Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Is Here to Stay

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Is Here to Stay

A new U.S. policy that sees Syria readmitted into the regional fold is not intended to “reward” Bashar al-Assad for his barbarous behavior over the last decade, but for the United States to pick winners and losers in the Middle East.

To be sure, after Trump became president, it did not take long for Al Tanf, specifically, and Syria, more generally, to become a pillar of the administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran, which had established extensive military and paramilitary capabilities throughout the country. But sustaining this strategy involved accepting significant risks to U.S. forces. For instance, similarly to how, in 2018, several hundred pro-Syrian government forces and Russian mercenaries attacked the U.S. military and its Kurdish and Arab allies in the oil-rich Deir al-Zour province—an eastern Syrian governorate that U.S. forces recovered from ISIS, occupied, and are now exploiting vis-à-vis Damascus and Tehran—the Al Tanf garrison has been repeatedly assaulted by the Russian Air Force and Iranian-backed proxy forces. Now completely isolated by pro-Assad fighters, U.S. soldiers at Al Tanf are risking their lives to advance indeterminate political outcomes, including maintaining pressure on Damascus, making Russia’s intervention more costly, and assisting Israel’s stalemated air war to uproot Iran’s military entrenchment. How to define—let alone achieve—“success” in the face of such ambiguous objectives is anyone’s guess.

PERHAPS THE most baffling aspect of the Trump administration’s Syria policy is that the White House did not adjust its strategy after Trump first made a break for the exit. Instead, after barely nullifying the president’s initial order to depart Syria, senior administration officials doubled down on staying; lending credence to the façade of a unified administration strategy by publicly advocating for keeping U.S. troops on the ground. That veneer was shattered in October 2019 when Trump abruptly ordered a second U.S. military withdrawal that coincided with a Turkish military incursion to expel the Kurdish YPG from the Turkish-Syrian border. The ensuing disarray in northeastern Syria subsequently generated a power vacuum that revealed the limits of U.S. staying-power, damaged U.S. interests, and empowered U.S. adversaries.

In fact, with American and Kurdish attention diverted from their counterterrorism mission, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported to the Defense Department’s inspector general that ISIS was able to “reconstitute [its] capabilities and resources within Syria and strengthen its ability to plan attacks abroad.” But it was not just ISIS who was on the move. Even as the White House was tempering Trump’s edict following Congressional uproar over the Kurds’ abandonment, Russia and the Syrian government were actively filling the political and military void. Predictably, the Kurds hastily parleyed with Damascus and allowed the Syrian Arab Army to restore its presence in several key northeastern cities in order to stop Turkey’s advance. Then, after Trump threatened to “swiftly destroy Turkey’s economy” to attain Ankara’s acquiescence to a temporary ceasefire, Moscow and Ankara bilaterally arranged an end to the hostilities. Soon, hundreds of fresh Russian military police joined Turkish troops in joint patrols along the entire Syrian-Turkish border, and Russian and Syrian forces further acceded to overseeing the withdrawal of Kurdish military assets from a thirty-kilometer safe zone.

The deployment of Syrian government and Russian soldiers to the northeast has endangered U.S. personnel, and Trump’s braggadocio appears to have further intensified the threat. After the United States began cultivating Syria’s oil fields to both fund the SDF’s anti-ISIS operations and deprive the Assad regime of badly-needed revenue, Trump publicly boasted that he had “secured” Syria’s oil. In response, the Syrian government and its Russian and Iranian allies stepped up their anti-U.S. propaganda, decrying U.S. troops as “occupiers” intent on plundering the country and warning of imminent “popular opposition and operations” to thwart them. Sure enough, on multiple occasions in both 2020 and 2021, U.S. patrols were attacked by Syrian government forces, leading U.S. troops to return fire, and Americans operating in the vicinity of Syria’s al-Omar and Conoco oil fields were subjected to attacks by rockets, drones, mortars, and small arms fire.

U.S.-Russian frictions also rose following a series of standoffs on the region’s highways, where Russian and U.S. military forces have routinely engaged in “cat and mouse” games consisting of erratic driving, roadblocks, and checkpoints, and even physically blocking each other’s passage. But it is all fun and games until someone gets hurt. In August 2020, only a month after Trump’s Syria envoy warned that Russian military contractors had been violating an agreed-upon deconfliction zone with increasing frequency, the New York Times reported that seven U.S. troops were injured after a Russian military vehicle intentionally rammed them. To deter additional confrontations, the Defense Department has stepped up its fighter jet patrols and deployed additional troops and sophisticated Sentinel radars to the region. Although avoiding escalation with Russia has long been a priority in this frozen conflict, it has once again taken on new urgency.

JOE BIDEN has never been a fan of the war in Syria. Much like his well-documented aversion to Obama’s 2009 Afghan troop surge and 2011 Libyan invasion, the New York Times relays that Biden’s Obama administration colleagues do not remember him wanting to arm opposition fighters at the war’s onset. And his skepticism did not fade with time. Biden was excoriated for remarking in 2014 that Syria had “no moderate middle” that the United States could reliably support—a contention that, foreign affairs columnist Daniel DePetris observed, was largely proven right over time—and he stuck to his guns during the 2020 presidential campaign by candidly voicing his intention to “end the forever wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East.”

Nonetheless, a Biden withdrawal from Syria is not a foregone conclusion. To the contrary, Biden may be doubling down. Despite his reluctance for foreign forays, Biden repeatedly pilloried Trump’s “reckless” and “insidious” 2019 decision to renounce the Syrian crisis once and for all; Biden was aggrieved that the U.S. exit “sold out” America’s Kurdish allies and gave ISIS “a new lease on life.” Undoubtedly, both the Kurds and ISIS, as well as the country’s humanitarian disaster, have been persistent concerns for Biden. In 2019, he told the Wall Street Journal that leaving a residual force in Syria to protect the Kurds “makes a lot of sense,” and in 2020, on the anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, he agreed with Trump’s plan to drawdown U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, “as long as there’s a plan to figure out how [Trump is] going to deal with ISIS.” Then, last March, Biden’s secretary of state, Antony Blinken, gave a heartfelt plea to the United Nations Security Council where he spoke of suffering Syrians and the necessity of delivering humanitarian aid to non-government-controlled areas in the north. And in mid-November, a U.S. delegation led by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Eastern Affairs Ethan Goldrich quietly visited SDF and Syrian Democratic Council leaders in northeastern Syria with a promise that the U.S. military would stay in the country.

Consequently, Biden’s Syria policy may seek to accomplish three goals: alleviating human suffering, resolving the Kurds’ fate, and defeating ISIS for good. Unfortunately, if the administration adheres to its predecessors’ policy of regime change via sanctioning and isolating Syria, it will never succeed in solving these truly wicked problems, and the United States will never depart. But Biden can create the conditions for a responsible U.S. exit from Syria by amplifying what he alleges to have learned from the U.S. war in Afghanistan, namely the importance of eschewing “major military operations to remake other countries” and “set[ting] missions with clear, achievable goals—not ones we’ll never reach.” Biden is right: The post-9/11 era has forced Americans to acknowledge that there are real limits to what U.S. power can achieve. Now, he must go further by recognizing that, like Afghanistan, Syria cannot feasibly be made into the country Americans want and, therefore, U.S. policy must abandon the pursuit of nebulous, unachievable goals. Accordingly, a new, more focused U.S. Syria strategy that capitalizes on emerging regional dynamics in the Middle East can achieve what is possible—reducing humanitarian suffering, eviscerating ISIS, ensuring the Kurds’ longevity, and countering Iran. Advancing such a paradigm will not be easy, but, for Biden, it begins with a single step: talking directly with the Assad regime in Damascus.

Just as Obama negotiated with Tehran, and Trump sought détente with Pyongyang and the Taliban, Biden, too, must thaw Washington’s frozen relations with Damascus. First and foremost, as scholar Stephen Walt perceived, this is because Assad is the key to solving the conflict’s most “vexing problems”: ISIS’ commination, Iran’s military presence in Syria, and Turkey’s aggression towards the Kurds—not to mention the war’s continuation—all become less viable under an Assad regime that is stable and secure. For example, in contrast to conventional wisdom which held that defeating ISIS and Sunni extremism in Syria were dependent on deposing Assad, Max Abrahms and John Glaser determined in 2017 that ISIS’ “demise was inversely related to Assad’s power”; The diminution of opposition-held territory has seen the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran pursue terrorists with increasing tenacity. ISIS is no longer just America’s problem.

Israel, the Kurds, and Turkey, too, are better off with Assad in power than under siege. It is remarkable that Israel has been battling Iran and Hezbollah—and not the Assad regime—in a stalemated and incremental struggle to degrade and exact a price from Tehran’s military encroachment. Given that Iran and its proxies’ power in Syria correspondingly swelled as Assad’s waned, Israel likely prefers a return to the prewar status quo, when a predictable Assad, and not Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), managed frictions in the Golan Heights and across the country.