Yet, after years of war, Assad’s desperation “turned the tables” on the relationship. Today, Assad is well aware that his country has become a playground for Iran’s expansionist ambitions and a rump-state beholden to its munificence, and that his security is reliant on Iranian-backed militias, which outstrip his regime’s own forces in combat power and scope. Tehran’s schemes to demographically engineer Syria by repopulating previously-Sunni areas with Shiites from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon, and to offer financial incentives to those who convert to Shia Islam and enlist in IRGC-backed military brigades have also not gone unnoticed. Now, with the war approaching its end, Damascus may be cautiously moving against Tehran. The recent expulsion of Iran’s senior-most IRGC Quds Force general from Syria, reportedly at Assad’s personal behest, for his “overactivity” in the country—a nod towards the IRGC’s use of Syrian territory against Israel—indicates that Damascus may be starting to view Iran’s military entrenchment as a liability. Providing Syria with alternatives to Iran is in the U.S. interest.
A NEW U.S. policy that sees Syria readmitted into the regional fold would not require the United States to spend its own funds rebuilding Syria and is not intended to “reward” Assad for his barbarous behavior over the last decade—even if that is the ultimate outcome—but for the United States to pick winners and losers in the Middle East. If forced to choose between, on the one hand, a weak Syrian state that an ascendant Iran exploits to wage war on Israel and U.S. allies in the Gulf and, on the other, a prosperous Syrian state that elects to balance the interests of regional players and to which Syrian refugees can return to, it should be an easy choice for the United States. Moralizing about such a policy’s deficiencies will not address America’s direst challenges in the region, nor will slapping Assad with additional pressure for pressure’s sake prevent more Syrians from enduring intolerable conditions or reduce threats to U.S. regional allies and interests. Despite the Middle East’s many changes, the Assads have proven that they are here to stay.
Adam Lammon is the Managing Editor of The National Interest and a Junior Fellow in Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. Follow him on Twitter @AdamLammon.