The U.S. Needs to Accept Reality in Syria | Opinion

Syria is still technically in a state of war, more than 10 years after strongman Bashar al-Assad's government ordered a harsh security crackdown against millions of demonstrators. Pockets of the country remain outside Assad's control, particularly in the northeast, where Syrian Kurdish forces (backed by U.S. air power) largely run the show. The Syrian economy is in a dreadful state, with 60 percent of the entire population at risk of hunger and the price of basic food skyrocketing due to the freefall in Syria's currency. The decade-long war has wiped out whole cities; reconstruction costs were estimated at $250-$400 billion in 2019, a figure that has no doubt risen in the two years since.

Assad won't be happy until Syria returns to the pre-civil war status quo, which requires his forces to capture every last inch of Syrian territory. He is beleaguered, struggling to acquire the cash he needs to keep his base of support from causing trouble, and is dependent on foreign powers like Iran and Russia to retain power.

Yet the picture isn't totally bleak for the former eye doctor. What is left of the Syrian army, buttressed by pro-government militias armed, financed and organized by Iran, controls as much territory today as it has since the conflict erupted a decade ago. The anti-government opposition, stuck in a section of Idlib overrun by millions of refugees and the resurgence of COVID-19, has been co-opted by far more extremist elements—predominately Hay'at al-Tahrir al Sham, a former Al-Qaeda affiliate. Concerns about Syria's economic future aside, Assad is essentially sitting in his Damascus palace as the victor. The odds Assad would entertain peace negotiations at this point in time are slim to none.

Syria's neighbors, many of whom detest Assad and funneled arms and money to their favorite rebel groups earlier in the war, now acknowledge he isn't going anywhere. One of those states, the United Arab Emirates, reopened its embassy in Damascus in December 2018 in what can only be interpreted as an admission that its previous policy failed. Bahrain soon followed suit. Last October, Oman sent its ambassador to the Syrian capital, where he presented his credentials to the Syrian foreign minister. Jordan, meanwhile, decided to restore its main trade crossing with Syria in April after shuttering the post for months in response to the coronavirus.

Even Saudi Arabia, one of the Syrian opposition's chief backers at the height of the civil war, is exploring the resumption of diplomatic relations with the Assad government. The Guardian reported on May 4 that Gen. Khalid Humaidan, the Saudi intelligence chiefs, met directly with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus—the first such meeting since the war began.

Assad's biggest foes are begrudgingly concluding that it's better to accept reality and work within it than believe in a world of make-believe.

A U.S. soldier looks on while on patrol by the Suwaydiyah oil fields in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on February 13, 2021. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

The United States, however, hasn't caught up to reality yet. Washington's Syria policy is being driven by a fantasy—that by maintaining economic pressure, scaring off international reconstruction funds and preserving a small military presence near Syria's oil fields, Washington can eventually pressure Assad into abiding by U.N. Security Council Resolutions pertaining to the conflict. U.S. policymakers not only view the formation of an impartial, interim national unity government and a new constitution as ideal, but are persuaded all of this is still possible. The fact that the stronger side dictates the direction of the war—and there is no question the Syrian government is the stronger party, especially with Tehran and Moscow in its corner—is batted away as an irrelevant nuisance.

When the White House was rolling out its decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan after 20 years of deployments, a senior administration official made a crucial point: the U.S. should not use its own troops as bargaining chips in somebody else's civil war.

Unfortunately, with 900 U.S. troops plunked down in eastern Syria with little to do other than show a presence and prevent the Syrian government from consolidating its authority (a mission the U.S. Congress never authorized), the Biden administration is in effect doing exactly what it railed against in Afghanistan.

When entire Syrian army divisions were collapsing and as many as 100,000 Syrian army conscripts were deserting their posts, it looked as if Assad was approaching one of three options: death, exile, or a negotiated surrender. U.S. officials were confident it was only a matter of time before Assad was forced into making the choice.

"The sand is running out of the hourglass," then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated in July 2012.

As it turns out, Bashar al-Assad's allies had more to gain by keeping him in power than his adversaries had in seeing him leave. The United States can live with the continuation of the Assad government in Damascus, even if it leaves a sour taste in our mouths. What it couldn't live with, and indeed didn't want to help unleash, was another Libya-style situation: rule by unaccountable militias, the proliferation of terrorist groups and the complete absence of authority.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow with the Defense Priorities think tank, columnist at the Washington Examiner and a contributor to The National Interest.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.