It is not difficult to discern the drift of most commentary on Syria these days: Bashar al-Assad has all-but-defeated the seven-year uprising against him; so, ‘get used to it.’ A corollary of the argument is often some variation of ‘Let Russia own it.’ Can these expressions of resigned defiance form the basis of a constructive Western policy toward Syria? The view here is they cannot.
Yes, it is demonstrably true that Assad and his entourage have been borne aloft by Iranian-led ground forces and Russian air power. The Syrian Arab Army, never a showcase of combat skill and always an instrument of internal repression, has been broken by defections, starved by draft evasion, and depleted by heavy casualties taken when faced with something other than unarmed civilians. The air force hones its dubious skills by targeting places where maximum civilian terror, death, and injury can be inflicted. Iran and Russia have enabled Assad to keep an empty title as the chief of a broken state: one he has shattered by the regime employing collective punishment as a political survival tool since March 2011.
It is likewise undeniable that what remains of armed resistance to Iran, Russia, and the regime is unremarkable. In August 2012, President Barack Obama declined to exercise American leadership in trying to mold an anti-Assad, anti-al-Qaeda, Syrian fighting force, leaving the field free for regional powers to play into Assad’s hands by supporting sectarian actors. Disparate opposition units would eventually receive some American assistance, falling far short of decisive. President Trump ended that effort in 2017. What he got in return is not known. But what is clear now is that the civilian slaughter of Eastern Ghouta can and probably will be replicated elsewhere in Syria west of the Euphrates River, forcing opposition fighters to lay down arms or witness a holocaust.
Indeed, the continuation of armed resistance to the regime and its external enablers makes no sense. The United States will do nothing to protect Syrian civilians from mass homicide unless Assad employs sarin nerve agent as the murder weapon. Armed elements are a magnet for civilian-centric mass terror.
For Assad, Russia, and Iran, Idlib Province—with over two-million inhabitants—is a target-rich environment. Can Turkey use its blossoming relationship with Russia to prevent an all-out assault, as Jordan and Israel have managed to do in the southwest? Russia seems intent on restoring Assad’s writ everywhere. Moscow may well tell Ankara that the best defense against refugee flows is the return of the ‘legitimate government.’ It may make the same argument to Jordan, while assuring Israel that ‘Syrian security forces’ will keep Hezbollah and other Iranian tools well clear of the Golan Heights.
It is not likely that armed rebels will preemptively capitulate in either area. Russia may well counsel its Syrian client and Iranian ally to move cautiously in the southwest: President Vladimir Putin has relationships worth keeping with counterparts in Jordan and Israel. But Assad has his own ideas, and Iran enthusiastically supports the idea of its man in Lebanon—Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah—that the Hezbollah-Israel battleground be permanently shifted from Lebanon to Syria. Opening a Golan Heights ‘liberation front’ enjoys enthusiastic Iranian support.
Yet apart from possible Israeli push-back in the southwest, no one will do anything to aid armed rebels. And a leaderless, hollowed-out West that can barely even mouth the words “Never Again” will do nothing to protect Syrian civilians, unless Washington is forced to do so by sarin nerve agent use. Under these circumstances, state terror works every time. What is the point, therefore, of continued armed resistance?
Barring the unforeseen, Bashar al-Assad will retain his title of President of the Syrian Arab Republic indefinitely. Should the West ‘get used’ to this reality? Is there a measure of relief and revenge to be had by letting Russia ‘own’ the steaming sack of what remains of a nation-state? Only by returning to the totally discredited belief that what happens in Syria stays in Syria could these attitudes be remotely defensible as the basis for policy.
Syria will continue to roil politically even if all armed regime opponents were to surrender today. Try as he may, Assad will not be able to kill, torture, or terrorize quickly or thoroughly enough to command cooperation, much less obedience. And the Kremlin’s concern for the Syrian economy and its rehabilitation extends no farther than whatever morsels—oil and gas fields particularly—can be picked off by the Russian oligarchy. Putin calculates that what passes for the West, given its fear of refugee flows, will pay for Syria’s reconstruction and will do so through the Assad regime. If he is right, then Western taxpayers will hemorrhage euros and dollars indefinitely, with little to show for the expenditure.
He may well be right. A policy that ‘gets used’ to Assad while chuckling over the mess the Russians have presumably bought themselves simply extends the American-led, European-abetted collapse of the West in Syria. Western leaders may be making the ‘right’ noises now about the inadmissibility of massive reconstruction aid with Assad and his thieving entourage at the helm, but Putin senses he can break the same flaccid elites who whined endlessly about there being no ‘military solution’ to Syria’s travails while counseling him in Dutch Uncle terms about the ‘quagmire’ awaiting him.
Even if the West adheres to its morally vacuous and politically disastrous determination to do nothing to complicate or mitigate mass homicide in western Syria, it can—at least in principle—encourage and permit a governance alternative to Assad to emerge in Syria east of the Euphrates River, where the finishing military touches are being applied to ISIS (ISIL, Daesh, Islamic State). Iran, Russia, and the regime are alarmed by this possibility, and for good reason. A civilized Syrian alternative to Assad, particularly one arising from adept American diplomacy squaring the circle between Turkey and Syrian Kurds, could be attractive to all Syrians save the innermost circle of family and entourage. The absent alternative has been the missing anchor that has kept Assad afloat.
Whether the alarm of America’s adversaries over Washington’s proclaimed determination to stabilize eastern Syria is justified remains to be seen. The seven-year collapse of the West in Syria has fueled Russian ambitions globally and Iranian ambitions regionally. Without real resources, patience, and determination, that collapse will continue and accelerate.
Yet only at its peril will the West ‘get used’ to the extremist-inspiring Assad in the saddle. Only at its bottomless expense will the West idly gloat over Russia ‘owning’ an abyss. Sadly, but surely, and especially if civilians in western Syria are left defenseless in the face of mass murder, only in eastern Syria will the West be able to take a stand and defend its interests.
Frederic C. Hof is director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.