Syria’s Fair-weather Friends

What Happened to the Opposition's Backers?

A Syrian opposition fighter in Aleppo, August 2012. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

On October 26, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters in Geneva that “the United States wants a whole and unified Syria with no role for [President] Bashar Assad in the government.” He added, “The reign of the Assad family is coming to an end, and the only issue is how that should be brought about.” 

Tillerson’s statement seemed confusing—was Washington toughening its stance on Syria? It was particularly odd coming from someone whose boss, U.S. President Donald Trump, has referred to Syria as “quicksand” from which the United States should steer clear.

What made the statement odder still is that Assad is in no hurry to leave, and Washington knows it. His opponents are in disarray. Over the past year, his forces have retaken insurgent strongholds in Aleppo and eastern Syria. All remaining credible efforts to topple him are dominated by jihadists, who cannot hope to receive the international backing they would need to succeed. Non-jihadist insurgents have been reduced to the status of Jordanian and Turkish border guards, while the U.S.-backed Kurds in northern Syria want to cut a deal with Damascus. 

Opponents of the Assad regime attribute his string of victories to Russian or Iranian support, and it’s true that Assad would be worse off without his allies. He would perhaps be dead. But the story of how Syria’s failing regime rebounded to win the war isn’t just about who supported Assad. It’s also about the coalition, the Friends of Syria, that supported his opponents—until it didn’t.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in Geneva, October 2017. Reuters


Syria looked very different five years ago. At the time, Assad was facing widespread unrest and defections from his military, and many observers thought he was on the way out. To hurry him along, the United States and France engineered a coalition known as the Friends of Syria.

The first Friends of Syria conference was held in Tunis in February 2012. It drew a big crowd. Nimble American diplomacy had

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