Can the US achieve a new balance in Syria?
The recent US-led airstrikes against the regime of Bashar Al-Assad raise the prospect of bringing a new balance to the ongoing Syrian crisis that may form the basis for a meaningful peace process – albeit one that complicates the competition between regional and international powers involved in the crisis.
Russian intervention has clearly led to an imbalance of power in Syria, further obstructing the possibility of reaching a genuine settlement. The two dominant external actors in the conflict – Russia and Iran – seek a settlement that excludes the removal of Assad, even at a later stage in the process. Moscow and Tehran are also attempting to reestablish the post-2011 status quo by restoring the repressive former state apparatus, legitimized by a new constitution.
Therefore, might the missile strikes conducted by the US, the UK and France targeting Syrian regime positions on April 14, 2018 restore some balance to the conflict, and even serve as a precursor to the revival of the Geneva peace process?
In a statement following the airstrikes, French President Emmanuel Macron alluded to this possibility, saying “We had reached a point where these strikes were necessary to give back the [international] community some credibility,” before reiterating that France would continue to “pursue a political solution that includes all Syrians” in order to “build [the] Syria of tomorrow and restore this country.”
The current balance of power
At the time of the Western airstrikes, Russia had achieved a position in Syria that effectively marginalized the influence of Western powers – a situation engineered with the support of Iran and Turkey to achieve their preferred solution to the conflict by influencing the situation on the ground to suit their aims and those of their allies. Despite the presence of US, French and British forces in Eastern Syria, Western powers do not exert any significant military or political influence within the country and have become increasingly concerned that Russia and its allies will succeed in excluding the West entirely.
The situation does not accurately reflect the true military capabilities, diplomatic weight and political influence of the two sides, as any comparison in this regard would not favor Russia and its regional allies. Despite rhetoric concerning the Russian military presence in Syria, it’s position is not sufficient to deter a Western confrontation with pro-Assad, Iranian and even Russian forces, and has clearly not served to discourage Washington and its allies from striking the regime – now or in the future.
This is not the result of a Russian desire to deescalate the conflict, but rather a simple calculation based on the huge gap between the two sides in terms of technology, weaponry and the US capability to mobilize huge forces into the theater of operations – which Moscow seeks but does not yet possess.
The diplomatic and ethical standing of the Russian–Iranian–Turkish coalition is equally weak; all three countries stand accused of committing a litany of war crimes and human rights violations – whether at the domestic level or in terms of their involvement in Syria – which has almost led to their #total isolation, as is evident in the response to resolutions presented by Moscow at the UN Security Council.
Where is the problem?
Considering this reality, it is imperative to ask: what are the obstacles preventing the US from forming a new balance of power in Syria that befits its true capabilities and those of its allies? This question is especially pertinent given the extreme extent to which Russia and its partners have interfered in Syria, allowing Iran’s influence to expand and threaten the security of the entire region.
There are several factors that prevent Washington and its allies from achieving the required balance in Syria, notably:
- The lack of a coherent Western strategy to manage the Syrian crisis: this indicates that Western powers have yet to view the crisis as a sufficiently urgent threat to warrant either a comprehensive response to its broader challenges and risks, or even clear related strategies and objectives, despite the impacts on internal stability and the growth of far-right political forces stemming from the flow of Syrian refugees to Europe.
- The current confusion in US policy-making circles: the various internal crises faced by the Trump administration have undermined US decision-making, rendering Washington unable to deliver a foreign policy that can effectively address external challenges. There seems to be no end to this string of internal crises. It has clearly affected the US approach to the situation in Syria, as reflected in the reactions of the different parts of the US administration to the recent missile strikes. Some supported a strike to significantly degrade the capabilities of the Syrian regime – an option preferred by President Trump himself, who vowed that Assad would pay a high price for his actions. However, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis favored a strike that would specifically not provoke a Russian response.
- Given the highly polarized global political environment and the imbalance of power between its protagonists, weaker parties – Russia, in this context – are likely to face crises by relying on brinkmanship and an interpretation of events that borders on conspiracy theory. This fact, in itself, constitutes a source of confusion for the West.
- The West in general, and the US in particular, is firm in its belief that there is no current alternative to Assad, and therefore that actions against Syria must not lead to the sudden fall of the Assad regime. This eventuality, they fear, would create a chaotic vacuum in which massacres would be committed against the Alawite minority and extremist Islamic groups would dominate politics.
What is required now?
The US will be unable to establish a new balance of power in Syria or impose red lines in this conflict unless it abandons its current policy favoring intermittent strikes against the regime. Instead, a new approach is required based on credibility and built by continued involvement. Such a policy shift, regardless of the stakes, would surely lead to a more acceptable degree of balance from which the US may begin to search for solutions not only to the Syrian crisis but also to other regional issues that have become more intertwined than ever before.
Russia, Iran and the Assad regime are not likely to make substantial concessions to reach an effective settlement to the crisis as long as they sense that the US is not willing to apply any significant pressure to achieve one.
All this is not to say that the US involvement in the Syrian crisis over the last two years lacks strategic vision. As the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, stated on April 15, 2018, the US strategy in Syria is based on clear objectives: to ensure that chemical weapons are not used in any form that threatens US interests in the region; to defeat ISIS; and to establish a position from which to monitor Iranian activities in Syria.
If the US has succeeded in achieving part of its objectives in Syria – particularly that concerning the defeat of ISIS, which no longer has any presence in eastern Syria – its other objectives remain, and specifically that related to monitoring Iranian activities in the country, unless we may consider the US base at Al-Tanf to have achieved this goal. Indeed, the future of this endeavor remains uncertain; while President Trump has promised to withdraw US troops from Syria, Iran’s stated plan is to build a $20 billion highway between Tehran and Beirut.
The US lacks neither the tools, nor the regional and local allies required to achieve a genuine balance of power in Syria, or even to reverse the entire equation in its favor. However, the problem is a lack of political will born of conflicting calculations within the Trump administration. At this point, success requires significant resolve on the part of the administration to change the present equation. This can only be achieved by maintaining pressure on the Syrian regime, pushing Russia to seek alternative approaches, and reviving serious negotiations to bring the Syrian crisis to an end.