A brutal 10-year civil war, nearly 500,000 people killed, and a national infrastructure in shambles with entire cities nothing more than bombed-out ruins. Twelve million people scrambling to find enough food to make it through the day.
Now imagine, the man entirely responsible for this colossal mess and devastation was just re-elected president for a fourth term, and was sworn in last week. Well, this is the case as Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, allegedly, won 95 percent of the popular vote. Yeah, right.
And he will be president for seven more years. As if this is not enough, during his inaugural speech, Assad claimed to be the only person who can fix and rebuild the same country that he has destroyed. Totally crazy, right? What on earth are we supposed to do with that?
A Dangerous Hodgepodge
The U.S. military has been conducting operations in Syria since 2015. As of now, the U.S. has around 900 troops in the country. Most people probably don’t realize we still have troops there in active combat operations. These troops are involved in a variety of missions since the conflict in Syria is anything but simple. What started as air support for local militias fighting against both the Syrian government and ISIS, turned into ground combat and advisory missions.
Between all the factions and players involved in Syria, it is very difficult to keep track of what is actually going on. The U.S., Iran, Russia, the Syrian government, Israel, local militias, the Kurds, and ISIS, are attempting to influence the outcome. China has now also gotten involved and Iraq does have a small part, as well. Given the complexity of having troops from all of these parties acting in close proximity and risking escalation on a daily basis, it is easy to wonder what our mission in Syria really is.
What have we accomplished so far with our time in Syria and what is our goal? How much longer do we plan to be there, and should we continue to stay longer?
The US Strategy in Syria
Our time in Syria has now spanned three presidential Administrations. Obama, Trump, and now President Biden, all committed to various levels of involvement. Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, argued earlier this year that the U.S. strategy in Syria has failed and that we must acknowledge that we cannot build a new state in the country. He also suggests that we should withdraw U.S. forces, and be content to let Russia and Turkey take the lead in containing ISIS in the region.
Ostensibly, our strategy in Syria is to contain ISIS and prevent its spread and influence. (Although, during the Trump administration the strategy slightly shifted.)
U.S. commanders have said they can contain that threat and maintain the status quo indefinitely. Nevertheless, a strategy of containing ISIS — a counter-terrorism mission — is different than that of regime change or nation-building, and what we are doing in Syria is not the same as what we attempted to do in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The differences are important enough to consider in any strategy or policy debate.
At this moment, the Biden administration has not really changed the status quo in Syria. Nor has it changed the role of the U.S. troops — although humanitarian relief does play a part now.
But the U.S. cannot develop an effective and successful strategy in Syria without considering Russia and Turkey.
The Role of Turkey and Russia
Both Russia and Turkey have troops conducting operations in close proximity to one another and with competing interests. This obviously creates a multitude of challenges and considerations and a risk of conflict escalation.
Throughout their time in Syria, the Russians have been supporting and propping up Assad and, because of that support, he is not going anywhere. The opposition in Syria is weak and cannot hope to stand against Assad and Russia. The Biden administration seems content to let this be and not challenge Assad’s status. Further, Russia wants to maintain its presence in the Middle East through its two bases in Syria.
On the other hand, Turkey has different goals in Syria. Although it nominally wants to see ISIS removed from the region, it sees many of the U.S. allies in that effort, such as the ethnic Kurds, as terrorists. This creates a problem. In fact, Turkey often carries out military operations against these U.S. allies.
As neither Russia nor Turkey will be forced out of the country, we have to find a way to work together.
Preventing Another Afghanistan
For our time in Syria to be successful, several things need to happen. While Syria is different than Iraq or Afghanistan there are similarities, primarily, the risk of an open-ended presence and a military campaign with a vague strategy. Therefore, to avoid that, defining clear roles and objectives is essential. Those objectives cannot only be diplomatic, they must also be military.
It is imperative that we engage Russia on a diplomatic level while do not do anything on our end to avoid open conflict with it in the Middle East.
Yet, leaving Syria to our adversaries (either Iran or Russia) is not the desired outcome, either. We should not remove our forces from the region and expect that Russia and Turkey to handle ISIS. Rather, we should maintain a balance of power, and perhaps, maybe even foster some international cooperation with our rivals in the area.
The U.S. is not planning on toppling the Assad regime. That does not mean that his terrible record and destruction are excused, either. Perhaps the right approach is setting clear expectations and milestones, and demanding results in exchange for aid. We might not get exactly what we want from Assad or Russia, but we could remove ISIS and achieve a little bit more stability in the region.