Why America Can't Win in Syria

A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces calls his comrades during the fighting with Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, August 14, 2017. Zohra Bensemra: "The Reuters team waited almost all day behind Syrian Democratic Forces members who were fighting Islamic State in Raqqa to lead us into this building. They had posted themselves there temporarily. They took it after fierce fighting. It was just at very short distance from the Islamic State's position. Whenever a building or a district was taken from t

A theoretical Syrian political transition is unachievable, and the political opposition needs to come to terms with the reality of the dictator staying in office for the near term.

Why does this matter to Putin? Because the Friend of Syria contact group—a collection of wealthy countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Saudi Arabia and Qatar—has made it clear that no reconstruction assistance to Syria will be offered from the grouping unless Syria goes through the political transition process dictated by multiple UN Security Council resolutions. Speaking to the State Department press corps on September 18, Acting U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East David Satterfield stressed the point that if Assad survives, he is on his own. “[T]he regime and the regime’s supporters cannot declare a victory solely based on a map and colors of positions on the ground,” Satterfield said. If a transitional process does not happen, the international community is “not going to contribute to a legitimization or authenticization or to the reconstruction of Syria.”

Without financial aid from the West and the Arab world, an Assad-led Syria will struggle mightily to bring some sense of normalcy in the post-war environment—an objective that the dictator may hope to accomplish if for no other reason to buttress the idea that he has legitimacy in the eyes of his people. For Putin, this means that Moscow has a decision to make: it can either step into the breach and spend tens of billions of dollars rebuilding a weak ally, or it can pull out and hang the Assad regime out to dry. The former will be an exceedingly expensive proposition for Putin to implement, particularly when the Russian economy grew at a lower quarterly growth rate than anticipated. The latter would mean that Russia’s closest ally in the region would be in a permanent, decrepit state of disrepair, unable to defend its own national security without the intervention of foreigners like Lebanese Hezbollah, Iraqi Shia militiamen, and Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps operatives.

By virtue of sustaining Assad’s rule, Putin and his Iranian partners are now de facto responsible for ensuring that the Syrian state is at least semi-functional and able to combat any security challenge that presents itself. Given the lack of capacity of the Syrian army after tens of thousands of deaths, injuries and desertions, it will take years before Assad can contain threats to his rule on his own—if he ever can. The last thing Moscow can afford after so much investment in Assad’s survival is a pyrrhic victory, one that would expose Putin’s war plan to be more of a mistake than a act of genius.

Syria holds a lesson for the United States, too, one that Washington should have learned from sixteen years of military intervention across two continents and several countries. And the lesson is this: beware of tactical advances masquerading as strategic victories. Gains on the battlefield are not enduring and frequently require a massive amount of investment in blood and treasure to have a possibility of becoming a reality. It is far costlier to spend the billions of dollars and devote the immense military and political resources typically needed to sustain a victory than scrambling the fighter bombers and deploying special forces to help allies win territory. In foreign policy as in life, it is better to think about the consequences before you make a decision and act on it.

Daniel R. DePetris is a foreign policy analyst, a columnist for Reuters, and a contributor to the Washington Examiner.”

Image: A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces calls his comrades during the fighting with Islamic State fighters in Raqqa, Syria, August 14, 2017. Zohra Bensemra: "The Reuters team waited almost all day behind Syrian Democratic Forces members who were fighting Islamic State in Raqqa to lead us into this building. They had posted themselves there temporarily. They took it after fierce fighting. It was just at very short distance from the Islamic State's position. Whenever a building or a district was taken from the jihadists, the soldiers would exhibit their black flags like spoils of war. That day they found two black flags. I heard them arguing with each other over whether to burn them. Some soldiers refused saying that the words on the flag contained text from the Koran and was thus sacred." REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra/File Photo

Pages