The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
The United States’ interests in Syria lie in formalizing its battlefield gains with a negotiated settlement and then leaving the country. To achieve this goal, it will need to find common cause in the short term with its greatest geopolitical foe, Russia. Doing so will require Washington to acknowledge a painful but obvious truth: Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has largely routed the anti-regime insurgency, consolidated power in much of the country’s west, and received open-ended support and security guarantees from Moscow and Tehran. Assad will govern most of Syria for the foreseeable future.
For the United States, the impetus (and legal justification) for its presence in Syria was the war against the Islamic State (or ISIS), waged to deny the group safe haven and, in so doing, prop up the government of Iraq and ensure that ISIS fighters could not plot and execute terrorist attacks in the West. The success of this war, however, has raised uncomfortable questions about what Washington should do next. Tensions with Moscow and Tehran have helped galvanize support among some U.S. policymakers for an open-ended presence in northeastern Syria, meant to prevent hard-fought U.S. gains from being turned over to hostile powers.
The intention behind such a strategy is easy to understand, but the logic is backward. The United States does have an incentive to challenge Moscow where it can, but it has a losing hand in Syria. Washington’s best bet is to negotiate a withdrawal of its own forces, which would leave Russia to manage the costs of a seven-year-old civil war. Granting Moscow this short-term win, moreover, would leave it on the hook for the antics of the odious Assad regime.
Such a settlement would allow the United States to shift its focus toward planning for the long run, where its position is more favorable. Instead of getting dragged into yet more fighting in Syria, Washington should be opposing Russia by pursuing a policy of dual containment toward the latter’s Middle Eastern allies, Damascus and Tehran. This policy could include financial sanctions on Moscow for its commitment to Assad, further raising the cost of reconstruction efforts while making Russia pay for its support of a murderous, rogue regime. Such a posture in the Middle East would complement NATO’s ongoing efforts to deter Russian aggression in eastern Europe by bolstering the allied military presence in the Baltic states. These two efforts would work in tandem to contain Damascus while pushing back against Russia on multiple fronts.
The first step to challenging Russia is, ironically, to settle the Syrian conflict on terms Moscow can accept. To negotiate an end to the war, the United States must offer Russia something it wants—and think about what the United States wants in return. Russia’s main interest is preserving the Syrian regime’s hold on power. The United States, by contrast, is focused on denying a safe haven to ISIS. The United States’ local ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is reliant on the Kurdish-majority Democratic Union Party, the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party. The SDF has borne the brunt of the ground war against ISIS and is pushing for autonomous governance in areas under its control, a policy that is unacceptable to the Assad regime.
Neither Russia nor the United States wants to see an intra-Syrian conflict between the SDF and the Syrian regime. In Washington’s view, such a conflict would distract from anti-ISIS efforts and perhaps allow the group to retake territory. For Moscow, it would further prolong the war and might push Russian forces into conflict with the Kurds—who pose no threat to the Russian homeland and whom the Russians have no wish to fight. The challenge for the United States is figuring out how to wind down tensions between Assad and the Kurds without alienating Turkey, the United States’ NATO ally and Russia’s partner in the Astana and Sochi process, the latter of which is a stalled effort to draft a constitution and negotiate an end to the war. Turkey is hostile to the SDF and has recently invaded Afrin, an isolated Kurdish enclave in Syria’s northwest, where it is fighting the SDF’s main militia, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Washington’s best bet is to negotiate a withdrawal of its own forces, which would leave Russia to manage the costs of a seven-year-old civil war.
The war in Afrin has undermined the last stages of the U.S. war against ISIS and increased tensions between Turkey and Russia’s two allies, Iran and the Assad regime. After Ankara takes control of Afrin, however, there may be a narrow opportunity to agree on a common position. The United States should consider dropping its insistence on regime change in exchange for an expansion of the current negotiating framework to include the SDF. This expanded framework would have Russian and U.S. support and could be included in the UN-backed Geneva peace process, widening the scope of talks to include the United States’ closest ally on the ground. It would finally recognize the need to integrate the SDF into efforts to reach a political settlement and could help force Ankara to work out a settlement with the Syrian Kurds that would put an end to its conflict with the YPG.
To maintain pressure on Assad, the United States could take advantage of an agreement Moscow helped to broker—the Syrian regime’s 2013 decision to dismantle its chemical weapons program and join the Chemical Weapons Convention. Russia worked to negotiate this arrangement, but it has undermined every effort since then to hold the regime accountable for violating its commitments. The United States should sanction the regime for its continued chemical weapons use, consider sanctioning Russian entities that provide spare parts for the regime aircraft that deliver chemical weapons, and engage with other countries in the region to prevent the export of dual-use items to the Syrian regime. This approach would link narrow, Syria-specific efforts to pressure the Assad regime to broader U.S. nonproliferation goals and would include sanctioning North Korea for exporting weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile components to Syria.
The challenge for the United States is admitting that a U.S. withdrawal could actually free Washington’s hand to increase pressure on Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran. The Syrian regime will inherit a low-level insurgency as well as a wrecked economy and a dearth of usable infrastructure in many urban areas. The United States should not help fund Syrian reconstruction but should instead leave Moscow to pick up the pieces of the country that its client destroyed. Washington can then focus on what it’s good at, both in the Middle East and in Europe: alliance management. In the case of the former, the centerpiece of U.S. policy has for decades been its strong bilateral ties with the Gulf states and Israel, backed up by the presence of large numbers of U.S. troops in the region.
Further isolating Damascus and Moscow will not be difficult, given their behavior. Syria has repeatedly violated international law by using chemical weapons on its own population, and Russia recently used nerve agents to attempt an assassination on British soil. The only other country to deploy chemical weapons so freely is North Korea. Working with allies to develop a unified response to such egregious behavior should be low-hanging fruit. Iran, meanwhile, is the main backer of the Syrian regime and culpable for its ally’s actions on the battlefield. The United States has a long history of sanctioning Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and should continue to do so, while also ensuring that the restraints imposed on its nuclear program remain in place.
In Europe, meanwhile, the linchpin of U.S. security and foreign policy has since 1949 been the mutual defense clause in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which states that “an armed attack against one or more…in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Russia’s aggressive actions, from the poisoning of a former spy in the United Kingdom to the annexation of parts of Ukraine (a non-NATO country), underscore the need for continued defense planning and the revitalization of the alliance’s combat capabilities and physical infrastructure throughout the European continent. Syria is ultimately a sideshow in this broader, multi-front effort to contain Moscow, and its importance should not be overestimated when considering how the United States can push back against or deter future Russian aggression.
To settle the Syrian conflict as quickly as possible, the United States will have to give something to Russia. The only thing it can realistically offer is security for the Assad regime. In return, Washington should demand that Moscow pressure its allies in Damascus and Tehran, along with its partner, Turkey, to begin formalized talks with the SDF. This policy would represent not defeat but an acceptance of reality. It would also be part of a broader effort to recalibrate U.S. policy toward Russia, containing its allies in the Middle East and pressuring Moscow directly on a number of fronts. This pressure should be multifaceted, starting with making Russia foot the bill for the Syrian war and expanding to include deepening alliances in the Middle East and Europe. Globally, the United States has a strong hand, which it can play so long as it focuses on the long game and doesn’t get bogged down in a conflict where Russia holds all the cards and the United States’ main goal—defeating ISIS—has already been achieved.