How to Contain Putin’s Russia
A Strategy for Countering a Rising Revisionist Power
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.
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 collected all the major anti-Assad actors—the United States, France, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and Qatar—and padded the guest list with lesser critics, such as Albania, Austria, and India, to make for an impressive total of 60 nations calling for political transition in Syria.
The Friends of Syria held three more meetings in 2012: in Istanbul, Paris, and finally Marrakech. The coalition used each event to pledge more aid to the opposition and trot favored dissidents out in front of the cameras in the hopes of granting them international legitimacy. In December 2012 in Marrakech, a record-breaking 114 international delegates called for Assad’s overthrow.
Yet the Friends of Syria conference was less than met the eye. Most delegates were only there because it was a cost-free substitute for action. Some were even more self-interested, seeking simply to score points with Washington or beg favors from the Arab oil kingdoms. These were fair-weather friends, and when it became clear that Assad’s removal would require massive violence, they lost interest.
In 2012 and 2013, Syria slid from violent unrest into one of the cruelest civil wars of our time. Assad’s men fired the first bullets and escalated the conflict through appalling brutality, but the Friends of Syria also shared a large portion of responsibility for what followed.
Turkey opened its territory to armed rebels in summer 2011 and made no real effort to keep foreign extremists out until years later, when the situation in northern Syria had spun out of control. Qatar was said to have poured up to $3 billion into backing the uprising during its first two years. Its perennial rival, Saudi Arabia, naturally got in the game to muscle out the Qataris, boosting the power of the Syrian rebels even more.
The Friends of Syria empowered an insurgency that was chronically divided, comprising hundreds of little groups fighting for control of villages and checkpoints. Insofar as there was competent leadership, it tended to be by sectarian Islamists, including a Syrian al Qaeda affiliate known as al-Nusra Front. Wherever the rebels won, state institutions collapsed and anarchy erupted, followed by an explosion of jihadist recruitment.
The United States had already facilitated Qatari, Saudi, and Turkish arms shipments in 2012, but in 2013 President Barack Obama raised the stakes by ordering the CIA to directly pay and arm vetted rebels. This was not only a way for Washington to punish Assad after U.S. intelligence found him responsible for a series of chemical attacks, but it was also an attempt to grab the United States’ regional allies by the tail and drag them away from anti-Western extremists.
The Friends of Syria empowered an insurgency that was chronically divided.
“We had partners who were just throwing all sorts of resources at the conflict,” said Derek Chollet, who at the time was Obama’s assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. “Many of those resources ended up in the wrong hands. It was very much in the spirit of ‘the enemy of my enemy,’ and to some of our partners it didn’t matter if their support ended up with [al-Nusra] or other groups,” he told me in 2016. “So we spent a lot of time on trying to persuade them to support the moderate opposition and galvanizing the international community to empower the moderate groups.”
Indeed, Washington did spend a lot of time—and a lot of money. The anti-Assad campaign quickly grew into “one of the costliest covert action programs” in CIA history; by 2015 its budgeted expenses approached $1 billion.
Yet by 2013, as the United States was deepening its involvement in the Syrian war, many of the other Friends of Syria wanted out.
Although London and Paris continued to urge Washington to get more deeply involved in Syria, and Turkey and the Gulf Arabs remained hawkish about toppling Assad, most other governments in Europe and elsewhere were unwilling to get their hands dirty on behalf of an opposition they didn’t like, trust, or believe in. They had been willing to call for Assad’s resignation from the sidelines, but wanted nothing to do with the jihadist-infested insurgency that now threatened his rule.
So the Friends of Syria began to fall apart. The December 2012 conference in Marrakech marked the end of the era of big meetings. From then on, the anti-Assad campaign had to make do with a much smaller set of core supporters, including France, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States. But even these rebel backers were unwilling to go the full mile and help Syria’s fragmented opposition wipe out the regime, which meant that their support for the insurgency succeeded only in prolonging the war.
In September 2015, Russia intervened in support of Assad, closing off the already distant possibility of U.S. aerial intervention and tipping the military balance in the regime’s favor. By spring 2016, pitiless Russian bombing had allowed Assad and his allies to lay siege to eastern Aleppo, a major stronghold of the opposition. By the end of 2016, the regime had fully retaken the city.
Two more blows to the opposition in 2016 sealed its fate: first, Turkey shifted its attention to the Kurdish groups on its border, and began dialing down its support for regime change in order to cultivate better relations with Moscow. Second, in November 2016 American voters elected Donald Trump, a critic of U.S. involvement in Syria, to the presidency. In July, he ended the CIA program, which he called “massive, dangerous, and wasteful.” Since then, he has said that the United States has “very little to do with Syria other than killing ISIS.”
The rest of the former Friends of Syria are also backpedaling.
In June 2017, newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron said, “nobody has shown me a legitimate successor” to Assad. The United Kingdom seems more reluctant to publicly change its stance on the Syrian leader, but it is taking no tangible action to kill or depose him, and it won’t wage war alone. Turkey, meanwhile, has continued to work with Assad’s allies Russia and Iran through the Astana peace process. And although Turkish troops are intervening in northern Syria, they avoid regime positions and have banned their rebel clients from fighting Syrian government forces. Ankara’s mission is to build influence along the border, temper jihadist blowback, and roll back Kurdish gains, with or without Assad.
Further south, Jordan is pushing its rebel clients to maintain a ceasefire with the regime while trying to broker a resumption of Jordanian–Syrian border trade. Amman is also attempting, partly at Israel’s urging, to get Iran out of southern Syria. The Saudis and Qataris haven’t stopped hating Assad, but they can do little without Jordanian, Turkish, and U.S. help. And since June 2017, the Saudis and Qataris have been busy fighting each other. “The Saudis don’t care about Syria anymore,” a senior Western diplomat recently told The Guardian. “It’s all Qatar for them. Syria is lost.”
The most recent Friends of Syria-style meeting, which took place in New York in September, drew 17 foreign ministers, mostly from European and Arab states, but their final statement made no mention of Assad. Although they agreed to bar all reconstruction aid to Syria in the absence of “a credible political process leading to a genuine political transition,” even that decision came with its own Assad-sized loophole. U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield took pains to clarify that the language about transition was not really a demand for Assad’s overthrow. “The outcome to that [transition] process may be protracted,” he told reporters, “but it’s the process itself that’s the key to unlocking the door, not the actual outcome of the process.”
In short, although the last few Friends of Syria may insist that they have not changed their position, their former demand for Assad’s removal has been gutted of all meaning. This is the context in which Tillerson’s comments in Geneva should be understood. Tillerson was not saying that the United States is determined to bring Assad’s reign to an end. Rather, he claimed to believe that the regime will come to an end soon anyway, negating the need for U.S. involvement. Specifically, Tillerson insisted that Assad’s departure will “likely” happen through “implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254,” which calls for internationally monitored free elections.
But that’s a nonstarter, and he knows it. There will be no free elections in Syria. Resolution 2254 does not include any mechanism for enforcement, should Assad fail to voluntarily accede to its demands, and Russia can veto any attempt to take action through the UN. In other words, referring back to the UN process is a cop out: the secretary of state portrays a UN-led transition as the way to realize a U.S. policy of getting Assad out, even though he knows that regime change could only work the other way around. If the United States and its allies are not prepared to help Syrian rebels destroy his regime, Assad stays.
The Syrian leader need not worry. In practice, the international campaign to unseat him is over, and although Assad’s reign will certainly end someday, it is now more likely to come by old age than by UN resolution, however sharply worded.