Among the most-hackneyed corporate retreat exercises is the “trust fall,” in which a volunteer falls backwards into the arms of colleagues. The “trust” part comes from confidence that support will suddenly materialize, and among colleagues it always does.
Syria is on the brink of a trust fall, but support is nowhere in sight. Even though the Syria crisis is not of the United States’ making and the Trump administration is hostile to open-ended engagements in the Middle East, it’s still in the U.S. interest to save Syria from further catastrophe.
While the United States should not reconstruct Syria, it should position itself to play an organizing role in Syria’s return from war. Alone among the great powers, the United States can galvanize a broad international response that advances the shared interests of partners and marginalizes adversaries. It can help lead an effort to wrest concessions on issues like the rule of law, property rights, and forced conscription from what is likely to be an increasingly desperate Syrian government, and it can work with the Russians on shared goals. It can put some boundaries on a post-conflict resolution that seems, in almost every way, destined to harm the interest of the United States and its partners. It should do all of this not out of charity, but for reasons of its own national interest. Or, rather, President Trump should.
As much as Trump disavows a deep interest in Syria, the United States has a web of interests that all intersect in Syria. Whether it is seeking to contain Iran, curtailing Russian adventurism, protecting the security of Turkey (a NATO ally), or stabilizing Jordan (a close security partner) and Lebanon (where chaos has often rewarded Iran’s ally, Hezbollah), Syria is a vital venue.
Syria is vital for ISIS’s future, too. An ISIS resurgence in Syria would further threaten Iraq, which faces its own struggle for independence from Iran. None of that is good.
The Trump administration needs a strategy to build U.S. leverage for negotiations over the future of Syria, not one that seeks to minimize U.S. expenditures. An effective policy would be based on a sense of U.S. resolve, and it would seek to capitalize on adversaries’ fears and weaknesses. Among the most important aspects of U.S. leverage is using the U.S. presence in eastern Syria as a source of strength. While the United States should not seek a long-term presence there, neither should it seem impatient to leave. The U.S. presence should be tied to conditions in Syria and U.S. goals, and nothing more.
The current humanitarian crisis in Idlib is a small foretaste of what is to follow. Three million civilians (about half of them displaced from elsewhere in Syria) are confronting a joint effort by Syria and Russia to reconquer most if not all of the province. The world’s nations have parochial views. Syria and Russia are seeking to squash the Syrian insurgency. Turkey is merely blocking a new flood of refugees into Turkey (though President Recep Erdogan this week warned Assad to pull back), and Europe is similarly paralyzed by the fear of a refugee flood. Iran is reeling from its own series of blows and believes even an immiserated Syria is a source of promise. China simply sees this as someone else’s problem and feels no urgency to act. No one is moved to break Idlib’s fall.
Syria’s fall is not far behind. The Assad government is enmeshed in an economic crisis and cannot be bothered to plan for the future. Russia has made clear that rebuilding Syria is within neither its responsibilities nor capabilities. Turkey is only interested in keeping the Kurds at bay, while Iran has little to spare for Syria, and little interest in sparing what it has. The United States is leaving it to the parties – whomever they are – to work it all out.
And Syria is poised to fall. The war has exacerbated the country’s political, sectarian, and economic rifts. The conditions that provided fertile ground for ISIS to grow are still present and may even be more robust. The massive destruction of housing and infrastructure, combined with the use of abandoned properties to reward regime loyalists, makes the return of millions to their homes a distant prospect. Food is scarce, a generation of children have been out of school, many have become combatants, and a generation of men have disappeared.
Syria, Russia, and Iran seem like they would be satisfied with something that looks like Chechnya, with a battle-hardened authoritarian regime keeping order, sometimes by cracking heads. But the uneasy peace in Chechnya has taken billions of dollars, and the money for a Chechen solution in Syria isn’t there.
The Arab Gulf states seem to be exploring normalization with the Assad government, if only to incentivize Assad to turn away from the Iranians. Even so, with oil prices low and young Gulf populations growing so swiftly, Gulf money for Syria will fall far short. They will want to contribute enough to undermine Iran’s grip if it comes to that, but not nearly enough to save Syria.
The United States has been spending billions of dollars on relief for Syrian refugees, but it seems determined not to play much of a role in shaping how Syria’s myriad conflicts are resolved. That’s a mistake. While the United States may feel like a chump stepping in to save this trust fall exercise, it shouldn’t do so to save any of the antagonists. This is not about sentiment; it is about U.S. interests.