Earlier this week reports began swirling that President Trump has decided to pull all U.S. troops from Syria despite Pentagon objections. If these reports turn out to be accurate, the academic, public, and political debate over who ‘lost’ Syria will rage for days or weeks. Opponents of this decision will claim that a U.S. withdrawal hands both Russia and Iran a significant ‘victory’ in the contest for regional influence in the Middle East. However, these criticisms are overblown. Russia and Iran were positioned from the beginning to be the dominant influencers in the course of Syria’s civil war. Moreover, what passes for a short-term win for Moscow and Tehran will likely prove to be a rather hollow and Pyrrhic victory.
Russian and Iranian victories were assured from the beginning
There are several reasons that Moscow and Tehran were always quite likely to exercise dominant influence in determining the course of Syria’s civil war. First and foremost, Russia and Iran have vital interests at stake in Syria whereas U.S. interests have always been limited and indirect.
The continuation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Damascus was an absolutely essential means of maintaining Russian and Iranian influence in the region. For decades, Syria has remained the sole Arab state solidly allied with either country. For Moscow, long-term agreements negotiated with President Assad expanding Russian access to Syrian naval and air bases are critical to cementing a permanent Russian military presence in the region. For Tehran, Syria has long served as a critical gateway for the flow of Iranian military equipment and trainers to Hizbollah in Lebanon. Iranian influence with Hizbollah provides leaders in Tehran with what they view as an essential deterrent against Israeli or American military attacks. Leaders in Moscow or Tehran were simply never going to abandon President Assad as an ally who was so central to their military and security strategies in the region.
In contrast to these deep ties and abiding security interests, U.S. national interests in Syria from the beginning have been quite limited. Throughout the Cold War, US leaders acquiesced in the strategic reality that Syria was destined to remain solidly in the pro-Soviet camp. U.S. policies in Syria concentrated on the limited task of alternatively pressing and cajoling the leadership in Damascus to accede to a peace agreement with Israel. According to press accounts, secret US-brokered negotiations in 2010 came close to bearing fruit in this regard, but were overcome by the local uprisings in 2011 that ultimately fueled Syria’s ongoing civil war. It was only Assad’s use of chemical weapons in 2013 that compelled President Obama to re-consider his reluctance to become more deeply engaged in Syria by threatening airstrikes.
Ultimately, it took the rising threat of the Islamic State in Syria (ISIS) in 2015 to convince President Obama to reverse his earlier pledges to avoid placing U.S. ‘boots on the ground’ in Syria. Moreover, the legal justifications offered by both the Obama and Trump Administrations have centered on the need to conduct “operations to defeat ISIS and degrade Al Qaeda.” While the ultimate defeat of the violent ideology espoused by ISIS is quite likely a long way off, the combination of US-led coalition military operations conducted in both Iraq and Syria have liberated nearly all of the territories formerly held by ISIS. With this terrorist threat much diminished, the legal and public rationale for a continued U.S. military presence has evaporated. President Trump admitted as much with his Wednesday tweet declaring “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”
The mismatch of the vital Russian and Iranian interests engaged in Syria against a weakening rationale for a U.S. military presence in Syria provides leaders in Moscow and Tehran with a tremendous advantage. They have every incentive to match or exceed any U.S. investment or action taken in Syria to preserve what they perceive as their own vital interests there.
Beyond this juxtaposition of national interests, several other factors have indicated that Russia and Iran would ultimately emerge as victors in a battle with the United States for influence in Syria. For one, Moscow and Tehran have had the relatively easier task of supporting an existing internationally-recognized government possessing a large array of domestic security and military forces of repression. In contrast, U.S. hopes were pinned on supporting a fractured and divided political opposition who, aside from Syrian Kurdish militia groups, proved to be anemic and ineffective. Secondly, Russia and Iran were careful to keep their investments in Syria limited and largely sustainable with Moscow providing much needed advanced air support to Syrian forces while Iranian-supported Hizbollah filled critical gaps in Syrian manpower. Lastly, the Russian and Iranian military campaign in Syria essentially replicated the operational model of successes demonstrated by the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq. In both cases superior airpower employed in support of competent local ground forces proved to be a winning combination in the fight against ISIS and other Syrian opposition groups.
So what does a Russian or Iranian ‘victory’ mean?
In the short-term, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria will undoubtedly be perceived as ceding regional influence to leaders in Moscow and Tehran. Nonetheless, this outcome was largely determined at the outset for reasons previously discussed. Moreover, this apparent ‘victory’ will come at strategic costs for both Russia and Iran that will mount over time.
Syria will remain a broken, divided, weak, and desperately poor country for decades and generations to come. While Russia and Iran have been critical to Assad’s military victories over a fragmented resistance, they have done nothing to address the fundamental causes of the civil war that remain rooted in opposition to the Assad regime’s dictatorial repression, pervasive corruption, and failure to deliver much needed economic reforms. In fact, the civil war has arguably exacerbated each of these dangerous trends by displacing nearly half of Syria’s 22 million people, destroying much of its infrastructure, and hardening the political, religious, and social divisions within Syrian society. Estimates by the United Nations place the cost of reconstruction in Syria at nearly $400 billion, an estimate that some expect to grow to as much as one trillion dollars. With Russia and Iran both suffering under the heavy burden of U.S. sanctions, neither country can afford to make this kind of substantial investment no matter the importance attached to its relationship with Syria. An impoverished President Assad and weakened Syria may remain a dependable ally for Moscow and Iran — but Syria will be an ally who is inconsequential and feeble. For the foreseeable future, a needy Syria will remain a drain on Russian and Iranian coffers while being unable to contribute anything of significance in terms of concrete military, political, or economic power to the region or beyond.
Russian and Iranian backing of Assad also comes at a significant strategic cost in terms of regional influence with the broader Sunni Arab world. Moscow’s alliance with Iran in Syria is directly at odds with the expressed intent of Saudi Arabia and other Arab states to confront Iran at every turn. Indeed, Arab Gulf states moved early in the Syrian civil war to offer financial and military support to a broad array of opposition groups (including those with Islamist and jihadi tendencies) in the hopes of toppling Assad and delivering a blow to Iran’s position in the region. The perception of an Assad military victory enabled by a Russian partnership with Iran will give tremendous pause to Arab leaders who are quick to blame Iran for virtually any ills befalling the region and will damage Russia’s reputation in the region with this critical constituency.
Where does US policy go from here?
Although sudden, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria should not have come as a surprise to planners in the Pentagon. In April 2018 President Trump suggested that that once ISIS was defeated in Syria, he would order the withdrawal of U.S. troops. As I warned here in August, “President Trump will [likely] override the concerns of his national security team preferring instead to side with his long-held instincts to withdraw from Syria.” The strategic question for U.S. policymakers now is how to move forward from this point.
The fact that a formal timeline for withdrawal has not yet been announced might provide U.S. diplomats and military planners some potential leverage, even if only short-lived and limited. U.S. negotiators could seek quickly and explicitly to tie the timing of a U.S. departure to specific milestones on the ground in Syria that would potentially involve verifiable progress in the fight against ISIS, agreements for a parallel withdrawal of Iranian military forces, and demonstrable steps toward a post-Assad political transition in Damascus. Unfortunately, this diplomatic leverage will inevitably diminish over time as President Trump presses his security and military advisors to make good on his pledge of withdrawal. U.S. diplomats will have to accept that this fleeting opportunity will likely yield only partial success in achieving these objectives.
The U.S. also retains a tremendous amount of prospective leverage over the massive international assistance efforts that will be required to restore Syria to a functioning state. Direct financial assistance would provide U.S. officials with important insights into these programs and serve as a source of leverage in demanding that these projects be fully transparent and effectively monitored by reputable international, regional, or local Syrian organizations. Even in the absence of substantial financial contributions, the U.S. has the technical expertise and political weight to serve as an effective overall coordinator for programs that will be administered by the European Union and other U.S. allied partners who will be likely be essential contributors.
Exercising this leverage over reconstruction, however, will require President Trump to reverse his earlier decision to suspend U.S. assistance to rebuild parts of Syria. Making good on his campaign pledge to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria might ease the political risks of reconsidering his reluctance to participate meaningfully in Syria’s reconstruction. Unfortunately, the combination of a looming U.S. military withdrawal and refusal to invest meaningfully in Syrian reconstruction would leave the United States bereft of any significant ability to shape the outcome of a post-civil war Syria. Such a development would leave the country and region more vulnerable to exploitation by others and would deal yet another devastating blow to the suffering Syrian people.