Given the unexpected pace of events in recent weeks, the end of Syria’s seven-year agony appears to be very near. It is now all but certain that Bashar al–Assad’s government will win its long war with Sunni jihadists and their foreign supporters. The focus in Syria already turns from conflict, casualty counts, and displacement to reconciliation, resettlement, and reconstruction.
It would be hard to overstate the significance of this outcome. Apart from bringing the most tragic conflict of the post–Cold War decades to an end, the larger consequences of a peace achieved in this way — political, diplomatic, strategic — are many.
There is an obvious starting point. It is time to reconsider the commonly accepted view of what has been at stake in Syria these past seven years. To take the impending outcome as a victory merely for Bashar al–Assad’s political survival — as press reports and Washington officials encourage us to do — is too narrow a view and misses the essential point: This will be an advance for national sovereignty, nonintervention, international law, and secular government.
A bitter truth derives from this reality. As the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) re-establishes official control over Syrian territory, we witness the failure of the long, U.S.–led effort to decapitate the Damascus government by backing an amorphous collection of Sunni-nationalist ideologues intent on replacing a secular regime with one wielding Sharia law as severely as any other in the Middle East. The defeat Washington sustains as this cynical strategy collapses should be welcomed.
There is a larger read to be considered here. Cultivating coups has been a feature of American policy abroad since the CIA’s 1953 plot to topple the Mossadegh government in Iran. Has the era of “regime change,” as these things are politely called nowadays, come to an end? While it would be excellent to think so, this is too sweeping an assertion to make with confidence.
The year 2015 was the Syrian war’s transformative year. The Islamic State had seized considerable territory while making a salad of ever-shifting alliances with other jihadist groups. Iranian advisers had been actively assisting the SAA for at least two years, press reports indicated, but government forces were nonetheless at risk of defeat. Russian jets flew their first sorties over Syria on September 30, 2015, and the direction of the war thereupon reversed.
Russia’s role in Syria has included a diplomatic dimension from the beginning, and it now proves as effective as its air support. Russian officials have brokered settlements between jihadists and the central government with a good but mixed record of success. Thousands of Army of Islam militants agreed to retreat from Eastern Ghouta in April, for instance, but not all: An SAA operation was necessary to finish clearing the Damascus suburb. The same is now occurring in the southwestern provinces, where the number of surrendering jihadists is reported to be larger than initially anticipated. Russians—medics, aid workers, and others—are also facilitating relief and reconciliation efforts in regions that have returned to government control.
On the international side, Russia’s statecraft has proven adept such that it seems to have taken nearly everyone by surprise. Exploiting its relations with all sides engaged in the Syria crisis, it just negotiated an understanding between Israel and Iran that averts the danger of widening the war as the SAA advances into the southwestern provinces bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. In the north, Russia appears to have had a hand in persuading Turkey to begin withdrawing troops that had crossed into northern Syria earlier this year. It has used oil diplomacy to persuade Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies to step back from their anti–Assad crusades.
These are features of what shapes up to be a comprehensive plan to stabilize Syria that Russia has been working on for many months. It is almost certain President Putin will present it to Donald Trump when the two convene in Helsinki July 16. This will be a key moment — for the U.S. as well as Syria. Several times following Russia’s initial intervention in Syria three autumns ago, Putin urged the U.S. to cooperate against the Islamic State and the jihadist militias in and out alliances with it. Barack Obama and John Kerry, then president and secretary of state, never got further than parrying Putin’s suggestions. What will Trump do if Putin offers a similar opportunity, as appears likely?
What President Trump says in response to the Russian leader may not be clear until he says it. In view of recent developments on the ground and Russia’s military and diplomatic successes, Trump’s choice appears to be sharply drawn. The U.S. can assist in the reassembly of a nation that came perilously close to suffering the fate of Iraq (post–2003) and Libya (post–2011). Or it can continue to disrupt efforts to restore Syria to a functioning whole, including a political process capable of producing an inclusive settlement.
The key term in the above thought is “opportunity.” There is one for Trump. It will not be easy for Trump to pursue it, even though he favors withdrawal from the Syria conflict. Russia has effectively challenged U.S. primacy in the Middle East, as is now widely acknowledged. An era ends, and there will be resistance in Washington to any suggestion of acquiescence. Equally, Russia has proceeded by way of a new kind of diplomacy. It is based less on military power or its threat than on recognition of shared interests and multisided negotiation to reconcile them. Plainly and simply, this is not Washington’s accustomed style.
A Chance for a change of course
Assad recently estimated the cost of Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction at $400 billion. It is not clear how he arrived at this figure, but this is not the point. Reassembling itself after seven years of incessant destruction is Syria’s new reality: This is the point. UN figures indicate high numbers of displaced Syrians are returning to Aleppo and other devastated cities. Infrastructure is being rebuilt. Reconciliation centers remain active—too active, it has been said: Some Syrian critics have reportedly accused the government of being excessively liberal in its program to reintegrate former militants. Damascus continues to shelter victims from regions once under Islamic State control.
Through seven years of war, the Assad government retained the loyalty of Sunni majorities (as well as Christian and Shiite minorities fearful of Islamic rule). Damascus maintained government services under obviously adverse circumstances. Does non–Islamist opposition to Assad still exist? There is no question of this (and one would hope so). But many Syrians, if not most, credit Damascus with sparing them the Islamist alternative despite the government’s many shortcomings and excesses. No surprises here: These developments are in line with the ruling Ba’athist Party’s commitments to secular modernization and “progress” in the Western meanings of these terms, and its social-democratic policies in education, health care, and the usual array of social services. These values remain evident in Syrian society.
What will the U.S. and major European powers do in the face of these emerging realities? There is a chance to depart from a course in the Middle East that has led to little more than ever-worsening disorder for at least the past 15 years. In a region with a long tradition of despotism in its political culture, the Assad government is far from the worst now in power. Russia’s multisided diplomacy makes it possible to assuage various nations’ anxieties without resorting to “regime change.” If the U.S. holds to its pattern, the best it can hope for in the face of Syria’s gradual but now evident restoration is to assume the role of spoiler.
It does not seem much of a choice. But in my estimation, this is Trump’s in Helsinki.