Keeping Out of Syria

The Least Bad Option

Behind enemy lines: Kurdish fighters in Raqqa, Syria, July 2017 GORAN TOMASEVIC / REUTERS

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

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