Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has not won his country’s civil war; rather, the war is entering a more dangerous phase. Forces fighting on his behalf have made important gains in recent years, capturing Syria’s second city, Aleppo, in 2016 and securing his capital, Damascus, in 2018. They are currently attacking the rebel stronghold in the southern provinces of Quneitra and Daraa, where the revolution began. Together, these victories have changed the trajectory of the war, weakening the moderate opposition and suggesting to many international observers that the fight for Syria is all but over.
But although the regime’s advances are impressive on a map, they will not end the war. Assad is weaker than he seems. His rule depends on the backing of foreign patrons, such as Iran and Russia, and the exhaustion of states that once opposed him, such as Jordan. His decision to internationalize the war will lay the foundation for future wars, and his tactics of mass slaughter threaten to fuel a long-term, global jihadist insurgency that will keep combat raging in Syria for years to come.
The United States must accept that ignoring Syria will lead not to a clean victory for Assad that establishes a stable peace but to more chaos down the road. To avoid that, the United States should invest now in building leverage for future decisive action by strengthening the military and governance capabilities of its partners on the ground, regaining the trust of Syria’s rebelling population, rebuilding rebel forces, and denying Assad the international legitimacy he so desperately craves. The United States still has options to constrain Assad and his backers—all it needs is the will to use them.
Assad’s International War in Syria
Assad’s victories in the recent stages of the Syrian war have depended heavily on the support of Iran and Russia, which have combined to provide him with tens of thousands of ground troops, airpower, financial aid, and (in the case of Russia) diplomatic cover, without which his regime likely
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