Middle East Notes and Comment: Half-Measures in Syria

If you rank the inputs and outputs for countries involved in the Syria conflict right now, you end up with some interesting numbers. Turkey and Iran are making major investments of money and lives, and they have a major impact on the course of the conflict. Some Arab Gulf states supporting rebel groups in Syria are making a small investment and believe they get a small benefit from harassing Iran. Most of the 65 U.S. allies who are part of the vaunted U.S.-led coalition (including many of the Arab Gulf states) are also making a small investment, and they derive limited benefit, mostly from supporting the United States. The United States itself has poured billions of dollars into the Syria problem, but it remains on the sidelines of the conflict’s resolution. Russia has put far less into the fight, and it has an outsized influence on its outcome.

The disproportion between the U.S. and Russian yields on investment would be bad enough, but there’s also this additional problem: what counts as “winning” on the U.S. side doesn’t look much like victory at all. In fact, pushing the Islamic State group (ISG) out of Raqqa doesn’t do much for the future of Syria, and it is the beginning of more serious problems for U.S. interests, not the end of them. The United States needs to make a choice in Syria: It needs to go big or go home.

The Obama administration decided relatively early on in the Syrian uprising that it would not intervene to shape its outcome. Other than an official declaration that “Assad must go,” what the U.S. government would not do soon became clearer than what it would do. Billions of dollars in refugee assistance and expensive but ineffectual support to select rebel groups built little leverage over several years. Now, the United States and its allies are carrying out precision strikes on the ISG, which have the effect of supporting the Assad government without providing much influence on the terms of a Syrian political settlement. U.S. military assistance to Kurdish forces attacking the ISG antagonizes Turkey, an increasingly skeptical NATO ally. Diplomacy is largely being carried out between Russia, Iran, Turkey, and the Syrian government, without U.S. participation. As a former U.S. secretary of defense told a private group in Washington a few weeks ago, “The United States has been on the back bench for so long in Syria, it is hard to imagine how we can get a seat at the table.” 

Russia has become a key player in Syria despite a relatively paltry commitment of resources: Somewhere between 3,000 and 5,000 troops, a couple of dozen fixed-wing aircraft, and a few dozen helicopters is all. Analysts estimate that the Russian effort costs a fraction of the U.S. one. With almost no precision-guided munitions and a seeming indifference to civilian casualties, Russia is taking a brute-force approach toward tilting the military balance in Syria in favor of government forces.

Russia’s political goals in Syria seem to be quite modest: The government seeks to shore up the Syrian regime. To a large degree, especially after the fall of rebel portions of Aleppo, that mission has been accomplished.

The United States, by contrast, has forsworn efforts to influence Syrian politics, and instead is focused on the seemingly more straightforward goal of defeating the ISG. The problem is that it is hard to imagine what defeating the ISG looks like. In part, the ISG is a conventional army fighting from fixed positions. In part, it is a guerrilla force that melts into civilian populations. In part, it is a global terrorist network that has returned more than 1,000 fighters to the West, some of whom may be waiting to attack targets individually or in groups. It is relatively straightforward to talk about pushing the ISG out of Raqqa, or out of Mosul. “Defeating” the ISG is a different problem, and not just because fighters pushed out of Raqqa are likely to press on to Mosul and Deir ez-Zor, and vice-versa. The ISG as a group is more deadly to Westerners when it is dispersed throughout Syria and into the West than it is when holed up in besieged cities.

What many anticipate a “post-ISG” Syria to be is not post-ISG at all. While the United States will have met its main goal, violence across Syria is likely to be up and not down after the ISG “defeat,” the refugee problem will continue unabated, and the Assad government will be carrying out retribution on populations whose loyalty is suspect.

The “safe zone” strategy that some tout is less than meets the eye. It is attractive because it sounds like a limited, defensive military operation that will require only a modest effort. In fact, safe zones would require large numbers of troops to secure, both against rebels who seek sanctuary there and government troops that will pursue them. The composition of troops in the safe zones would likely roil regional rivalries, and some might be sympathetic to the extremists. And it does nothing to shape the future of Syria. On closer examination, then, the middle ground is not a real option. It creates an open-ended commitment without the possibility of achieving many U.S. goals. 

In fact, the choice facing the Trump administration is really between two undesirable outcomes. One is abandoning Syria to Assad and his allies, working to cordon off the conflict more completely than has been done before. The human cost will be immense, and some radicals will slip out to attack Western targets, but over time, much of the conflict will burn itself out.

The other option is to find ways to enhance U.S. leverage in Syria, presumably through increasing military activity to threaten not just the ISG, but also those carrying out atrocities against civilian populations. Doing so would take a larger military effort and commit the United States to a more enduring diplomatic role in the country. It would risk greater conflict with Russia, but it would give the United States greater say in Syria’s future and enhance U.S. influence in the Middle East.

This is no longer a war the United States can half-fight. Neither option is good, but the United States must choose one. 
Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program