16 January 2019

We lost the war in Syria. What next?

A US military pull-out will leave a gangster state in thrall to Putin, Isis resurgent and Iran reaping the benefits. How did it all go so wrong?

By Giles Whittell

For nearly a month America has been radiating confusion about when it will withdraw its troops from Syria. President Trump says they’re on their way home. His officials say: not so fast. The truth is the withdrawal is already a sideshow. There is a pretence in Washington that the US can dictate terms in the endgame of this conflict, but that’s all it is – a pretence. Syria’s war is essentially over and America is not dictating terms to anyone. After eight years of drift, the Western allies need to confront the consequences of one simple fact. We lost.

It is worth listing the capitulations. When Bashar al-Assad ordered soldiers to shoot unarmed protesters in 2011, Western leaders said he had to go. He stayed. When Barack Obama warned Assad against using chemical weapons, he was ignored. When the House of Commons voted on a military response, it voted against. When Russia offered Obama an alternative to using American force, he seized it. When the UN tried to tame Assad through the Security Council, Russia used its veto like a barrel bomb – 12 times.

Sergey Ponomarev

Civil war: Syrian army soldiers in the Damascus suburbs in 2013

And the results? Assad rules at Vladimir Putin’s pleasure. Iranian agents of influence are busy embedding themselves in the Syrian state. The Kurds who spilled blood to defeat Isis have been abandoned by Trump, and Turkey warns it will go back to pursuing them as terrorists.

This is what defeat looks like at the end of a long and complicated war. Of course there are caveats: Syria was never the West’s to lose as a client state, and it’s hardly a trophy in its current miserable condition. But it sits at the fulcrum of Eurasia, at the intersection of Islam and secular Arab nationalism, of oil pipelines and sectarian fault-lines. What has been lost here is an opportunity. A moment came and went when the facade of a dictatorship cracked. This was a moment that might have been turned to the advantage of Syria’s people and their neighbours. Instead, it has been seized by Russia and Iran for their own purposes. The result is a new world order – and not in an good way.

Last week in Cairo, Mike Pompeo, the US Secretary of State, said America would work with allies to expel “every Iranian boot” from Syria. He was defying his audience to shake their heads in disbelief, but they did so anyway.

Sergey Ponomarev

The city of Homs, Syria, was destroyed in the fighting in 2014

Pompeo had it backwards. The reality is US boots out, Iranian in. After changing its position on Syria at least six times in six months, the Trump Administration is indeed withdrawing. The way things are going, US artillery and air power that were vital in the fight against Isis won’t be available come the spring. There were only 2,000 US ground troops in Syria but they are leaving, too, apparently with no strings attached. Trump’s decision may have been prompted by a Turkish promise to spend $3.5 billion on American-built Patriot missiles, if he would get on and leave. Otherwise the President seems to have set no conditions – another example of the self-defeating foreign policy style that Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer-Prize winning author, has called “the art of the giveaway”.

Iranian-backed militias now guard every Shia shrine in Syria. Iranian-backed warlords control a black economy in which $20,000 can spring a relative from jail. Russian advisors present themselves as protectors of “liberated” territories. In fact, they are presiding at arm’s length over a gangster state with a warm-water port for their Black Sea fleet. As for Syria’s 13 million refugees, the gangsters and Assad’s secret police are waiting to prey on those brave enough to try going home.

Sergey Ponomarev

Cycle of violence: Damascus burns

It didn’t have to come to this

Since 2011 there have been five clear opportunities for Western governments intervening in Syria’s war to learn from past mistakes and make new friends in a region where democracy badly needs them. All these chances have been missed.

Sergey Ponomarev

Life goes on: shopping in Damascus

Fast-forward to the present. There are still about 2,000 Isis fighters in the extreme south-east of Syria, where sandstorms give them cover to emerge from hiding places along the Euphrates and make life difficult for at least six separate forces trying to wipe them out. Of these, the Americans have been the most effective. Without their air cover there is no guarantee that Kurdish troops on the east side of the river or pro-regime militias on the west will prevent Isis regrouping; it can still call on an estimated 30,000 fighters in Syria as a whole.

Assad has survived but as a Russian proxy and at a cost of seven times Syria’s pre-war GDP. He is looking for upwards of $200 billion to rebuild. The US Congress earmarked a thousandth of that – $200 million – but Trump has frozen it. Germany and the EU told a donors’ conference last year that European funding was conditional on a negotiated end to the war, and there isn’t one in sight.

Sergey Ponomarev

Assad's indiscriminate bombing: many of the victims in the Syrian war have been women and children

For others, the funding crisis is an opportunity. Russian oligarchs are being nudged by the Kremlin to sign sweetheart Syrian reconstruction deals. Chinese dredgers are digging out the port in Tripoli to make it deep enough for massive Chinese cargo ships. Iran has already spent nearly $5 billion on rebuilding and is settling in for what Dr Sanam Vakil of the London-based think-tank Chatham House calls a long game of “forward defence”. Translation: achieving regional dominance by infiltrating and co-opting the Syrian state.

Who really cares who runs Syria?

Does any of this matter to the rest of us? The question of who runs Syria has never been a vital issue of US national security. Nor do American voters care much about it, especially after 17 years of costly but inconclusive wars elsewhere in the Middle East. That is why, in the end, Obama could let Assad cross his red line on chemical weapons. That is why a Washington foreign policy establishment that’s generally scornful of Trump is split on his decision to withdraw. Some, like Harvard’s Stephen Walt, think it’s the right thing “done in the worst possible way”.

Sergey Ponomarev

Fuelling a tide of populism in Europe: Syrian refugees arrive in Lesbos, Greece

In Europe, it’s harder to rationalise. Syria’s refugee crisis fuelled a rising tide of populism across the EU. The war has left a criminal regime in power on Turkey’s southern border. And it has taught anyone in any doubt about the merits of democracy a terrible lesson. Even in the 21st century, if pursued with enough conviction, mass murder can work.

Aspiring to moral leadership may be out of fashion but abandoning a region to dictatorship so soon after the Cold War is dangerous and depressing. Score one for Putin, Assad and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.