Assad still standing in Syria: What went wrong?

Seven years after the first protests against Bashar al-Assad, the dictator in Damascus is not only still standing, but is reconsolidating control over most of Syria. The war has killed hundreds of thousands, sent millions of refugees streaming into neighboring countries and as far as Europe and the United States, and spun-off proxy wars that have pit the United States against regional powers and strained Washington’s relations with its allies.

Although the United States is winding down its fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in one of the many offshoots of the current conflict, Atlantic Council resident senior fellow Faysal Itani and Nate Rosenblatt argue that Syria represents a resounding defeat for Washington, not a victory. While other actors within and outside of Syria certainly deserve much of the blame for the conflict’s brutality and duration, “the United States was the international actor with the greatest capacity to alter events in Syria, deliberately or not, and its actions deserve special scrutiny,” Itani and Rosenblatt write in a new issue brief for the Atlantic Council, “US Policy in Syria: A Seven-Year Reckoning,” released on September 11.

Itani and Rosenblatt argue that the United States made three key mistakes over the past seven years, which undermined its own objectives in Syria:

The United States remained disengaged from the conflict in the early stages.

According to Itani and Rosenblatt, the 2011 anti-government protests in Syria came at an unfortunate time for Assad’s opponents. The Obama administration, elected in part due to US backlash over the long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, had a reflexive response against US intervention in the Middle East that hobbled anti-Assad forces from the beginning. Then US President Barack Obama rhetorically backed the Syrian cause and called for Assad’s ouster but “did not commit to supporting the revolution’s outcome, much less to forcibly removing Assad and assuming responsibility for what followed,” according to Itani and Rosenblatt.

US officials justified nonintervention on two flawed assumptions, Itani and Rosenblatt argue. The first was that the “war would burn itself out and perhaps fragment Syria, but that regional allies could be protected from its spillover.” The conflict’s “containment” would quickly prove impossible, however, as refugees spilled over into neighboring countries and ISIS spread across the Iraq-Syria border.

Second, Obama was skeptical about the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the opening stages of the war and was reluctant to give the “rag-tag” force significant military aid. Washington’s refusal to get too involved “deepened fractures in anti-Assad forces in Syria that ultimately benefitted better-organized extremists as the war dragged on,” the report’s authors write. Without a firm commitment from Washington for help, organized opposition to Assad failed to materialize in the crucial opening stage of the war, a development only made worse by Washington’s next mistake.

The United States’ response to Assad’s use of chemical weapons in August 2013 was insufficient.

In 2013, Syrian government forces conducted a series of chemical attacks on rebel-held cities, the most publicized occurring on August 21, 2013 in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus. One year prior, Obama had described the use of chemical weapons as a “red line” that would trigger a US military response. After the attacks, however, the United States refrained from striking the Assad regime, opting instead for a deal brokered by Russia to destroy Syria’s chemical weapon stockpile.

As Itani and Rosenblatt argue, the deal was a clear failure, as evidenced by at least thirty documented chemical weapons attacks since Damascus’ supply was supposedly destroyed. Furthermore, the United States’ lack of a forceful response “undermined US credibility as being serious about getting involved in Syria and highlighted to both fighters and the local population that they were essentially on their own and at the mercy of the regime or the extremists.”

Washington’s response to the chemical weapons attack was “the end of any prospect of victory for the mainstream, non-extremist opposition in Syria,” Itani and Rosenblatt write. Without the support of the United States, the splintered moderate opposition had no chance of defeating government forces or the extremist elements emerging in Syria’s deserts. Without another option to oppose the government, unfortunately, “many [Syrians] would choose [to join] the latter.”

The United States separated its mission against ISIS from the larger Syrian conflict, effectively handing the war to Assad and his Iranian and Russian allies.

The shock advance of ISIS in Iraq in 2014 forced the Obama administration to launch an expansive campaign in both Iraq and Syria to destroy the militant group. Rather than understanding that ISIS’s rise was tied to the failure of its response in Syria, Itani and Rosenblatt explain, the United States chose to view the Syrian war and ISIS fight as separate phenomena.

When the United States attempted to recruit local Syrian troops to attack ISIS, Washington refused to promise to protect these new troops against government forces and instructed that these forces to exclusively target the extremists. These restrictions dented recruitment, as Americans had a difficult time attracting many Syrians who saw Assad as their primary opponent.

Additionally, the Obama administration’s laser focus on ISIS caused it to miss “a potential opportunity to apply pressure on Russia and Iran over the civil war,” according to Itani and Rosenblatt. The White House, which was focused on ongoing negotiations with Tehran about its nuclear program, practically “[handed] Syria to Iran without extracting any concessions from the Iranians.” With Washington prioritizing crushing ISIS in the east, Assad’s forces continued to attack the distracted and broken opposition, whose moderate forces were overwhelmed, leaving only extremist organizations unwilling to deal with Washington.

Although the United States publicly advocated for the removal of Assad, its actions did not achieve this because it incentivized opposition forces to turn to radical elements and gave the initiative to Iran and Russia to support Assad without consequences. On a larger scale, the failure in Syria was the result of the “assumption that the United States could not and should not shape conflicts abroad in any ambitious way, especially in the Middle East,” which Itani and Rosenblatt argue made the situation worse.

Obama was correct to oppose a full-blown invasion by US forces, but “by taking one or two concrete steps to support imperfect Syrian revolutionary forces, the United States may have created more options than it first thought possible,” the authors argue. Now, Washington must face the reality that Assad is here to stay and that Syria will continue to be a source of instability in the region for years to come. Rather than “containing” the conflict, the United States’ inaction resulted in a brutal seven-year war that shows no signs of stopping.

You can read Itani and Rosenblatt’s full issue brief here.

David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.

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Image: A street vendor sells coffee outside Aleppo's ancient citadel, as posters depicting Syria's President Bashar al-Assad are seen in the background, in Syria February 1, 2017. (REUTERS/Omar Sanadik)