Trump, Syria, and the Threat of Region-Wide War
There is now a real and present danger that Syria will become the site of a conflagration even more destructive than the one raging there for the last seven years. But the biggest loser is likely to be the country that abandoned the fight.
BEIRUT – The die, it seems, is cast for a rapid end to the United States mission in Syria – and, with it, the chances of a peaceful and sustainable resolution to that country’s brutal seven-year civil war. The chemical attack allegedly carried out last week by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces in Douma, the last rebel-held town in the Eastern Ghouta region, shows just how dangerous that prospect is for Syria and the world.
US President Donald Trump’s bluster in the wake of the chemical attack exposes the incoherence and contradictions of his approach, as well as his lack of any real strategy in Syria. Ordering an attack or two against Assad’s forces, as he might do, would neither alter the balance of power there, nor improve Trump’s position in the war-torn country, let alone the Middle East in general.
To be sure, Trump’s top military advisers have persuaded him to keep in place the 2,000 military personnel currently stationed in Syria. But he has already limited America’s objectives there to eliminating the small remaining Islamic State (ISIS) presence – an effort that should take about six months.
In constraining America’s commitment, Trump has forfeited the opportunity to help shape Syria’s future, reinforcing the widespread perception – which has taken hold among friends and foes alike – that US global leadership is in retreat. He has also disregarded the country’s ongoing humanitarian crisis, the worst since World War II.
Ironically, this narrow approach also undermines the effort to achieve Trump’s sole objective, as a lasting defeat of ISIS and other jihadists will demand a credible political transition that permanently ends the civil war. Such a transition will be possible only through diplomatic engagement by actors with stakes in Syria.
With Trump’s withdrawal implying that the US and its allies have lost the war, Assad already feels emboldened to forge ahead – with Russian and Iranian support – with his plan to recapture the remaining rebel-held territories at all costs. After establishing “facts on the ground,” Assad and his allies would be able to present the world with a fait accompli: Assad remains in power, without making any real concessions to the opposition.
Local and regional actors that placed their faith in America’s commitments will pay a bloody price. In particular, the Kurds – America’s most reliable and effective ally in the fight against ISIS – are likely to be left out in the cold, despite official US assurances about security arrangements after the US withdrawal.
Already, Kurds have criticized the Trump administration for sacrificing them at the altar of America’s strategic relations with Turkey. The US turned a blind eye to Turkey’s recent invasion and occupation of the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in northwest Syria, which led to the slaughter of more than 1,000 Kurds, including scores of civilians.
With a US withdrawal, the Kurds may feel compelled to ally with Assad for protection. Hundreds of Kurdish fighters have already deserted the fight against ISIS in northeast Syria, journeying to Afrin to resist the joint assault by Turkey and a splinter group of Syrian rebels. Some young Kurds have begun to join Assad’s paramilitary units to avenge the loss of Afrin.
But it will be a difficult battle, as America’s departure is likely to strengthen Turkey’s hand further. After all, without the US, the other main foreign powers in the Syrian conflict – Turkey, Russia, and Iran – will be able to consolidate their spheres of influence and divide the spoils of the post-war reconstruction among themselves. While their specific interests may differ, all three countries share a vision of a “soft” partition of Syria that reduces Assad and the rebels to mere proxies.
Russia and Iran will be the two biggest winners. Russian President Vladimir Putin is the kingmaker whose timely military intervention saved Assad’s regime from defeat and turned the war’s tide in his favor. Whereas the US is almost nowhere to be seen in Syria, Russia is everywhere, constantly rearranging the pieces on the conflict’s chessboard.
Russia’s coordination with all major regional powers – including Turkey, a NATO member – attests to the dynamism (and cynicism) of the Kremlin’s foreign policy. As the US pulls up stakes in Syria, Turkey’s military and economic ties to Russia will only deepen.
Like Russia, Iran has invested plenty of blood and treasure to save Assad’s regime – and reaped handsome returns. Iran is now the most influential regional power in Syria, as it is in Iraq and Lebanon. But the rush to fill the vacuum left by the US might provide the spark that ignites a region-wide war. There are legitimate concerns that Israel might use the withdrawal of US troops as a pretext to intensify its attacks on Iran and Hezbollah in Syria – a decision that could escalate into all-out regional conflict, one that draws in the US, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main rival for regional hegemony.
Even leaving aside Trump’s hostility to the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement – which adds yet another source of risk to an already perilous situation – there is now a real and present danger that Syria will become the site of a conflagration even more destructive than the one raging there since 2011.
The Syrian Time Bomb
After seven years of bloodletting, the conflict in Syria has become not just more complicated, but also far more dangerous for the Middle East – and for Europe. Recent Israeli strikes at Iranian positions in southern Syria, in particular, indicate the urgent need for diplomatic intervention, before it is too late.
BERLIN – The ongoing conflict in Syria has much in common with the Thirty Years’ War, which devastated the heart of Europe – particularly the German city of Magdeburg, the Aleppo of the time – from 1618 to 1648. Viewed from a distance, the war was a succession of conflicts that visited immeasurable suffering upon Europe’s population, ending, with the Peace of Westphalia, only when all of the parties involved had become utterly exhausted.
The Thirty Years’ War was nominally a religious conflict between Catholic and Protestant Christians, just as the main divide in today’s Middle East is between Sunni and Shia Muslims. But, as in Syria today, religion masked a deeper struggle for power and regional dominance.
The Syrian war started during the Arab Spring, after Syrian protesters called for democracy and an end to President Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship. But it soon became an international affair. Iran and Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shia militia it supports, along with Russia, intervened militarily and prevented Assad’s fall to rebel forces, which were backed by Turkey and Saudi Arabia, representing the Sunni side of the divide.
Meanwhile, the war had also expanded to include a US-led campaign against the Islamic State (ISIS). And when ISIS was defeated last year, another conflict, this time between Turkey and Kurds in Northern Syria, quickly ensued. Now, the US-allied Kurdish YPG (People’s Protection Units) fighters who proved indispensable in the fight against ISIS are being targeted by Turkey, which raises the possibility of a direct military confrontation between two NATO allies. Moreover, there is also a growing risk of a confrontation between the US and Russia, underscored by recent reports that a US airstrike killed dozens of Russian mercenaries in Syria.
With every new chapter, the Syrian tragedy seems to get more dangerous. The conflict is no longer about who holds power in Damascus, but about who holds hegemony in the Middle East. The struggle is not only between Russia and the US, but also pits Shia Iran against Sunni Saudi Arabia, which has increasingly aligned itself with Israel, another US ally.
Turkey, for its part, is driven primarily by the fear that a Kurdish state will be established in Northern Syria, which could encourage separatist Kurdish factions in Southeast Turkey. Indeed, the Kurds in Northern Iraq (Kurdistan) have already been vying for their own state, and even held an independence referendum last year.
Finally, Israel, the region’s military superpower, has its own security interests in Lebanon and southern Syria. Until recently, Israel had mostly kept out of the war. But it has had to intervene from the air to block arms shipments from reaching Hezbollah, and to prevent Iran from establishing a presence near its northern border.
Israel’s involvement increased earlier this month when it shot down an Iranian drone that had entered its airspace from Syria. When Israeli warplanes responded by striking Iranian targets in Syria, one was downed by Syrian antiaircraft fire (the pilots reached Israeli territory safely), prompting Israel to strike Assad’s forces directly.
As these events unfolded, it quickly became clear that Israel could not rely on the supposed special relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Russia proved either unwilling or unable to control Iran. So, whether it likes it or not, Israel is now an active player in Syria.
It is precisely on this front that another war could ensue, this time between Israel and Iran. Such a conflict would serve neither party’s interests, but it is easy to see how it could happen anyway, given the current realities. Israel simply cannot stay out of the conflict while Assad’s regime, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah secure a military victory. The facts on the ground are fundamentally threatening Israel’s own security, and dramatically strengthening its enemy, Iran.
A war between Iran and Israel (with Saudi Arabia in the background) would imperil the entire region, because it would be yet another front in the battle for hegemony. But Europe, too, would be directly affected, and not just because a larger conflict would send even more refugees north. With US President Donald Trump threatening to sabotage the Iran nuclear deal, Europe could find itself with a dangerous arms race – or even another great war – unfolding not far from its borders.
Given these dangers, Europe can no longer afford to watch from the sidelines. Europeans must defend the Iran nuclear agreement for the sake of their own security. And because the European Union has longstanding obligations to Israel, it must not allow a violent hegemonic struggle that would directly threaten Israel.
Now, more than ever, is the time for European diplomacy. With another great war looming in the Middle East, European leaders must act.
What Putin Wants in Syria
Putin has taken great care to present Russia’s military operation in Syria as a limited endeavor, undertaken solely for the purpose of ridding the world of the Islamic State. In fact, the Kremlin has a broader objective: to send the message that popular revolts aimed at overthrowing Russian allies will not succeed.
NEW YORK – On February 7-8, according to Western sources, a US-led airstrike on forces aligned with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad killed at least 300 Russians, all working for the private military firm Wagner. Russia’s Foreign Ministry, however, claims that only five Russian citizens, with no connection to Russia’s armed forces, were killed and a few dozen wounded. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has even condemned Western reports about the deaths as “attempts to speculate on war.”
At first glance, Russia’s response is somewhat surprising. At a time of rising tensions with the United States, the attack amounted to a golden opportunity for the Kremlin to condemn its rival. And, typically, Russia seizes such opportunities: just recently, Russia’s United Nations envoy, Vasily Nebenzya, attacked his US counterpart, Nikki Haley, for calling Vladimir Putin’s “legitimately elected” government a “regime.”
Moreover, Russia is eager to hail its countrymen killed in battle as heroes. The military pilot Roman Filipov, killed in battle a few days before the US airstrike, has been celebrated for his valor. Andrei Malakhov, a television personality on the Kremlin-affiliated Rossiya 1 TV network, is now in Syria shooting a documentary about Filipov.
Yet, in the case of the US-led strike, it was not Russian soldiers who died, but mercenaries, whose participation in the conflict reflects the Kremlin’s desire to maintain plausible deniability. The Russian foreign ministry’s statement in response to the Western reports says it all. “Russian citizens” were in Syria, it said, “of their own free will and for different reasons,” and the “ministry does not have the authority to assess the validity and legality of their decisions.”
Russia has used such forces to do its bidding before, including during the illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014. The Kremlin could then argue that it was not a Russian invasion, but the will of the people living in Crimea.
Similarly, in Syria, mercenaries enable the Kremlin to downplay Russia’s involvement, as well as its losses, which many observers predicted, from the outset of its intervention, would be staggeringly high. Putin surely doesn’t want to be accused of repeating the disastrous Afghan War of 1979-1989, which helped to bring about the Soviet Union’s collapse.
That is why Putin has taken great care to present Russia’s military operation as a limited endeavor, undertaken solely for the purpose of ridding the world of the Islamic State (ISIS). In fact, last December, on a visit to the Russian airbase in Khmeimim, Putin announced the withdrawal of troops, precisely because that objective had officially been achieved. The Ministry of Defense declared that the situation had been “stabilized,” following the elimination of some 35,000 militants and 700 training camps.
So, officially, Russia was to maintain in Syria only limited forces at Russia’s permanent military bases in Tartus and Khmeimim. These forces would carry out “missions related to Russian national interests.” Russian mercenaries, the authorities have been at pains to insist, are not Russian forces.
But the entire intervention in Syria, including the mercenaries, has been primarily about defending Russian national interests. Most obvious, propping up the Assad regime enables Russia to maintain a foothold in the Middle East, while sending the message that popular revolts aimed at overthrowing Russian allies will not succeed.
Russia’s showcasing and testing of new military technology, such as high-precision rockets and other armaments, has reinforced that message. Just last week, in response to the deployment of US stealth fighters and bombers, Russia moved fifth-generation Su-57 fighter jets to Syria, to “test them in real action.”
Another reason for Russia’s continued involvement in Syria is that, by some estimates, more than 5,000 Muslim fighters of Russian origin from Central Asia and the Caucasus are fighting with ISIS there and elsewhere. The Kremlin is understandably concerned about the prospect of radicals with combat experience returning to Russian soil. The Western argument that Russia’s intervention in Syria only increases the likelihood of attacks on Russia’s territory holds little weight with Putin. If the US can defend its invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria in terms of national security, Russia can do the same in Syria.
Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, the president of the tiny Russian republic of Ingushetia in the North Caucasus, recently declared that the operation in Syria restored Russia’s reputation as a world power. (Putin wouldn’t admit it, but he covets praise from the leader of Ingushetia, which, like neighboring Chechnya and Dagestan, is often a breeding ground for Islamist radicalism.) He is right: key actors, including Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, are being forced to recognize that Russia must have a say in determining the region’s fate. At a time when international sanctions are exacerbating Russia’s already-grim economic conditions, the Kremlin needs to ensure that its people – and the world – recognize this reality.
Of course, it helps if Russians and others don’t realize how high the cost of such influence really is. So, rather than admit to casualties numbering in the hundreds, the Kremlin needs to underscore Russia’s importance in Syria, its position as a victor over ISIS, and its ability to defend its allies. More fundamentally, before the presidential election March 18, which Putin will win virtually unchallenged, it needs Russians to understand that their choice is either Putin or disarray.
What Does the US Want in Syria?
After seven years of bloodshed across shifting battlefronts, the conflict in Syria has become so complicated that a workable resolution seems all but impossible anytime soon. And the United States' failure to define its long-term interests in the country and the region is not making matters any easier.
DENVER – Given that most of the Middle East is now in a state of turmoil, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should be commended for keeping the Syrian conflict in mind during his recent trip to the region.
His job hasn’t been easy. American diplomacy has been all but invisible in the Middle East, and the State Department does not seem to have any ideas or, more importantly, funding with which to take the lead. If the United States is serious about addressing the increasingly deadly crisis in Syria, it needs to start showing sustained interest – and put its money where its mouth is.
The complexity of the situation in Syria has far surpassed the world’s capacity to master it. Rapidly changing events, a growing number of players, and constantly shifting battle lines all point to a quagmire.
Just six months ago, there were two clear trends in the conflict: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, was well on his way to victory; and the Islamic State (ISIS) was about to be soundly defeated by a US-led coalition. Today, the successful campaign against ISIS seems Pyrrhic, at best. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, and a resolution of the larger conflict is nowhere in sight.
If anything, the world is even more on edge now. In recent weeks, Israel has clashed with Iranian forces in southern Syria to show that it will not allow Iran to establish a presence there. And Turkey has launched a bold campaign against Syria’s Kurds, whom it hopes to drive out of the northwest province of Afrin to prevent them from linking up with Turkish Kurds across the border. Assad has come to terms with reality and indicated that he would cede territory to the Syrian Kurds. But Turkey remains unwilling to countenance an autonomous Kurdish entity along its border.
The US, for its part, has spent the past six years marshaling various groups of Sunni Arab fighters under the auspices of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, an offshoot of what was previously called the Free Syrian Army. Some elements of the SDF have been more effective than others, and have even fought alongside the Kurds against ISIS. But now they find themselves in the crosshairs not just of Assad, but also of Russia and various Iran-backed Shia militias.
The US was right to focus on defeating ISIS; but now it faces a much broader mission: to ensure the survival of its various allies on the ground. This raises the prospect of a direct conflict with other powers, not least Russia. In fact, the US may already have killed dozens of Russian military contractors in a recent airstrike.
The US and its European partners have been reluctant to come down hard on their NATO ally Turkey, and have merely urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to show restraint. But jawboning, one of the US’s favorite diplomatic tools, rarely works on those in the heat of battle.
Moreover, Turkey doesn’t seem to care what its allies think. For example, it recently raised eyebrows within NATO yet again by purchasing new-generation Russian S-400 antiaircraft batteries. This does not bode well for any future peace process. After all, Western countries will need Turkey to counterbalance the Russians, whose broader strategic agenda goes well beyond the Middle East.
When historians look back at the Syria conflict, they will praise both former Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump for relentlessly pursuing ISIS. But they will fault the US for not comprehending the larger war.
It is already clear that the Obama administration didn’t know what it was bargaining for when, without thinking about what would come next, it called in 2011 for Assad’s removal. In July of that year, Robert S. Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, was sent to the Sunni town of Hama, where Assad’s father had ordered a massacre 30 years earlier. According to the State Department at the time, the point of the visit was to “[express] our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.” Did the administration really not foresee that Assad – like his father before him – would react to a popular uprising with violence?
When the US took a side against Assad seven years ago, it was asserting its national interest in Syria while ignoring the interests of other key players such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Israel. And now, with the US vacillating, there is a very real danger of a full-fledged US-Russian proxy war.
So far, the Trump administration has not been spurred to action by the humanitarian catastrophe confronting Syrian civilians. But perhaps it would do more if it considered the threat the conflict poses to the entire region.
If the administration wants to show leadership, it should start by consulting the other regional powers to understand their interests and determine if they can be reconciled. Tillerson may be trying to do just that. But even before asking the regional players what they want, the Trump administration should ask itself the same question. With the stakes in Syria rising fast, one can only wonder where America stands.
Ending America’s Disastrous Role in Syria
America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. That is understandable, because US efforts are in blatant violation of international law, which bars UN member states from supporting military action to overthrow other members' governments.
NEW YORK – Much of the carnage that has ravaged Syria during the past seven years is due to the actions of the United States and its allies in the Middle East. Now, faced with an alarming risk of a renewed escalation of fighting, it’s time for the United Nations Security Council to step in to end the bloodshed, based on a new framework agreed by the Council’s permanent members.
Here are the basics. In 2011, in the context of the Arab Spring, the US government, in conjunction with the governments of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey, and Israel, decided to bring down Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, even though overthrowing another country’s government amounts to a blatant violation of international law. We know that in 2012, if not earlier, President Barack Obama authorized the CIA to work with America’s allies in providing support to rebel forces composed of disaffected Syrians as well as non-Syrian fighters. US policymakers evidently expected Assad to fall quickly, as had occurred with the governments of Tunisia and Egypt in the early months of the Arab Spring.
The Assad regime is led by the minority Alawi Shia sect in a country where Alawites account for just 10% of the population, Sunni Muslims account for 75%, Christians make up 10%, and 5% are others, including Druze. The regional powers behind Assad’s regime include Iran and Russia, which has a naval base on Syria’s Mediterranean coastline.
Whereas America’s goal in seeking to topple Assad was mainly to undercut Iranian and Russian influence, Turkey’s motive was to expand its influence in former Ottoman lands and, more recently, to counter Kurdish ambitions for territorial autonomy, if not statehood, in Syria and Iraq. Saudi Arabia wanted to undermine Iran’s influence in Syria while expanding its own, while Israel, too, aimed to counter Iran, which threatens Israel through Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria near the Golan Heights, and Hamas in Gaza. Qatar, meanwhile, wanted to bring a Sunni Islamist regime to power.
The armed groups supported by the US and allies since 2011 were assembled under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. In fact, there was no single army, but rather competing armed groups with distinct backers, ideologies, and goals. The fighters ranged from dissident Syrians and autonomy-seeking Kurds to Sunni jihadists backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
While vast resources were devoted to overthrowing Assad, the effort ultimately failed, but not before causing massive bloodshed and displacing millions of Syrians. Many fled to Europe, fomenting Europe’s refugee crisis and a surge in political support for Europe’s anti-immigrant extreme right.
There were four main reasons for the failure to overthrow Assad. First, Assad’s regime had backing among not only Alawites, but also Syrian Christians and other minorities who feared a repressive Sunni Islamist regime. Second, the US-led coalition was countered by Iran and Russia. Third, when a splinter group of jihadists split away to form the Islamic State (ISIS), the US diverted significant resources to defeating it, rather than to toppling Assad. Finally, the anti-Assad forces have been deeply and chronically divided; for example, Turkey is in open conflict with the Kurdish fighters backed by the US.
All of these reasons for failure remain valid today. The war is at a stalemate. Only the bloodshed continues.
America’s official narrative has sought to conceal the scale and calamitous consequences of US efforts – in defiance of international law and the UN Charter – to overthrow Assad. While the US vehemently complains about Russian and Iranian influence in Syria, America and its allies have repeatedly violated Syrian sovereignty. The US government mischaracterizes the war as a civil war among Syrians, rather than a proxy war involving the US, Israel, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar.
In July 2017, US President Donald Trump announced the end of CIA support for the Syrian rebels. In practice, though, US engagement continues, though now it is apparently aimed more at weakening Assad than overthrowing him. As part of America’s continued war-making, the Pentagon announced in December that US forces would remain indefinitely in Syria, ostensibly to support anti-Assad rebel forces in areas captured from ISIS, and of course without the assent of the Syrian government.
The war is in fact at risk of a new round of escalation. When Assad’s regime recently attacked anti-Assad rebels, the US coalition launched airstrikes that killed around 100 Syrian troops and an unknown number of Russian fighters. Following this show of force, US Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis disingenuously stated that, “Obviously, we are not getting engaged in the Syrian civil war.” In addition, Israel recently attacked Iranian positions in Syria.
The US and its allies should face reality and accept the persistence of Assad’s regime, despicable as it may be. The UN Security Council, backed by the US, Russia, and the other major powers, should step in with peacekeepers to restore Syrian sovereignty and urgent public services, while blocking attempts at vengeance by the Assad regime against former rebels or their civilian supporters.
Yes, the Assad regime would remain in power, and Iran and Russia would maintain their influence in Syria. But the US official delusion that America can call the shots in Syria by choosing who rules, and with which allies, would end. It’s long past time for a far more realistic approach, in which the Security Council pushes Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and Israel into a pragmatic peace that ends the bloodshed and allows the Syrian people to resume their lives and livelihoods.