On July 16, Presidents Trump and Putin will meet in Helsinki to discuss a variety of issues, the most critical of which perhaps will be the ongoing carnage in Syria. The background to this discussion foreordains limits on how it can proceed, for the indelible fact is that for consecutive administrations the U.S. government has essentially ceded Syria to Russia and its local ally, Iran. There are good arguments for such reticence, including those made by former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford. The situation being what it is, there is much practical sense in the advice of experienced policymakers like Dennis Ross—basically, that warning the Russians not to abuse their enhanced position or trip over the remaining American red lines is all that can be salvaged from past errors.
But there have been and remain better arguments for a more engaged U.S. approach. Those arguments will likely look more powerful over time as the consequences of U.S. disengagement from Syria emerge. Those consequences will transcend what happens in and to Syria, where there is no reason to believe that Russian shot-calling will produce a stable peace. For Russia, Syria has always been a zero-sum game, so that any solution it enforces will serve only its narrow objectives of “stabilizing” Assad’s rule by brute force, with Chechnya being the operative “security” model. The Russians will also empower their partners on the ground, the Iranians, as a labor-saving device—a stratagem which runs directly contrary to the interests of the United States and its allies.
More worrisome, a Russian “solution” in Syria will not stay in Syria, but will in time imperil Jordan, Lebanon, and possibly the Arab Gulf states as well. It will also constrain the policy options of stronger regional actors, notably Turkey and Israel. And it will have a negative impact on what some of us like to think of as civilizational norms of acceptable moral behavior. So the stakes of Monday’s discussion in Helsinki are high, and not just for Syria.
It is one thing to abandon a policy stake because the costs of engagement exceed the likely benefits. It is another to think that U.S. and Western deference to Russia in the Levant can be traded for benefits elsewhere. That, it seems, is how the Obama Administration concluded that robust engagement in Syria might jeopardize its would-be transformative opening to Iran, an opening that needed Russian acquiescence if not support. The idea now in some circles focuses on a Trumpean “big deal,” defined as ceding Syria to Russian influence in return for moderated Russian policy elsewhere—with regard to Ukraine or the western Balkans, for example, or even with respect to broader issues like cybersecurity and cyber-interference into the politics of democratic countries.
This belief is a phantasm that amounts to self-inflicted appeasement. It is hard to discern any sigificant area of overlap between U.S. and Russian interests, besides which opposition to U.S. interests on principle plays a key role in the otherwise hollow domestic legitimacy of the Putin regime. The Russians are not and have never been diplomatic philanthropists. They will not take and trade; they will take and then take more unless and until they encounter some form of credible resistance. Without “skin in the game” the United States will not persuade the Russians to give as well as to take. Evidence? The Russians have broken every promise they have made with respect both to “Geneva” (as regards Syria) and “Minsk” (as regards Ukraine).
The record in Syria is crystal clear. The Russians have repeatedly promised to play a constructive role since the early days of the conflict, and every promise has been a ruse. Russian intervention to remove entirely Syria’s chemical weapons cache in 2013 was one such false promise; since then, the United Nation’s Joint Investigative Mechanism has verified repeated use of chemical weapons by a regime that claimed it no longer had them. In September 2015, the Russians promised to rid Syria of ISIS and jihadi terrorists, justifying their heightened military intervention under that pretext. This claim also turned out to be false, as human rights organizations and international observers documented a surge in attacks on civilian centers, including hospitals and schools—rather than on ISIS strongholds—in order to break down the will and infrastructure of communities outside of regime control and polarize the situation into an Assad-versus-ISIS choice for credulous outsiders.
Worse, President Trump’s apparent preference simply makes no sense. As best as anyone can make out, the Administration’s Middle East policy has two sound objectives: to contain and push back on Iranian regional influence, and to permanently defeat the Islamic State. But statements by President Trump indicating that an American withdrawal from Syria is imminent—including the April freezing of almost $200 million in stabilization funds—work against both of these objectives.
First, leaving Syria rewards Iranian behavior in Syria, empowers the most dangerous actors within Iranian domestic politics, and raises no dilemma for a Russian-Iranian partnership that has several unnatural and exploitable aspects. Second, as long as Iran and its radical Shi‘a partners and militias are on a roll, the underlying conditions that give rise to radical salafi movements like ISIS will remain. U.S. efforts to finally defeat ISIS will therefore have to be extended to defeat whatever terrorist juggernaut arises in its place, whether in Syria or somewhere else.
Syria’s tragedy, it seems, is that it has failed to induce anything like a coherent strategy in two successive administrations. This failure is not new: The U.S. government has never had a policy focused on Syria. Syria has always been an adjunct to other policies believed to be more important, whether the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Cold War-era competition for regional proxies, the Lebanese civil war, the Iraq War, and the Kurdish issue, U.S. policy toward Turkey, and more recently counterterrorism policy. This tradition helps explain why U.S. airstrikes against the regime in April 2017 for its use of chemical weapons have led to no sustained military or diplomatic effort. U.S. attention has wandered if not dwindled over time. For example, in April 2018 at the UN-EU Brussels pledging conference for Syrian reconstruction, the American absence was resounding, leaving Germany, the European Union, and the United Kingdom to collect only half of the sum needed to meet the UN’s 2018 target.
There are three reasons why the United States should remain engaged and credible in Syria. First, Iranian ambitions in Syria are on the rise, with no indication of retreat. If the United States pulls out of Syria entirely, both hard and soft Iranian power will benefit. Although the exact number of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-affiliated militants in Syria has not been verified, Ahmad Majidyar, the Middle East Institute’s Iran expert, estimates that since the spring of 2017 Syrian regime-affiliated Local Defense Force units, led and supported by Iran, have recruited almost 90,000 local Syrian troops. This is in addition to the many thousands of Iranian, Iraqi, Afghan, and Pakistani Shi‘a foreign fighters that have flooded into Syria, some of them younger than 14 years old.
Moreover, Iran has used its soft power quite creatively. In 2018, the Assad regime agreed to open branches of the Iranian Islamic Azad University, which is closely affiliated with the IRGC, in every major Syrian city. Iranians have also spearheaded Assad’s depopulation scheme, which has dislocated millions and has severely altered Syria’s ethno-religious demography. Clearly, Iran intends to dominate Syria for a very long time, and to radically reshape its society in the process.
Second, if all of Syria returns to Assad’s totalitarian grip, it will be impossible for refugees to return home. Providing assistance to areas that remain outside of regime control is an essential prerequisite for eventual repatriation. Syria’s refugee and displaced population now exceeds 12 million registered refugees and internally displaced persons. The newest Russian air offensive on Deraa has created about 300,000 displaced people in the past two weeks alone. Any future offensive on Idlib, the primary province left outside of Assad’s control with remnants of civil society intact, would affect more than five million people.
Lebanese, Jordanian, and Turkish officials have all made public statements indicating that Syrians refugees on their territory will soon be asked to leave. Yet refugees will not return until there exist credible guarantees for the safety of their children, that men will not be conscripted, and that they can return home without fear of arrest, kidnapping, torture, or execution. All of these conditions are currently impossible to establish under the Assad regime; the Syrian Parliament’s new Law 10, which seizes properties not claimed within one year by residents demonstrates that the Syrian regime systematically intimidates refugees from returning, because the Sunni majority among them opposes Assad’s authority. So unless the United States puts skin in the Syrian game to force a change in these conditions, refugee repatriation will never happen at scale, with all that implies for politics within and among many crucial European and Middle Eastern countries.
Third, American stabilization funds are budgeted for civil society work on civic duty, transitional justice, governance, and stabilization support in post-ISIS areas, including the de facto Kurdish Autonomous Administration. These programs are necessary to keep any hope of democracy alive. In Syria, civil society has been at the forefront of fighting extremism, pushing back against the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-affiliated groups, and all repressive armed actors. At a great cost to life and limb, civil society alone has fiercely and strategically defended the values of democracy, pluralism, and coexistence, all of which resonate with American values and interests. Syrian civil society is the only entity still developing a national narrative, something the political opposition to the Assad regime has yet to produce.
All of this has been done at a tiny fraction of the cost of military action: For example, the 66 Tomahawk cruise missiles fired into Syria on a single day in April 2017 cost the United States $92.4 million. But using these more modest non-lethal funds, civil society has challenged both Iranian and extremist ideologies and governance. Cutting these stabilization funds, let alone terminating them altogether, would disable American partners on the ground from being able to establish any foundation for sustainable and democratic governance structures.
That, in turn, would prolong the war and suffering we have seen. As a result of our conversations with leaders from Syrian civil society, we are convinced that reversion to a totalitarian state will never be acceptable to Syrians after all the immeasurable sacrifices of its people. They will fight on. This anti-authoritarian stubbornness aligns with the interests of the United States and its allies. Russia, Iran, and extremist jihadist groups would like nothing better than to seize on American disengagement to expand their own influence and design new totalitarian schemes for Syria ones where they alone set the agenda and shape the outcome. If the Trump Administration becomes complicit in such evil by default, Americans will not escape the eventual consequences.