first pick for chief of staff MORE appears to hold to the theory that braying loudly and carrying a big stick is the surest foreign policy to advance U.S. interests — a foreign policy that elsewhere I have referred to as “kinetic diplomacy.” But there is no viable military option in Syria that can advance U.S. foreign policy objectives. Having helped establish military intervention as the game, the United States has been left with a weak hand to play in Syria.

The real tragedy, from a U.S. and allied perspective, is that going forward, Assad’s consolidation of power in Syria will make it that much harder to feel good about the longtime American practice of supporting free peoples wherever they struggle for liberty by means other than military intervention.

Monica Toft is a professor of international politics at Tufts University and director of the Center for Strategic Studies at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She previously taught at Oxford University’s Blavatnik School of Government and Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, and spent four years in the U.S. Army as a Russian linguist. Follow her on Twitter @monicaduffytoft.