The Russian Military’s People Problem
It’s Hard for Moscow to Win While Mistreating Its Soldiers
The Syrian civil war has entered a new phase. President Bashar al-Assad’s government has consolidated its grip on the western half of the country, and in the east, U.S.-backed forces are advancing on the remnants of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS). So far, these two campaigns have remained largely separate. But that is changing: Assad, with Iranian and Russian help, is starting to project more power into eastern Syria. As ISIS’ remaining territory shrinks, Syrian and U.S.-backed forces are converging on the same cities. Before long, Washington will have to decide whether, when, and how to withdraw.
The United States has no good options in Syria, but some are worse than others. By now, hopes of getting rid of Assad or securing a reformed government are far-fetched fantasies, and so support for antigovernment factions should be off the table. The Syrian government is determined to take back the entire country and will probably succeed in doing so. That means the United States will have to abandon any hopes of supporting a separate Kurdish region or securing respect for human rights and democracy. And because Assad’s government is deeply corrupt, the United States should also rule out providing the regime with aid for reconstruction. There is, however, one way in which the United States can still do good: easing the suffering of the millions of Syrian refugees outside the country. By focusing on their plight, Washington would help some of the most vulnerable Syrians, reduce the burden on the countries that host them, and curb opportunities for jihadist recruitment in refugee communities.
Over the last year and a half, Assad’s government has achieved an unprecedented string of military successes in western Syria. In December 2016, it forced the last rebel fighters and their families to quit Aleppo, Syria’s second-largest city, and then in May, it seized the final rebel holdout in the country’s third-largest city, Homs. Meanwhile, government forces have advanced steadily against longtime rebel strongholds near Damascus, capturing Daraya in August 2016 and Barzeh and Qaboun this past spring.
A series of blunders by the opposition have aided Assad’s success. Murderous leadership rivalries among the opposition have prevented unified military operations. The opposition’s political leaders have failed to reach out to elements of the government’s support base, such as religious minority communities and middle-class business interests, that might have been sympathetic to their aims. The opposition was slow to reject extremist organizations operating in its midst, most notably the al Qaeda–affiliated al-Nusra Front. And rebel groups have never openly punished fighters who have committed atrocities. These failures have allowed Assad to retain enough support among Syria’s disparate professional, business, and minority communities, who fear they would suffer under Islamist rule, to mobilize the necessary resources and manpower to hang on.
Assad has also benefited from foreign help. The Iranian government has assembled tens of thousands of Shiite fighters from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, and even Pakistan to fight for the Syrian government. Together with Russian air support, these troops helped Assad’s ground forces recapture Syria’s main population centers.
At the same time as Assad has received help from abroad, the opposition’s foreign support has withered away. In 2016, Turkey and the United States fell out over U.S. backing for Syrian Kurds fighting ISIS in eastern Syria. Turkey, fearing the development of an independent Kurdish region along its southern border, dropped its campaign against Assad and redirected its aid to Syrian rebels who would fight the Kurds. Then, in July, U.S. President Donald Trump ended a largely moribund CIA program that had been intended to help secular rebels fighting Assad, as the groups it had supported had turned into mere auxiliaries of al-Nusra Front.
As the military outcome has grown more certain, Russia has sought to capitalize on its intervention to secure a favorable political settlement that would halt the fighting and leave Syria under the control of the existing government. After the fall of Aleppo, Moscow brought delegations from the Syrian government and several opposition groups together in Astana, Kazakhstan, along with officials from Iran and Turkey in the hope that each country would compel its Syrian allies to end hostilities on the ground. In May, Iran, Russia, and Turkey announced four “de-escalation zones” covering some of the remaining rebel strongholds in western Syria: Idlib in the northwest; an area including towns north of Homs; the eastern suburbs of Damascus; and the southwest corner of Syria near the Jordanian border, including the city of Daraa, where the uprising started in 2011. Under the agreement, all combatants would halt attacks against the nonextremist forces in those zones, and the Syrian government would allow access for humanitarian aid and returning civilians.
So far, these diplomatic efforts have met with incomplete success, largely because the Syrian government, with Iranian backing, has failed to observe the cease-fires whenever doing so would be to its advantage. Of the four de-escalation zones declared in May, only Idlib experienced a substantial decline in fighting at first. Government air strikes and ground assaults continued north of Homs, in eastern Damascus, and in the southwest. Then, in July, Russia—working with Jordan and the United States, which had backed the southern rebels—introduced a new cease-fire deal in the southwest, which has held up better.
Syrian government forces will keep advancing, mile by mile, by turns obeying and flouting cease-fires as military advantage dictates.
The ability to selectively respect de-escalation zones has proved a military gift to the Syrian government. In the southwest, the Syrian army was making only slow headway in Daraa. And without sustained Russian air support to complement Syrian ground and air assaults, retaking Idlib would have been difficult, if not impossible. As a result, by August, the Syrian government was largely respecting the cease-fires around Daraa and Idlib while shifting its troops away from the southwestern border to attack the eastern suburbs of Damascus and towns north of Homs. This strategy of obeying some of the cease-fires and ignoring others has allowed the government to achieve military victories it otherwise would not have.
Of course, Damascus will not respect the remaining cease-fires forever. In southern Syria, civilians are establishing local governments to provide services and promote economic revival. And in several towns in Idlib Province, residents have organized elections for town managers. Because the Syrian government has consistently rejected all other political entities within Syria as illegitimate, it will make great efforts to quash these organizations. In Damascus in 2015 and 2016, for instance, it shut down independent administrations in neighborhoods that had made peace with the government.
The Syrian government’s refusal to accept the legitimacy of other political groups within Syria has stalled progress at the UN peace talks in Geneva. Assad’s envoys refuse to discuss any political reforms, much less a transition away from Assad himself. Meanwhile, the opposition’s delegation, backed by Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the West, has insisted that Assad must give up power as part of any deal. This deadlock shows no signs of breaking before the next round of talks, scheduled for October or November.
Over the coming weeks and months, Syrian government forces will keep advancing, mile by mile, by turns obeying and flouting cease-fires as military advantage dictates. At some point, Assad might agree to token political changes at the behest of Russia or even Iran. He might allow a new prime minister or a new economy or culture minister, but he will never accept transparency or hold free and fair elections. The core of the vicious security state—one that has used chemical weapons, dropped barrel bombs, co-opted terrorist groups, and tortured and killed thousands—will remain.
In eastern Syria, detached from Assad’s struggle against the opposition in the west, U.S.-backed forces have made great progress against ISIS. By August, three years after U.S. President Barack Obama launched the anti-ISIS campaign in Syria, the U.S.-led coalition had driven the group out of nearly 60 percent of the territory it once held. That progress has come at a human and diplomatic cost: U.S. air strikes have killed hundreds of civilians, and U.S. support for Kurdish forces has damaged the United States’ relationship with Turkey. In June, over Ankara’s strenuous objections, the Trump administration began openly supplying weapons to the People’s Protection Units, known as the YPG, a Kurdish militia fighting ISIS in Syria, despite the group’s direct ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or PKK, a terrorist organization based in northern Iraq. In an attempt to assuage Turkey’s concerns, the United States recruited a group of Arab fighters to create an alliance with the Kurds, known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), but the YPG forms the backbone of the group.
In the summer of 2017, for the first time in the Syrian civil war, ISIS began confronting sustained attacks from both U.S.-backed and Iranian- and Russian-backed armies. As of this writing, the SDF, with U.S. air support, has nearly retaken ISIS’ capital, Raqqa, and has moved into the group’s last bastion, the southeastern province of Deir ez-Zor, whose oil fields have supplied ISIS with funds. Meanwhile, in early September, Syrian government forces charged into the province’s capital, also called Deir ez-Zor, which lies on the banks of the Euphrates River. Russia and the United States have agreed that the river should separate the two forces, with Syrian government troops remaining on the west bank and the SDF staying on the east. At the same time as government forces are advancing on the city, they are in the process of recapturing the rest of the province of Deir ez-Zor west of the Euphrates, while the SDF takes the portion of the province east of the river.
Once the SDF captures Raqqa and Syrian government troops reach Abu Kamal, the last Syrian city west of the Euphrates before one reaches the Iraqi border, there will be no ISIS bastions left to retake. Then, Damascus will look for a way to seize Deir ez-Zor’s oil fields, which will be vital for financing reconstruction, but which lie well east of the river. The Syrian government will also take an extremely dim view of the provisional civic council that the SDF is setting up to govern the portions of the province it controls. The internal tribal feuds that will likely split the SDF in the wake of ISIS’ collapse will give the Syrian government a chance to move its forces east of the Euphrates, as well as providing Sunni militants with recruitment opportunities.
In the summer of 2017, for the first time in the Syrian civil war, ISIS began confronting sustained attacks from both U.S.-backed and Iranian- and Russian-backed armies.
The Syrian government has already rejected the legitimacy of the Syrian Kurdish autonomous region, known as Rojava, being established in northeastern Syria. In August, Faisal Mekdad, Syria’s deputy foreign minister, stated that the government would not allow any region to threaten “national unity” and called the local elections that the Kurds are organizing in Rojava “a joke.” For his part, Assad has repeatedly stressed that his government will defeat “separatists.” Nor does Iran, which is confronting restiveness among its own Kurdish population, harbor any affection for an autonomous Syrian Kurdish zone. Assad and the Iranians will be patient, however. Their forces may delay before moving against the SDF in Deir ez-Zor or the Kurds in northeastern Syria, but they won’t accept local governments that can ignore and insult Damascus. After all, the civil war began back in 2011 over Assad’s refusal to reform his autocratic government.
Now that the end of the campaign against ISIS is in sight, the Trump administration will have to decide how long to keep a U.S. military presence in eastern Syria. Between 1,000 and 2,000 U.S. soldiers and a handful of American civilians are currently deployed in the country. The U.S. mission inside Syria started as military support for the Kurdish forces fighting ISIS but has grown to include keeping the peace between government forces, Arab rebels, and even Turkish soldiers in the northern Syrian city of Manbij and helping carry out initial reconstruction work. The United States’ first priority should be avoiding further mission creep and, above all, taking care not to get ensnared in any costly new military campaigns.
There will be no shortage of seemingly plausible reasons to intervene. When the Syrian government and Kurdish forces inevitably fight over Kurdish self-governance in Rojava, or if the Syrian government attacks SDF forces in eastern Deir ez-Zor, the United States may be tempted to step in on behalf of old allies. That would be a mistake. No significant actor in the eastern Syrian war—not Jordan, nor the Iraqi Kurds, nor the Iraqi government in Baghdad—would help defend the Syrian Kurds or even the SDF fighters in Deir ez-Zor. The Turkish government would cheer Assad’s repression of the Syrian Kurds and would likely impede any U.S. aid that passed through Turkey. Russia is sensitive to Western intervention against authoritarian governments and has, in any case, limited leverage. Iran, facing its own restive Kurdish population, would back Assad. Moreover, there is no political will in the United States for a war on behalf of Syrian Kurdish interests or Syrian Arab tribal fighters in Deir ez-Zor, and eastern Syria has never been important to U.S. national security.
Policymakers in Washington and Jerusalem are also anxious about Iran’s military position in Syria near the Golan Heights, from which it could threaten Israel. This is a legitimate concern: Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, one of the largest Iranian-mobilized Iraqi fighter groups in Syria, has already vowed that its next fight will be to liberate the Golan Heights. Syria is not the place to resist Iranian expansionism, however. Air strikes won’t compel Iranian forces to quit Syria, and ground incursions would simply force the United States to defend territories against sustained Iranian and Syrian unconventional warfare tactics. History indicates that the Iranian and Syrian governments might even recruit jihadists to fight U.S. forces. And the United States could expect little help from Turkey in any conflict with Iran. U.S. aid to Kurdish groups in Syria has created the potential for cooperation between Ankara and Tehran; in August, the chief of staff of the Iranian army visited Ankara for the first time since 1979. No one can know how long a war to limit Iranian influence in Syria would take or what achievable victory would look like.
As a result, many policymakers in Washington and Jerusalem hope that Russia will limit Iran’s influence, forestalling the need for a direct military confrontation. These hopes are misguided. Russia will not jeopardize its political and business relationships with Iran, which include shared interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Washington and Jerusalem should recognize that they both made their choice years ago. Having accepted that Assad will stay in power, the United States must also accept a newly influential Iran.
The United States’ first priority should be avoiding further mission creep and, above all, taking care not to get ensnared in any costly new military campaigns.
Fortunately, the United States can live with greater Iranian influence in Syria. Iran’s presence will complicate Israeli security but will not threaten the country’s existence. Worse would be jihadists regaining Syrian territory and using it as a base to export terrorism. This is a real danger, as new jihadist groups have repeatedly appeared from the remnants of old ones. In 2011, for example, al-Nusra Front emerged from al Qaeda in Iraq. Al-Nusra learned from its predecessor: it was less brutal and concluded many alliances with non-jihadist groups until it could turn the tables on its erstwhile allies and destroy them one by one. If a new version of al Qaeda emerges in Syria, it will have learned from al-Nusra Front and ISIS and will likely be far harder to identify and contain than its forerunners.
The best way to forestall extremist recruitment in the few areas still controlled by the opposition would be to restart the local economy. Economic frustrations among the residents of poor suburbs around Aleppo, Damascus, and Homs helped stir the original 2011 uprising. And according to a poll conducted by Burson-Marsteller, a public relations firm, in 2017, 25 percent of young people in the Middle East considered providing better education and jobs the best means of resisting ISIS; only 13 percent thought the solution was military action. Right now, however, economic growth is a distant prospect. Only when the fighting stops will businesses be able to reopen and administrations be able to restore essential services such as clean water, electricity, hospitals, and schools. The Russian diplomatic strategy of creating de-escalation zones might allow for better local governance and economic recovery in those zones if the Syrian government would respect them. The United States, therefore, ought to back the Russian approach on the condition that economic aid will flow only if the cease-fires are respected.
Securing even minimal respect for human rights, democratic norms, or good governance in Syria is now impossible.
Russia hopes that the West will eventually offer aid to rebuild Assad’s portions of Syria. But recent UN humanitarian programs have proved that attempting this would be a fool’s errand. Because outside resources have to flow through the Syrian government, substantial portions of UN aid have ended up in the pockets of government cronies or flowed solely to favored groups that support the government. In any case, U.S. sanctions against the Syrian government will make such an aid program legally impossible for the foreseeable future. Some analysts, including the Syria specialist Joshua Landis, have argued that the sanctions should be dismantled because they primarily punish the Syrian people rather than the government. These arguments miss the key point: the Syrian people will suffer official corruption, brutality, and economic mismanagement no matter what Washington and its allies do. The only question is whether to waste U.S. resources on the Syrian government.
Likewise, securing even minimal respect for human rights, democratic norms, or good governance in Syria is now impossible. Assad and his spokespeople have consistently said that the government will reassert full control over all Syrian territory. They mean it. The Baathist ideology that infuses the Syrian state rejects decentralization, and Syria lacks skilled provincial and town administrators. Iraq’s experience of corruption, mismanagement, and political infighting shows how hard it can be to decentralize a Baathist state, even with a degree of willpower and oil wealth that Syria does not have. Assad would rather live with a weakened but brutal centralized state than try to introduce real reform, a choice he made years ago.
There is one area where U.S. aid could do good: helping Syrian refugees in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey. The governments of those countries, already overstretched, would likely allow the U.S. government and partner organizations to operate with greater autonomy than they could in Syrian-government-controlled areas. A renewed U.S. drive to raise funds would be extremely useful at a time of growing donor fatigue and dwindling UN resources, which have led to cuts in food rations in some refugee camps. Given the economic hardships in Syria and the government’s ethnic-cleansing program—the regime has seized whole neighborhoods in cities such as Damascus and Homs from restive communities in which the opposition found roots—many refugees are unlikely to return home in the near future. Helping those refugees maintain a semblance of dignity would diminish the appeal of extremists and partially relieve a vast humanitarian crisis. Such a meager policy would represent a sad response to an uprising that demanded at its start only basic accountability from the government and a recognition of Syrians’ dignity as human beings. But for the time being, it is the best the United States can do.