The carnage, political dysfunction and rising tide of Islamic terrorism gripping Syria have created a toxic powder keg unlike anything else on the planet — and that was before a massive earthquake last month killed thousands and reduced even more of the divided and volatile country to rubble.
For the past decade, three U.S. administrations have struggled to find a clear strategy to reverse the downward spiral in Syria. The country presents a unique set of military, political and humanitarian problems with major consequences for the region and for U.S. national security. The U.S. still has 900 troops stationed in the country, where Russian- and Iranian-backed Syrian government forces clash with rebels, Kurdish elements and Islamic State and al Qaeda militants.
Foreign policy analysts generally say the U.S. has lacked a holistic approach capable of addressing the violence and widespread poverty since a pro-democracy revolt against the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad erupted into civil war more than a decade ago. Although Mr. Assad has managed to hold on to power in Damascus, Syria has been balkanized, with rebel elements and Kurdish forces effectively controlling large swaths of territory.
Disengaging entirely isn’t an option, analysts say, because the limited U.S. military presence and diplomatic engagement might be the only things keeping Syria off an irreversible path toward a failed state like Somalia and an almost-unprecedented hotbed for Islamic extremists.
“All of the ingredients already exist for near-nationwide sectarian conflict. On top of that, it would be an absolute dream scenario for ISIS. They would be beyond jubilant [at] the U.S. leaving,” he said in an interview.
“Syria is already on track to become the Middle East equivalent of Somalia plus North Korea,” Mr. Lister said. “It is a completely destroyed country, torn apart with many different lines drawn across the map, controlled by a variety of warlords, a corrupt government, terrorist groups … and over top of that would be a narco-state that deals in drugs and weapons and that brutally suppresses its own people and doesn’t allow anything close to freedom of expression. It would be an absolute disaster.”
Since American troops arrived to battle the once-mighty Islamic State group, the U.S. has maintained a military presence in Syria. The roughly 900 American personnel in the country routinely partner with the Syrian Democratic Forces, a network of Kurdish allies, to conduct counterterrorism raids against ISIS targets across Syria.
The U.S. military presence has been a source of controversy in Washington. President Trump tried twice to end U.S. military involvement in Syria but was effectively blocked from carrying out a full withdrawal.
Today, the small Pentagon footprint is the clearest example of American involvement in Syria. Military leaders argue that the joint U.S.-SDF counterterrorism mission is the best defense against a resurgence of ISIS, but with few clear answers about what the long-term mission should be.
The Biden administration says its policy is much broader. Especially in light of the February earthquake, officials have highlighted U.S. humanitarian aid to the suffering Syrian population and efforts to eventually bring about a cease-fire between Mr. Assad’s government forces and rebel outfits.
“Our strategy in Syria is focused on realistic, pragmatic and also ambitious goals. We recognize the status quo in Syria is far from perfect, and that is precisely why we are still so engaged there,” a National Security Council spokesperson told The Times. “Our military forces remain in Syria to continue the coalition campaign against ISIS and to ensure the group cannot resurge to once again threaten the region, Europe or Americans. On the diplomatic side, we’ve gone to great lengths to improve humanitarian access throughout the country, to encourage cease-fires to keep violence levels low and to promote accountability for the Assad regime’s abuses.
“The above pillars of our Syria policy directly address the challenges noted below: widespread devastation, the lingering threat of ISIS and a brutal regime that remains in power,” the spokesperson said. “We are leveraging our comparative advantage and influence to make steady progress on our goals, whether that’s at the [United Nations] to promote increased cross-border aid access, in bilateral meetings urging repatriations from [the refugee camp] al Hol, or with coalition partners in the campaign against ISIS.”
Big questions loom over the horizon. Does Mr. Assad stay or go? What will happen to the rebel enclave in Idlib and the thousands of Syrians who fled there to avoid Mr. Assad’s troops? How does the U.S. balance its alliance with Syrian Kurds with anger from NATO ally Turkey, which has long battled a Kurdish separatist movement within its own borders? What will outside powers — Iran, Russia, Israel — demand as part of a long-term political settlement?
U.S. allies in the region have started to question the hard-line stance against the Assad regime.
Saudi Arabia was an early backer of the Syrian rebel forces and the policy of isolating Mr. Assad, but Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud said at last month’s Munich Security Conference that, in the Arab world, “there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable.”
More immediately, the U.S. and its allies are confronting questions about how to deal with the human tragedy caused by the earthquake. An estimated 6,000 people in Syria and 44,000 in Turkey were killed. The United Nations is seeking an immediate $397 million in aid to Syria but has run into problems because most of the damage was concentrated in the rebel-held northwestern part of the country.
Financial and humanitarian aid to Syria has become a political nightmare, some analysts say. Despite its major limitations and lack of control over much of the country, the Assad regime remains the key actor in Syria, making it difficult to funnel aid dollars where it’s needed without some of the money ending up in government pockets.
“It’s crucial not to allow Assad to profit from reconstruction aid. This would be akin to subsidizing murder after the fact,” said Michael Rubin, a former Defense Department official and now a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
A perfect storm
Critics say the administration’s approach, while well-intentioned, lacks the ambition and scope needed to address such a monumental challenge.
“It’s unsustainable,” Mr. Lister said. “From the outside, it looks like we’re essentially doing nothing and kicking the can down the road. That creates the optics of a vacuum into which some governments around the world are stepping in and saying, ‘Well, Bashar Assad is here to stay. We’re going to jump on the bandwagon and seek out opportunities.’”
Indeed, the fact that Mr. Assad has remained in power throughout more than a decade of civil war, unspeakable destruction and poverty throughout his country, and the continued threat from ISIS is remarkable. He owes his political survival in part to his allies, mainly Iran and Russia. Both countries have proxy troops inside Syria to help prop up the regime.
In one more sign that Syria’s long isolation in the region is easing, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry this week made his first visit to Damascus since Syria was booted out of the Arab League more than a decade ago at the height of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movement.
Mr. Shoukry, who met with Mr. Assad during his visit, described the trip as “primarily humanitarian” in light of the earthquake, but analysts said it was a sign that U.S. hopes of isolating and eventually toppling the regime were fading.
“There’s an opening for governments to establish relationships with the Assad regime because of the humanitarian aid that’s needed, thus forcing a political conversation about reestablishing relations and rehabilitating Assad,” Nader Hashemi, the director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies, told the Al Jazeera news network this week.
The presence of foreign fighters is yet another complicating factor, a reflection of the bewildering checkerboard of contending forces inside the country. So, too, are Iran-backed Shiite militias such as Kata’ib Hezbollah and Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, which over a period of years have used Syria as a base to launch attacks against U.S. forces inside the country and in neighboring Iraq.
Fighters with Russia’s mercenary Wagner Group also have spent years inside Syria. The experience they have gained there is now paying dividends in Ukraine, where Wagner troops reportedly are among the most effective pieces of Moscow’s fighting force.
Negotiating a cease-fire amid that complex set of circumstances, and with ISIS a continued problem, is difficult enough without the other long-term issues.
Officials say deteriorating conditions at Syria’s al-Hol camp, home to thousands of displaced Syrians, have turned the facility into a potential breeding ground for terrorists.
“There is a literal ‘ISIS army’ in detention in Iraq and Syria,” Gen. Michael “Erik” Kurilla, head of U.S. Central Command, said last year in a detailed CENTCOM report laying out American-led operations to defeat ISIS across Iraq and Syria.
“There are, today, more than 10,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities throughout Syria and more than 20,000 ISIS leaders and fighters in detention facilities in Iraq,” Gen. Kurilla said.
“Finally, we have the potential next generation of ISIS,” he said. “These are the more than 25,000 children in the al-Hol camp who are in danger. These children in the camp are prime targets for ISIS radicalization. The international community must work together to remove these children from this environment by repatriating them to their countries or communities of origin while improving conditions in the camp.”
The al-Hol camp and the ISIS detention sites in Iraq and Syria pose both long-term and short-term challenges for the U.S. and its allies. The most pressing concern is the threat of prison uprisings like the January 2022 breakout at the Al-Hasakah facility in Syria. More than 400 ISIS militants were killed during the fight to contain the breakout, and more than 100 members of the SDF died in the battle.
The sheer scope of the challenge, analysts say, is hard to grasp.
“We have 56,000 women and children and 10,000 men from about 60 different countries around the world [in detention] in an active war zone. They’re not being held in an isolated island off Cuba,” said Mr. Lister, drawing a distinction between the situation in Syria and U.S. detention facilities at Guantanamo Bay. “This is a problem the scale of which and the consequences of which I don’t think anyone in government has acknowledged.”