5 Reasons America Should Not Fight Iran, Russia and Assad in Syria

Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout picture posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria.

Pursuing an ambitious mission against all three adversaries in Syria is dangerous, imprudent and unnecessary.

No matter how important Syria is to the United States (and an argument can be made that it’s not all that important), Washington needs to decide how much it’s prepared to sacrifice and whether it’s ready to stay the course when Iran and Russia push back. There’s an elemental divide between the way the United States sees this issue and those who live in or close to the region: whether it’s Iran, Turkey, Israel, Jordan and the Gulf Arabs, they seem prepared to sacrifice far more than the United States. They know their neighborhood better, geography and demography give them key advantages, and for many the stakes are existential in a way they’ll never be for America. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Syria: Assad is fighting for his survival; Syria may not be as vital to Iran as Iraq is, but Tehran has already sacrificed huge resources, men and material to the fight; and Putin didn’t project Russia’s military power into Syria only to fold in the face of U.S. pressure. The reality is that the Syria-Iran-Russia coalition is much more a coalition of the willing than the alliance the United States has managed to assemble, which seems more like a coalition of the semi-willing and self-interested. The argument that the only way to change Russian or Iranian calculations is to escalate the pressure is a dangerous game, given the disparity in will, interests and allies that exists between the two sides. Who’d blink first, given the absence of congressional and public support for another military adventure with no end state (see Afghanistan and Iraq)?

Like Afghanistan where the United States is now also stuck, Washington will likely need to settle for a good-enough outcome, certainly not a victory. What this means now is impossible to say. After all, the United States has been in Afghanistan for a decade and a half, and still doesn’t know if anything resembling sustainable success is in the cards.

Still, the primary goal in Syria must continue to be weakening and containing jihadi groups, keeping them on their heels to prevent attacks on the United States, Europe and regional allies. This is not an optimal outcome, but it’s far more preferable than pursuing unrealistic and unrealizable goals that could drag the United States into endless and distracting wars it cannot win against far more committed and determined adversaries. Managing rather than eliminating the jihadist threat in Syria is neither a pretty nor heroic strategy, and it certainly won’t fix Syria or deal Iran a strategic blow. But for America, it’s the right approach, particularly when considering the risks and downsides of taking on Syria and Iran in these contested areas. And there are hopeful signs that the Pentagon at least is well aware of these dangers.

Aaron David Miller is a vice president and Distinguished Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President. Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations.

Richard Sokolsky is a nonresident senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He served in the State Department for thirty-seven years, including ten as a member of the secretary of state’s Office of Policy Planning from 2005 to 2015.

Image: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad visits a Russian air base at Hmeymim, in western Syria in this handout picture posted on SANA on June 27, 2017, Syria. SANA/Handout via REUTERS.