Seven years of horrific twists and turns in the Syrian Civil War make it hard to remember that it all started with a little graffiti.
In March 2011, four children in the southern city of Der'a scrawled on a wall "It's your turn, Doctor"—a not so subtle prediction that the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist and self-styled reformer, would go down in the manner of the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia, the Mubarak regime in Egypt, and eventually, the Qaddafi regime in Libya. But Syria's story would turn out differently.
The crackdown started small. Assad's security services arrested the four graffiti artists, refusing to tell their parents where they were. After two weeks of waiting, the residents of Der'a—who are famously direct and fiery—held protests demanding the children's release. The regime responded with live gunfire, killing several, and drawing the first blood in a war that's now killed some half a million people. With every funeral came more opportunities for protests—and for the regime to respond with more violence.
The protests quickly spread to other towns and cities—Homs, Damascus, Idlib, and beyond—engulfing what is nominally still the Syrian Arab Republic in flames. The underlying dynamic that drove the Arab uprisings—a rapidly growing youthful population and a rigid repressive regime incapable of change—was consistent across a number of countries. But the effects varied widely, and nowhere were they more ferocious than in Syria, where early hopes that Assad would go the way of other dictators have crumbled in the ruins of Syria's ancient cities and the shattered lives of its people. The progression of the regime's brutality, from deploying snipers to pick off protesters demanding freedom and dignity, to dropping chemical weapons on entire towns, has unfolded with the world watching in real time.
And now the world has again observed, through snippets on social media, what appears to have been a chemical-weapons attack in a rebel stronghold. It has watched the retaliatory strikes of the United States and allies, and heard the Pentagon claim success in the bombing of three facilities associated with Assad's chemical weapons program. How Syria moved from graffiti, to the near-toppling of its dictator, to that same tyrant's reassertion of control over a broken country, is a story of ethnic conflict, international connivance, and above all civilian suffering. And it's not ending now, but only entering a new and perhaps even more dangerous phase.
Decision-makers in Western capitals had long viewed the Assad regime as a grim model of Middle Eastern stability, but in 2011, they suddenly thought that "people power" would bring down Assad as it had other Arab despots. The Assad regime, however, had something the others didn't. "Popular resistance" strategies work well against authoritarian systems whose leadership come from the country's ethnic and sectarian majority, such as Egypt. Soldiers ordered to turn their guns on protestors are faced with a choice: Shoot their brethren among the protestors, or help get rid of those ordering them to do so. This causes a split in the army and security services, which can lead to a toppling of the government.
Assad's by contrast is a minority government with a kind of fortress of sectarian interests around it. Minority Alawites serve at the core, followed by concentric rings of other minorities (Christians, Shia, etc.), and finally by coopted Sunnis who represent the majority in Syria. Minority army and security officers are therefore farther removed from the majority Sunni population, making them more likely to order fire against protestors than to topple their brethren in power. This has galvanized the Assad regime against the kind of splits that toppled Ben Ali and Mubarak.
But this evidently wasn't part of President Obama's calculation when, in August of 2011, he declared that Assad should "step aside," as if Syria's strongman would magically leave on his own. To speed up the process, Obama organized European and Arab League allies to adopt similar language, as well as a raft of sanctions on the Assad regime, most notably a ban on purchases of Syrian crude oil, the regime's lifeline. Totally missing was a plan for removing Assad in the event he didn't go peacefully.
And Assad wasn't about to. In the autumn of 2011 and the first half of 2012, multiple UN initiatives failed to bring about sustainable ceasefires or a solution to the hostilities. While Western governments urged Syrians to keep the protests peaceful, the regime's military escalation to include more snipers, minority militiamen dubbed "ghosts," and rotary and fixed-wing aircraft caused death tolls to skyrocket. More and more Syrians picked up weapons to defend themselves, and hundreds of local militias were organized under the banner of the Free Syrian Army. The insignia included the old nationalist flag of Syria, but the FSA was more of a franchise than a true army.
The uprising had morphed into a civil war. So when in the summer of 2012 Russia and the United States offered a transition plan to help stop the violence, both sides dismissed it, each one believing it could defeat the other militarily. If anything, it looked like the rebels were gaining the upper hand; one group managed to seize half of Aleppo, Syria's largest city and industrial center, that July. At that point the pattern was set: When the regime faced serious losses, it resorted to extreme measures. In Aleppo Assad's forces resisted, holding onto the western side of the city and firing Scud missiles at rebel bases—becoming the second largest user, after Najibullah in Afghanistan, to deploy these weapons against their own people. Death tolls and refugee outflows spiked.
As the battle overshadowed diplomacy, the United States and its allies had hard decisions to make. First was what to do with the Syrian opposition, within which jihadist groups had rapidly sprung up, and which were poised to grow stronger in the absence of outside efforts to corral and arm the nationalist opposition. Obama, however, famously rejected plans to do so. Just as important, and ultimately disastrous, was an ancillary decision to allow U.S. regional allies to arm the opposition instead. Money from various Arab Gulf countries flowed into Syria, sowing even more division among those fighting Assad, and making Salafist and jihadist groups the strongest among them.
The second issue, and one that would usher in another turning point in the Syrian war, concerned U.S. intelligence reports that Assad was preparing to escalate further, by using his chemical weapons stockpile, which at that time was estimated to be the largest in the region if not the world. In an August 20, 2012 press conference, Obama said "that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized." As the war raged on that autumn, more and more reports and samples indicated the Assad regime had indeed begun using chemical agents in low concentrations.
By then, death tolls were already skyrocketing, with the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) estimating around 50,000 dead by the end of 2012, and refugee outflows approaching a half million. Syria was melting down quickly. Evidence of chemical weapons use kept accumulating; refugees kept fleeing; and money kept flowing to jihadist groups, including what would ultimately become the Islamic State. And new combatants were entering the field. Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias were operating on the side of the Assad regime, while in the northeast, Kurdish fighters called the shots in an effort to secure their own autonomy. As the country fell apart, terrorist organizations filled up the vacuum on every side.
By summer 2013, opposition groups gained more ground in and around the capital Damascus. Either out of military desperation or pure brutality, the Assad regime doubled down on chemical weapons use. On August 21, 2013, nearly a year to the day after Obama set his fated "red line," the Syrian military launched sarin-filled rockets on the Eastern Ghouta pocket east of Damascus, an attack that the U.S. estimated killed around 1,400 civilians. As warships assembled off the Syrian coast for a possible retaliation, Obama backed down under pressure from Congress and his base, opting instead for a Russian proposed deal that would supposedly rid Syria of chemical weapons.
This dramatic turn of events caused whatever remained of Syrian opposition support for the U.S. to evaporate. On a trip to southern Turkey that autumn, I spoke to representatives of the Syrian opposition who told me they were furious over the decision. Many believed Assad had used chemical weapons and gotten away with it. But most were surprised that Washington believed the deal would stop him from doing it again—a tragically prescient conclusion.
Refugee outflows hit 2 million that September. And ISIS duly expanded throughout Syria and Iraq. In 2014, its territory was approximately the size of Great Britain, and the militants were suddenly threatening not just the Assad regime but also the Iraqi state Washington had spent billions cobbling together. It was at this point that the Obama administration decided to strike Syria. While international headlines focused on the horrific execution of Americans in ISIS captivity, more than 76,000 Syrians were killed in 2014 alone, the conflict's highest yearly death toll, and 1.3 million more Syrians fled to neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands were displaced inside Syria as well.
America was not then targeting Assad directly—though Obama had by that point begun a covert program to arm some of the rebellion—but the regime was contracting as the U.S.-backed rebels crossed deep into the Alawites' heartland, threatening Assad's sectarian base. This was perhaps why Assad began dragging his feet on the chemical-weapons deal, missing deadlines for moving stockpiles out of the country even as reports surfaced that it hadn't fully declared all of them.
Alarms were going off in Moscow, but over a different problem. The concern was not the pace of the deal's implementation, but that its Syrian ally was in a dangerous position: It had limited deployable manpower, and was losing territory even with the support of Iranian-backed militias. Only days after the United States signed the Iran nuclear accord in 2015, Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' external operations wing, flew to Moscow; within about a month, Russia had established a base in the threatened Alawite stronghold of Latakia on the Mediterranean coast. Throughout the autumn of 2015, Russian aircraft dropped Vietnam-war era "dummy" bombs in support of Assad regime and Iranian forces throughout Syria, slowly reversing the regime's losses in Latakia and allowing Assad and Iranian-backed groups to march north on Aleppo.
A million more Syrians fled the country, with many fleeing beyond neighboring Turkey onward to Europe. Over 55,000 Syrians were killed in 2015 alone, bringing the overall total for the conflict to over a quarter million, with an estimated 100,000 more undocumented deaths.
The United States, now saddled with defeating ISIS and supporting the Syrian opposition, buckled. It engaged both Russia and Iran in an attempt to establish ceasefires and talks to end the war—even as Russia continued to pound rebel positions, allowing what was left of Assad's army and an array of Iranian-sponsored militias, including Hezbollah to push the rebels back. By summer 2016, this hybrid force surrounded and pulverized east Aleppo. And the U.S. was meanwhile seeing one of its allies challenged by another, as Turkey effectively invaded Syria to block U.S.-backed and Kurdish-dominated forces from consolidating their territory. Americans were focused on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election; Syrians, though, were focused on fleeing, with an estimated 11 million—half of Syria's prewar population—on the run either in neighboring countries or inside Syria. Aleppo fell by late December, sending thousands of oppositionists into Idlib province, where many pro-Assad commentators claimed they would be corralled for slaughter.
As U.S. President Donald Trump took the reins in Washington, the Assad regime turned its attention to Idlib province and rebel-controlled areas of southwest Syria adjacent to Israel and Jordan. But a closer look at the force composition of those offensives showed a larger Iranian-supported and Hezbollah component than ever. U.S.-supported rebels fought back, pushing the regime south despite Russian air support.
This was the context in which the Trump administration faced its first major instance of a chemical attack in Syria, in April 2017, in the village of Idlib's Khan Sheikhoun. The United Nations ultimately confirmed it included the nerve agent sarin—a substance the Assad regime was supposed to have given up. This time, instead of trying to do a deal, Trump struck the airbase responsible for delivering the attack.
And yet Washington also found itself fighting one of Assad's enemies, ISIS. In the summer of 2017, the U.S., Russia, and Jordan managed to strike a deal to dramatically decrease the fighting in pockets of the country, allowing the Assad regime to launch an offensive against the jihadist group. Its army by now depleted, it relied in part on major contingents of Shia militias and Russian-organized units. Sunni areas liberated from ISIS afterward were expected to welcome the regime's offensive, but the Assad regime's brutality, combined with the Shia composition of the Iranian-backed forces coming to occupy Sunni Arab areas, caused most internally displaced persons to head toward the Kurdish-dominated zones.
ISIS, however, was not the regime's only priority, or even its primary one. In early 2018, the Assad regime launched an offensive to capture the Ghouta pocket—by then the opposition's last major presence near the Syrian capital and site of the 2013 chemical weapons attack. The regime and associated Iranian-backed militias were able to cut the pocket in two as Russia attempted to broker an evacuation of civilians and fighters to other areas. When those talks broke down, the Assad regime launched a military assault to take Ghouta by force. For reasons of limited manpower, sheer brutality, or both, Assad appears to have resorted to chemical weapons once again, killing dozens and again stepping over Washington's red line.
And once again, American strikes followed against regime targets. On Friday night, Secretary of Defense James Mattis characterized these strikes as a "one-off" meant to deter the use of chemical weapons, but no matter what comes next, those weapons are but one gruesome part of settling the Syrian Civil War. The war is now arguably the world's largest humanitarian disaster since World War II. The death toll now stands at nearly half a million, though the UN has stopped counting. Countless others are wounded and missing. A U.S. government report that the Assad regime is using a crematorium near the Saidnaya Prison outside Damascus indicates many of their remains may never be found. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees estimates 13.1 million Syrians are in need of humanitarian assistance, with more than 6 million internally displaced and 5 million registered as refugees. Hundreds of thousands more remain unregistered. Estimates of the total number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon today surpass a quarter of the country's population, with only slighter smaller figures for Jordan.
This is horrible enough. But meanwhile, the way the Syrian Civil War is "winding down" is increasingly unacceptable to regional countries. Israel, worried about the spike in Iranian militias and influence in Syria, is bombing there like never before. Turkey, concerned about the growth of the Kurdish-dominated forces linked to Ankara's archenemy, the PKK, has invaded northwest Syria, pushing Kurds out of one stronghold in Afrin with threats to do the same in another one, Manbij. Meanwhile, negotiations in Geneva and elsewhere have yet to produce viable ceasefires or anything resembling a political settlement.
Like the civil war in neighboring Lebanon, the Syrian Civil War now threatens to morph into the Syria War—a regional conflagration which seems likely to burn for a generation. And civilians are cursed to live it, and die in it, every day.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow at The Washington Institute.
By helping Assad's forces bridge the river, Moscow is increasing the risk of direct confrontation while obstructing U.S. efforts to defeat IS, stabilize eastern Syria, and limit Iranian arms transfers.
The Russian Ministry of Defense announced today that "Syrian government troops" crossed to the east bank of the Euphrates River using a Russian pontoon bridge and amphibious vehicles. Although the situation remains fluid, the crossing by what appeared to be elements of Syria's Iranian-trained and Russian-supported "5th Corps" has deep implications for U.S. policy on the Islamic State (IS), the Syria war, and Iran.
First, the move significantly discredits the argument that the Euphrates can serve as a viable deconfliction line while IS implodes, much like the Elbe River separated Russian and American forces in Europe at the conclusion of World War II. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces are arriving at Deir al-Zour from the northeast while Russian-supported Syrian forces and Shia militias (including Hezbollah) are arriving from the west. According to Russian media, the contingent crossing the Euphrates is a collection of local and national regime forces called the 5th Corps, many of whose members have been trained and organized by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Russia. The crossing increases the likelihood of confrontation between proxies or even between U.S. and Russian forces, as highlighted on September 16 when Russian aviation reportedly bombed SDF targets located within a couple miles of U.S. Special Operations Forces. This raises the question of how the United States intends to protect the SDF and other proxies fighting IS.
The move also complicates any potential SDF push down the east bank of the Euphrates toward local oil and gas fields, which could be used to fund reconstruction in former IS-controlled areas. Syrian regime spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban told Iran's Press TV that Bashar al-Assad's "strategic intent" was to halt the SDF's advance, describing the joint Kurdish-Arab brigade as an illegitimate aggressor and equating it with IS. If Russian and pro-Assad forces hold the bridgehead on the east bank, they will likely block the primary north-south road on that side of the river, forcing the SDF to continue pushing down the IS-controlled Khabur River Valley in order to reach the oil fields further south.
Assuming they are unable to capture the major energy and agricultural zones south of Deir al-Zour, the SDF -- and Washington -- would lose much of their leverage over the Assad regime, Iran, and Russia in any political settlement to the Syria crisis. That scenario might also further Assad's plan to retake "every inch" of the country by military means. In light of the regime's depleted manpower, that approach would likely entail wider involvement by the IRGC and Shia militias from Iraq, Afghanistan, and beyond. Given the large Sunni Arab majority population in the Euphrates Valley, such an outcome would exacerbate sectarian and extremist violence in the area, resulting in a "New Syria" that refugees are unlikely to return to.
In addition, the crossing brings Iran one step closer to its stated goal of creating a land bridge between Iraq and Syria, giving the Islamic Republic another avenue through which to place troops and weapons on the borders of U.S. allies. Tehran has steadily worked toward that goal even as Israel reached a de-escalation agreement in southwestern Syria designed to keep Hezbollah and other Iranian-supported militias a few kilometers away from the Golan Heights frontier. Such developments have incensed Israel's security establishment, increasing the likelihood that they will expand their military operations in and around Syria to loosen Iran's deepening grip on the country.
To head off this growing list of problems, the United States is engaging in serious diplomacy and communication with Moscow to avoid further military complications. Yet Washington also needs to reemphasize its support for the SDF at a time when the lines of control between them and pro-Assad forces are narrowing. This means establishing clear policy on what the United States will and will not do to defend its proxies in eastern Syria and elsewhere. In June, U.S. forces struck Shia militias threatening al-Tanf base in southern Syria, then downed an Assad regime aircraft attacking the SDF; these incidents serve as models for how to support proxies while avoiding escalation.
Washington's primary objective is to defeat IS, but the administration has also stated its intent to contain Iran's "malign activity" in the region. Russian diplomats claim there is no military solution to the conflict, but today's Euphrates crossing shows that defense officials in Moscow and Tehran have something different in mind, raising the risk of direct U.S. confrontation with Assad, Iran, and Russia. If one purpose of U.S. support for local actors such as the SDF is "shaping the environment" to contain Iran and its allies, then Washington needs to recognize that Tehran and Assad are directly challenging this goal with the help of Russian airpower. U.S. officials therefore need to decide what diplomatic and military moves are necessary, including frank conversations with the Russians.
Andrew J. Tabler is the Martin J. Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.
The game for who will rule eastern Syria after the Islamic State (or ISIS) is on. On May 18, the United States destroyed a military convoy allied with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad after it ignored repeated warnings to stop its advance on al-Tanf, a U.S. and British special operations base on the Syrian-Jordanian border. The base is covered under the October 2015 U.S.-Russian deconfliction agreement, which established a hotline for avoiding direct military confrontation between Russian- and U.S.-backed forces in Syria. This came a few days after the Russian base at Khmeimim had declared that its air force, along with Iranian military advisers, would support Assad’s troops in their attempt to push east, clearing the road from Damascus to Baghdad and preventing the formation of a U.S.-supported buffer zone in eastern Syria. All of this followed Washington’s announcement on May 9 that it would provide heavier weapons to the Kurdish factions of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to help them take ISIS’ capital, Raqqa—enraging U.S. ally Turkey.
Such actions are nominally about fighting ISIS. But the various actors in Syria are increasingly thinking about what comes next, with an eye toward the weaknesses of the other side. U.S.-Russian deconfliction agreements in Syria will likely soon be put to the test, increasing the likelihood for accidents at best. There is now a greater risk that the United States and its allies will be brought into direct military confrontation not only with Assad but with his Russian and Iranian backers—a risk that was previously tempered by the need of both factions to fight ISIS. To ensure that the risk of military confrontation remains manageable, the United States and Russia should agree on the parameters of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria that keeps the focus on ISIS and contains Iran’s ambitions for a land bridge through Syria to the Mediterranean. As things are going, however, this is unlikely to occur anytime soon, unless the Assad regime’s weaknesses are laid bare for its Russian and Iranian backers.
THE GREAT GAME
According to media reports, the May 18 U.S. strike on pro-Assad forces came after the column, made up of government troops and Shiite militiamen, refused instructions to turn around and ignored warning shots from U.S. aircraft. Although such aggressive moves by regime forces seemed to come from nowhere, bellicose messages had been emerging from the Russian air base at Khmeimim all week. These were noteworthy for their explicit intent and the degree to which they promised Russian cooperation with Iran. For instance, one message from the base’s Telegram feed stated:
The decision by Russia and Iran to encourage the Syrian government to push east comes in the wake of two major moves by the United States. The first was a missile strike against the Assad regime in April in response to its alleged use of sarin nerve gas—a violation of international law (the Chemical Weapons Convention, which Syria joined in 2013 as part of Security Council Resolution 2118) as well as of a 2013 U.S.-Russian agreement to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapons stockpiles. The second was Washington’s recent decision to ramp up support for the Kurdish-led SDF in its effort to liberate Raqqa.
Together, these moves signaled a deepening U.S. involvement in the Syrian war. The Americans’ previous plan for fighting ISIS in Syria, developed under former President Barack Obama, was based on support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party, a Syrian offshoot of the Turkish Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK is officially considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and is the archenemy of Washington’s NATO ally Turkey. To square this circle, the United States created an umbrella organization around the YPG—the SDF—that encouraged non-Kurdish groups to help the Kurds fight ISIS in eastern Syria and the Euphrates River valley in return for U.S. support. The hope was that as the SDF took over more territory, it would gain support from the Kurds’ Sunni Arab rivals, who make up the majority of the population in eastern Syria and in the Euphrates valley in particular. The valley is the heartland of ISIS and its precursor, al Qaeda, and holding it is key not only to defeating the organization but, most importantly, to ensuring that it does not come back stronger in the future.
Militarily, the plan has been a success. The SDF has significantly reduced ISIS’ territorial holdings, surrounded Raqqa, and gained the admiration of U.S. military advisers. Politically, however, the SDF remains dominated by the Kurds. And although some Arab fighters have joined the SDF, to date they have mostly been either Arab Christians and other minorities or else Sunni Bedouin tribesmen, who are rivals of the settled tribes of the Euphrates Valley. Unless Washington can convince the YPG to give up its majority shareholding in the SDF and share power with the settled tribes, the Kurds’ ability to hold Raqqa and the rest of the Euphrates Valley seems like a long shot.
Russia and Iran recognize that given the SDF’s limited ability to hold territory, the collapse of ISIS in eastern Syria presents an opportunity for the Assad regime to recapture lost ground. Over the past few months, Moscow and Tehran have thus been supporting the efforts of the government’s new Fifth Corps, an amalgam of pro-Assad militias with Russian and Iranian support, to push east from Aleppo to Manbij in north-central Syria—thereby cutting into Turkey’s buffer zone north of Aleppo—and then press south and east along the west bank of the Euphrates toward Raqqa. This move gives Russia multiple options: it can present the regime to the Sunni Arabs of the Euphrates Valley as a viable alternative to the SDF while leaving open the possibility of supporting the YPG in the event of greater U.S. cooperation with YPG rival Turkey. The move also enables Russia to play the role of spoiler to the United States’ plans in the region.
GETTING IN THE ZONE
The Russian-Iranian plan is ambitious, but it retains a critical flaw: the Assad regime’s depleted manpower means that it cannot conquer one piece of territory without exposing itself somewhere else. For instance, as the Fifth Corps pressed east over the past few months, the government began rapidly losing territory north of Hama, raising fears it would lose the city. Although Assad had repeatedly used chlorine gas since the 2013 deal, it was only after these recent losses that his forces turned to the far more deadly sarin. This in turn prompted the U.S. missile strike on Assad’s Shayrat airfield, which destroyed around one-fifth of the Syrian air force. But it also sent a message: the United States will not allow the Assad regime to gas its way out of the conflict with Russian and Iranian help.
Realizing the regime doesn’t have the resources to fight on multiple fronts, Moscow and Tehran proposed in early May the creation of several “de-escalation zones,” or areas that the regime would not attack, in exchange for Russian and Iranian forces acting as “guarantors” that would monitor ceasefire violations. Such an arrangement would have allowed Russia and Iran to accept a de facto partition of the country without ceding control of the zones to neighboring countries, particularly Jordan and Turkey, supporting the opposition in those areas. From a U.S. perspective, the area with the greatest potential (and highest priority) for a prospective de-escalation zone is southwest Syria, including Deraa and the area abutting the Golan Heights. There, the armed opposition is more moderate—and, to date, more manageable—than in many other areas, and the Iranians’ presence is small enough that their ability to act as spoilers may be limited. As a result, southwest Syria is an area where a deconfliction agreement backed by U.S. and Russian security guarantees has a more realistic chance of succeeding.
Securing the south would not only protect U.S. allies Jordan and Israel from jihadists and the Assad regime, it would also provide a foothold for future anti-ISIS military operations to move east into the Euphrates Valley. Southern Syria’s Sunni Arabs, supported from Jordan, could also provide a possible alternative, or complement, to the SDF.
Russia’s announcement of joint operations with Iran to help Assad push toward the Euphrates also signaled that, as the Americans long suspected, Moscow intends to help Tehran secure a land bridge—a contiguous stretch of territory controlled by Iranian allies—from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Hezbollah-controlled areas in Lebanon, which would allow for the delivery of more and heavier weapons westward to Syria and Lebanon. Yet this is unlikely to convince other countries in the region, such as the Gulf states and Jordan, to stop supporting the opposition and may actually intensify the conflict. It could also provoke a response from U.S. President Donald Trump, whose administration seeks to counter Iran’s expansionist ambitions in places far outside its traditional sphere of influence, including the wilds of eastern Syria.
LOCATION, LOCATION, LOCATION
The outcome of the Russian- and Iranian-supported thrust eastward remains unclear. Over the past few days, pro-regime forces and allied Shiite militias—reportedly flying Russian flags at the head of their columns—have been capturing territory from ISIS in the Badiya, the area east of Damascus in southern Syria. Yet taking and holding areas closer to the Euphrates will require many more troops, highlighting the regime’s manpower deficiencies and putting the Russians’ and Iranians’ willingness to escalate to the test.
The best way for Washington to manage this situation is to let the regime expend its energy pushing out toward the Euphrates while preparing for the advance to stall, as it looks likely to do. This requires sticking with the U.S.-Russian deconfliction agreements to protect al-Tanf while strengthening opposition groups in the region, many of which include Sunni Arabs and are therefore more politically acceptable to the locals. Initial indications from Syrian and Russian sources are that Assad intends to take the ISIS stronghold of Deir ez-Zor in the central Euphrates Valley, giving the United States time to bolster opposition forces south toward Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border. Such an initiative would give the United States better options in southern Syria, help key U.S. allies Jordan and Israel, and temper Iran’s plans to dominate the Baghdad–Damascus road. It would also give the United States much-needed Sunni Arab political support for—or an alternative to—the Kurdish-dominated SDF in eastern Syria.
As the Trump administration decides whether to pursue a
limited military response, it should use existing international legal
mechanisms to pressure Damascus and Moscow right away.
On April 4, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against
civilians in Syria's Idlib province, creating an early and potent test for the
Trump administration's foreign policy. While Washington has prioritized
defeating the Islamic State in eastern Syria, the regime's ceasefire violations
and use of CW in the western part of the country show that President Bashar
al-Assad is continuing his effort to reclaim every inch of Syrian territory,
despite lacking the forces to do so. As long as this dynamic persists, the use
of CW and other strategic weapons will likely continue, impeding efforts to
reach a negotiated settlement that keeps the country intact. This in turn will
worsen the humanitarian crisis and allow U.S.-designated terrorist groups to
expand their safe havens.
The administration has already begun formulating its public
response to the attack, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson indicating a
potential policy shift during an April 6 press conference: "Assad's role
in the future is uncertain clearly, and with the acts that he has taken it
would seem that there would be no role for him to govern the Syrian
people." If the president decides to back this rhetoric up with robust
action, he can draw on several existing international mechanisms.
As the Fact Finding Mission established by the Organisation for
the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) gathers evidence on the substance
used in this week's attack and those responsible, Washington and its partners
should demand that the Assad regime comply with the mission's mandate,
particularly the so-called Joint Investigative Mechanism. To date, this
mechanism has helped the OPCW determine that the Assad regime used chlorine gas
on at least three separate occasions. These are clear violations of the
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which Syria joined as part of the
much-touted 2013 CW deal brokered by Russia and the United States. If the
suspected use of sarin gas on April 4 is likewise verified, it will prove what
the OPCW has long suspected -- that Syria has not disclosed all of its CW
stockpile as required under the 2013 deal, an equally serious matter with deep
consequences for international nonproliferation efforts.
More broadly, these developments show that Assad is escalating
his ruthless bid to stay in power. By indiscriminately gassing opposition-held
areas and obstructing a political resolution, he is ensuring that the country
remains in a permanent state of partition, hemorrhaging people and filling up
with terrorist organizations on all sides. And by not following through on his
commitments under the CWC, he threatens to supercharge the conflict -- the
longer he uses such weapons, the more likely they are to fall into terrorist
hands, not to mention the fact that such outrages boost radicalization and
recruitment efforts. In short, the situation continues to pose a clear threat
to regional and international security.
The United States should therefore turn the tables on Assad,
using his CWC violations as leverage to gain compliance on three other issues:
·A sustainable ceasefire that would allow genuine political talks
to take place
·A political transition as outlined in the 2012 Geneva Communique
and UN Security Council Resolution 2254
·The creation of safe zones in Syria to protect civilians.
Compliance with the OPCW and the Geneva Communique are both
enshrined in the same Security Council document: Resolution 2118, which is
enforceable by measures such as sanctions and use of force following the
passage of a subsequent Chapter VII resolution. Resolution 2235, which created
the Joint Investigative Mechanism, is a Chapter VII resolution. Among other
benefits, pushing for enforcement of these resolutions would compel Russia to
reveal whether it is unable or simply unwilling to goad the Assad regime into
stopping its CW use and negotiating a political transition. This approach would
also prepare Americans for a possible military showdown with Assad over his CWC
violations. Moreover, the resolutions could serve as a means of gaining Russian
acquiescence on the necessity of safe zones in Syria.
AND NEGOTIATING IN GOOD FAITH
Focusing on the effort to rid Syria of CW would help Washington
determine exactly where it stands with both Damascus and Moscow. The best way
to prevent Assad from escalating the crisis and dominating the transition is to
pressure him into complying with the CWC, particularly the provisions regarding
use and disclosure. This would also take away a strategic weapon that the
regime has repeatedly used and keep it from falling into terrorist hands. The
sequencing of this strategy could unfold as follows:
Create diplomatic pressure around Resolutions 2118 and
2235. This effort should focus on two issues: destroying CW and
facilitating the transitional governing body outlined by the Geneva
Communique. The CW problem is the only Syrian issue on which there is
clear Security Council agreement regarding the steps Assad must take.
Similarly, the transition process outlined in the Geneva Communique has broad
international acceptance. Emphasizing these two issues by focusing on
compliance with Resolution 2118 would keep the regime on agenda and steer it
away from justifying its onslaught against civilians as a war on
"terrorism." At the same time, the U.S. government should continue pushing
for adoption of UN draft resolutions that would hold regime figures accountable
for any involvement in CW attacks. Such resolutions should have clear
consequences in the event of noncompliance.
Build public pressure on Damascus and Moscow based on Assad's
CWC noncompliance. By highlighting the regime's use of CW and repeated
ceasefire violations, Washington can determine once and for all whether Russia
will convince Assad to meet his commitments on CW and political transition.
Such an approach would also prod Moscow on the humanitarian and political
front, giving it an excuse to truly pressure Assad.
Increase political support for a
viable Syrian settlement and efforts to combat terrorism. Diplomatic
and public pressure could help restore opposition support for the United States
following its nadir under the Obama administration. Washington could in turn
use this goodwill to obtain rebel guarantees concerning a ceasefire and
political talks. This could also serve as a good first step toward creating political
support for safe zones in order to protect civilians and push out terrorist groups.
Warn Russia to stay clear of Syrian bases. In order to
manage the risk of escalation and Russian retaliation for collateral damage
from possible U.S. military strikes, Washington should warn Moscow to keep its
forces away from all Syrian bases involved in the planning of CW attacks or the
mixing/deployment of CW agents.
THE SWORD OF
DAMOCLES: LIMITED DIRECT MILITARY FORCE
Assad's record since 2013 shows that he does not change course
substantially unless he is confronted with the credible threat of U.S. military
force. His response to Israeli military strikes is instructive in this regard.
In the past, the regime did little when Israeli jets entered Syrian airspace
and bombed convoys attempting to transfer strategic weapons to Hezbollah. More
recently, however, it has used antiaircraft systems to fire on Israeli planes
as they conduct such missions, seemingly self-assured by its growing military
support from Russia and Iran. It is imperative to get Assad off that dangerous
course. This is not just a matter of American credibility: by prolonging and
escalating the war, the regime is perpetuating direct threats to the United
States and its allies in Europe and the Middle East.
The domestic political timing increases the urgency: President
Trump will face growing scrutiny over his handling of the crisis, constraining
his ability to take assertive steps on other pressing international issues
(e.g., the North Korea situation). As the administration decides whether to
pursue the relatively low-cost option of a limited military response (e.g.,
cruise missile strikes), it can take effective international action against the
Assad regime's behavior right away, mainly by pressing for implementation of
Resolutions 2118 and 2235 and demanding the creation of safe zones.
Andrew Tabler is the Martin J.
Gross Fellow in The Washington Institute's Program on Arab Politics.