The Feb. 3 U.S. military operation that killed the Islamic State leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi threw a light not just on continuing terrorism in Syria, but also on an uncomfortable truth: Syria today ranks high among the world’s most dangerous unresolved problems. Three years after the dismantling of the ISIS territorial “caliphate” — which spanned large swathes of Syria and Iraq — terrorist cells still carry out attacks, a brutal dictator remains in charge and regional powers vie for zones of influence.
It is now more than a decade since the first flames of revolution were fanned inside Syria. By the latter part of 2011, the year of the Arab Spring, the dictators in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen had been toppled; Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi was dead. Analysts in the region and beyond assumed the Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad, would be next. In August of that year, the U.S. issued a call for regime change. “For the sake of the Syrian people,” President Barack Obama said, “the time has come for President Assad to step aside.” A senior administration official told the Washington Post the White House was “certain Assad is on his way out.”
Nearly 11 years later, the root causes of the Syrian war remain unaddressed, diplomacy is stalled and Syria is a potential powder keg for the region and beyond. Terrorists are still there, U.S. forces are still there, and so are Assad and his regime, which attacked its own people with barrel bombs and chemical weapons.
A decade later, it’s worth asking: What happened to Syria?
Geopolitics: The “great game” in Syria
The Biden administration, its plate overflowing with new crises, has pursued a narrow-gauge policy toward Syria — focusing on terrorism and to a lesser extent humanitarian problems. But unless the United States is preparing to surrender its historic influence and leadership role in the Middle East, it will have to step up its game in Syria. Others have been at work.
In the six years since major powers began colliding in Syria, Russia comes closest to looking like a winner. Vladimir Putin intervened skillfully with his military, saved and propped up his beleaguered ally, secured permanent naval basing rights at the Mediterranean port of Tartus and an air base at Hmeimim in western Syria, drew leaders to Moscow for consultations, and projected an image of a country that stands by its allies. The defense ministry can claim its own “win” — having tested 600 new weapons systems during the war.
Moscow also gained a Mediterranean platform for its intervention in Libya with combat aircraft and mercenaries, mostly in support of the commander opposing the U.N.-backed government. In short, Syria was instrumental in securing one of Putin’s major goals: projecting Russia as a “great power” with expanding global influence.
Iran has put down roots in Syria and appears likely to be there for the long term. By 2018, Iran had mobilized about 2,500 conventional forces and Revolutionary Guards to fight, along with an estimated 8,000 to 12,000 foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon and Pakistan. Last year, scholars counted at least 14 areas of Iranian or pro-Iranian presence in Syria, compared with only three in 2013. Iran has dug in with particular determination in Deir al-Zour province in eastern Syria, along the Iraqi border, where its activities typify Tehran’s approach — providing services to the population, taking control of major cities and recruiting for its militia forces.
Most important, all this has secured for Iran the western end of its long-sought land bridge from Tehran to the Mediterranean, which enables the country to move military supplies securely from Iran through parts of Iraq, into Syria and via Syria to its Hezbollah partner in Lebanon. This gives Iran proximity to targets in Israel and leaves Israel to face an Iranian rocket arsenal aimed at the Golan Heights.
Israel, according to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, will not allow Iranian proxies in Syria to “equip themselves with means of combat that will undermine our superiority in the region.” Accordingly, Israel last year stepped up aerial attacks in Syria. Israeli goals are to prevent the above-mentioned Iranian weapons smuggling to Hezbollah and to degrade Iranian-allied militias, especially those posing a threat to the Golan Heights.
Turkey’s role is maddeningly complex, its interests pulled in multiple directions. With several military divisions arrayed along the country’s northern border with Syria, it has been steadfast in opposing Assad’s rule; Turkey occupies the northern zone in part to prevent the regime’s recapture of the area. At the same time, Turkey seeks to diminish the role of the U.S.-allied Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), because it’s convinced these Kurds are merely an extension of Turkey’s outlawed Kurdistan Workers’ Party, which Ankara regards as a terrorist group. That in turn encourages Turkey to create refugee resettlement areas in the north, seeking to shift the demographic balance away from Kurdish domination — all of which risks pushing the Kurds closer to Assad, whom they have historically opposed. As I say, it’s complicated.
Along the way, Turkey has at times worked in concert with Russia when it comes to Syria — and then, more frequently, aimed to limit Russia’s role. In short, Turkey is all over the map — at least politically — seeking to find its balance and secure its interests amid all the colliding parties and interests.
The Kurds dominate the SDF, an amalgam of Syrian Kurds, Arabs and ethnic Turkmen that came together to fight ISIS in 2015. They are backed by the U.S., and with about 25,000 to 30,000 Kurdish-dominated troops in northeastern Syria, exert limited control over about a quarter of the country, struggling to fend off Turkey and maneuvering between Russia and Iran. Their longer-term goal is to gain autonomy for Syrian Kurds in any future peace settlement.
The U.S. presence
Where, then, is the United States?
The tangible American stake in all this is represented by the approximately 900 U.S. troops split between a base in the Kurdish-controlled northeast and a small garrison at al-Tanf, deep in territory under Syrian-Russian-Iranian control and near the juncture of the Syrian, Iraqi and Jordanian borders. These bases are what survived a push by President Donald Trump to withdraw completely in 2018 — a policy partly responsible for the resignation of Defense Secretary James Mattis. Trump ultimately backed off, saying he would keep a small number of bases in Syria to secure its few oil fields — a fig leaf quickly embraced by defense officials who thought it would be a mistake to pull out completely.
Today, these forces conduct patrols, advise and support the Kurdish SDF in its battles with ISIS, and contribute some stability in areas contested by multiple forces. Although not openly discussed, I believe the northeastern base also provides a buffer against attacks on Kurds by NATO ally Turkey. The garrison in the southeast stakes a small U.S. claim in an area Assad and his allies want to secure, and which was attacked late last year by Iranian-backed fighters. The presence of U.S. forces at both locations also facilitates counterterrorist operations such as the strike against the ISIS leader al-Qurayshi.
Terrorism: ISIS remnants, al-Qaeda spinoff
As for terrorists in Syria, ISIS remains the most dangerous organization, shown most recently by its capture of a prison in northern Syria that took the Kurds — with U.S. support — a week of violent counteroffensives to reverse. Reliable estimates of current ISIS strength are hard to come by, but in 2020, the U.N. put the number at about 10,000 fighters — operating in small cells floating back and forth between Syria and Iraq.
Al-Qaeda per se has not been as much of a force in Syria; more significant is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which evolved from a local al-Qaeda affiliate. Although it adheres to a hard-line Salafist ideology, the group is making a concerted effort to blur its terrorist roots as it seeks to maintain a measure of control in the hotly contested northwestern province of Idlib. The province has long been a gathering spot for extremists; this was where the ISIS leader was found and killed.
A way forward?
As the U.S. weighs its policy and approach to Syria, it’s important to consider a few basic realities:
- There is obviously no military solution, even if continued U.S. military presence is essential to the search for one. A decade of fighting has produced only a conflict frozen in place.
- The U.N. envoy for Syria may continue to call meetings, but the U.N. process under Security Council Resolution 2254 — which called for a cease-fire and political solution — is moribund.
- The U.S. has sacrificed much leverage but remains the only country with a chance to bridge the chasms blocking some compromise.
- The U.S. can achieve nothing diplomatically without the participation of Russia, and perhaps Iran as well.
- As doubts about U.S. staying power grow, the idea is taking hold in the Middle East that Assad is here to stay. The United Arab Emirates reopened its Damascus embassy in 2018; Oman returned its ambassador in 2020, and Bahrain in late 2021. Saudi Arabia has put out feelers in intelligence channels, and Egypt has talked about “returning Syria to the Arab fold.”
It’s not hard to understand how U.S. policymakers might look at the Syrian labyrinth and say: This is just too hard, our plates are too full, we’ll continue whacking terrorists but otherwise we will focus on more immediately pressing problems.
But for the U.S. to turn away is to signal that brutal dictators can abuse their populations mercilessly and remain in power; that Iran will have achieved its arc of influence across the Middle East; and that Russia has outmaneuvered the U.S. in a region important to U.S. allies, where historically Washington has been the “honest broker”. It will also likely mean that the 12 million Syrians either internally displaced or refugees outside the country — the most profound human displacement since World War II — will remain adrift; that the primary catalyst of the Syrian civil war — popular demand for an end to harsh rule by a minority clan — will remain unaddressed; and that Islamist extremists will remain able to find refuge, recruit and plot amid the continuing chaos.
If the U.S. does choose to step up its game, any strategy must be long-term, gradual and clear about priorities. The ultimate goal remains political reconciliation and a new or transitional government committed to serving all its citizens — as envisioned in that U.N. resolution. While that looks like fantasy today, in the long term it may be possible to press Assad for the safe return of refugees with internationally monitored resettlement, and similar conditions for the reintegration of opposition forces. This was the recommended approach of U.S. Special Representative for Syria Engagement Jim Jeffrey — and it is a goal for which the U.S. could marshal strong international support.
A next priority could be limiting Iran’s role. The Iranians are currently too dug in to aim for expulsion any time soon, but it is not unrealistic to seek limits on its stockpiling of sophisticated weapons, for which the U.S. would need Russian leverage. This could be a follow-on objective if the U.S. and its partners succeed in renewing the 2015 deal limiting Iran’s nuclear program. Washington would need to think about what it might be willing to give Russia in return for its support. Were the U.S. to achieve some traction, there would be hope for bridging the “gulf of mistrust” that U.N. Syria Envoy Geir Pedersen said stymies the U.N. process.
U.S. policy on Syria over the last decade has been marked by an inability to decide among poor options. But Syria illustrates the old maxim in international politics that no decision almost always ends up equaling a decision, as others seize the initiative and fill vacuums. In Syria, time has been lost, and problems have metastasized. What is needed is constancy of purpose and clearly defined priorities — integrated with skillful diplomacy and a modest amount of force. The moment for such a combination may have passed, but the world is often surprisingly open to U.S. leadership — even when it shows up late.