If we remain on the current course, future historians are likely to record the slaughter of innocent Syrians, and the resulting harm done to America’s national interests and moral standing, as a shameful failure of U.S. leadership and one of the darker chapters in our history.
—Senators John McCain, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham “Syria’s Descent into Hell,” Washington Post, December 30, 2012
The story of the Syrian revolt against tyranny is as inspiring as it is tragic, and U.S. and international responses to Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities and Syria’s cataclysmic war have been as misguided as they have been consequential. Looking at how the last decade went so terribly wrong for the Syrian people, with suffering after suffering still unfolding, and at the current explosiveness of the Middle East, with U.S. and democratic influence in precipitous decline, we see the urgent need for more principled and wise American foreign policy. We see that, as Brookings Senior Fellow Suzanne Maloney warned in 2018, “what happens in Syria doesn’t stay in Syria” and that, even at this late date, a new approach to Syria and the region is in order.
The fact that Assad and allies Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah succeeded in keeping the detested Syrian regime in power through merciless war and crimes against humanity and that the world did little to stop them set a precedent that reverberates today. In the genocidal horrors of Russia’s war on Ukraine and of Hamas’s October 7 attack on Israel, there are echoes of the atrocities Assadists inflicted on Syrians. The free world supposedly resoundingly “won” the Cold War. However, Putin’s Russia is reaping devastation in Syria as well as Europe, and anti-democratic countries and Islamist militias still exploit Syria’s chaos and despair.
In the history of Syria, since peaceful protestors first took to the streets to demand basic rights, only to be met with the violence and brutality of the oppressor regime, we see the longing and passion for freedom; the folly and shortsightedness of appeasement; the sadism and cruelty of war waged by regimes against citizens; and the insidious collusion of the Syrian, Iranian and Russian regimes, and their backing of extremist forces. Syria exposes a Western world degraded and depleted by moral relativism and military-strategic complacency and a “United Nations” that forgot the post-World War II principles on which it was established.
When peaceful pro-democracy protests erupted in early 2011, the Assad regime arrested and even tortured adolescents, and when protests only grew, the regime gunned protestors down. As state brutality fanned the rebellion and rebels took up arms, Assad deployed tanks, attack helicopters, fighter jets, and, eventually, “barrel bombs” and “starvation sieges” against rebels and civilians alike. By early 2012, Syria was in a “civil war.” The Obama administration’s response to Assad’s escalating hostilities and atrocities was deeply flawed. In response to the slaughter, disappearances, and systematized torture, the administration deferred to the U.N. Security Council, which it knew would veto any meaningful action; Obstructed or diluted substantive congressional proposals, including for strong sanctions; Rejected France’s call for a humanitarian corridor and Turkey’s plea for a “no-fly safe-zone”; Accepted a Russian-backed U.N. plan which did not call for Assad to step down; Failed to make a moral case for the Syrian people.
As the United States and the United Nations issued morally neutral calls for an end to the “violence,” life became more hellish for Syrians. U.S. and UN debility opened the door to extremist groups eager to hijack the Syrian revolt or defend the Syrian regime. Among them: Syria and Iran surrogate Hezbollah, Iranian Quds forces, and Iran-backed militias. As it still does today, Iran protected Assad and exploited the regional chaos. By 2014, ISIS had entered the fray.
The radicalization of the conflict suited Assad well. Invigorated by setbacks to moderate rebels and by the Free Syria Army’s failure to procure outside aid, Assad amplified his reign of terror. Even though Assad had released much of the ISIS leadership from prison, he shrewdly positioned himself as a bulwark against Islamist extremism. Insofar as ISIS was deemed part of the “opposition,” it lent credence to Assad’s contention that those fighting the regime were terrorists. Insofar as ISIS fought against the Free Syria army, it hastened the demise of moderate rebels. Tellingly, regime forces and Islamic State militants usually spared each other while targeting others.
While post-Iraq War aversion to “boots on the ground” contributed to American passivity, the inaction of the United States and others allowed ISIS to build a stronghold in Syria and Iraq, a development so serious that it would require a military response. While the Obama administration hoped Iran’s cooperation on nuclear and regional issues could be gained by taking a minimalist approach to Syria, Iran saw weakness and acted accordingly. Making matters worse, the United States went along with Russia’s purported “peace plans” for Syria via “Geneva conferences,” which only bought Assad time and cover for more aggression. In the absence of major military setbacks, Assad had no reason to compromise. Moreover, rebels knew that if they laid down arms, Assad would crush them.
In April 2013, Israel, France, Britain, and Turkey all provided evidence that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons. Yet in May, Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov announced plans for a conference based upon the Geneva Communique, which, while calling for a transitional government, did not specifically call for Assad’s departure. In August 2013, Assad unleashed chemical weapons on thousands of civilians in Damascus, a development which, according to President Obama’s previously declared “red line,” should have prompted U.S. airstrikes. However, Russia engineered another plan for the destruction of Syria’s chemical weapons by 2014 on the condition that the United States refrain from striking Syria. UN action based on the agreement effectively re-legitimized Assad’s regime by calling on both sides to compromise, confirming Assad’s role in continued negotiations.
With opportunities accruing in 2015, Russia entered the war on Assad’s side, launching air strikes on moderate rebels. Aided by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, Assad retook much of the territory that by then had been captured by the Free Syria Army. Making matters even worse were ensuing U.S. decisions. In a move as unprincipled as it was unwise, the Obama administration called for a cessation of hostilities, after which it agreed to fly sorties in “cooperation” with Russia against ISIS. Rebels were warned they too would be targeted if they did not sever relations with al Nusra extremists, with whom some had by then reluctantly sided. Notably, there were no requirements that Assad’s own bombardments, massacres, and atrocities stop. The fatally flawed ceasefire quickly collapsed. In the meantime, ruinous violence and extreme atrocities resulted in millions fleeing their homes, constituting one of the worst humanitarian disasters the world has seen.
Obama administration notions—that Russia could be a “partner” in fighting ISIS, that Iran could play a “constructive role” in Syria and Iraq, and that the Syrian people could “coexist” with a regime that caused them such horror and pain—were delusions. Iran and Russia were working against American interests and in support of Assad at every turn.
President Donald Trump’s foreign policy team charted a better course at first. The administration imposed significant new human rights sanctions and responded with limited military actions when pro-Assad forces again used chemical weapons and militarily threatened the U.S.-led coalition. Trump officials even stated that “there can be no peace, stability or justice as long as Assad remains in power” and “Russia and Iran support his killing his own people.” But, increasingly, Trump focused narrowly on the threat from ISIS and the battle, along with Syrian Kurds, to drive ISIS out of Syria and Iraq.
Russia again seized the day when, in January 2017, it orchestrated the first Astana Conference, where it pushed a proposal for “deconfliction zones” to be enforced by Russia, Iran, and Turkey. Trump officials expressed skepticism but went along despite the warning signs: Failed deconfliction zones had helped Assad lock down victories in the western portion of Syria. Civilian casualties had soared as pro-government forces bombed areas designated for protection. Populations fleeing ISIS, regime forces, and Iranian militias faced abuses from those forces even upon trying to return to their homes.
Although President Trump was improving relations with Sunni states that could counter Iran and announced penalties on the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), he failed to form a strategy to deal with the collusion of Assad, Russia, and Iran and their brutal assault on the Syrian people. In fact, upon suddenly announcing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Syria in December 2018, he tweeted, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there...” This course benefited Russia and Iran and opened the door for Turkey to launch a devastating assault on Kurdish forces that had partnered with the U.S. to defeat ISIS. Kurds would increasingly turn toward Russia and Assad for protection.
With pushback from Trump’s own foreign policy team and Congress, about half of the 2000 U.S. troops were back in Syria within a year. But, Trump, like Obama, rarely referenced the suffering of those in the grips of atrocity-committing regimes, and sometimes, as Obama sometimes did, went so far as to flatter odious dictators. Simplistic mantras like “ending endless war” and “America first” neglect Syrians and other severely oppressed peoples. Moreover, doing and saying little in response to escalating hostilities and atrocities to avoid war makes it more likely that the United States will eventually be forced into war by events spiraling out of control.