The Syrian Civil has been dragging on for over seven years now, and is entering its final stages. In the past few months, the Assad regime has wiped out all rebel pockets in the country outside of Idlib governate and the areas controlled by the Turkish-backed rebels and the American-backed Kurdish forces. Before we dive in, please take a moment to look at the map below. It is the current situation of the Syrian war, original found here at Wikipedia, with a few of my own edits to provide more information.
The Syrian rebels now control very little of the country, but they still command vast forces. The Idlib pocket is home to tens of thousands of fighters and millions of people. It is unclear exactly how many rebels are there, but it is at least 30-40 thousand and perhaps double that figure. The regime still has some tough fighting ahead of it. But still, backed by Russia and Iran, the end is inevitable. Idlib will fall. What I want to focus on today is what happens next, after the fall of Idlib. The only other areas beyond regime control are occupied by forces backed by the Turks and the Americans, with both countries having boots on the ground. Once Idlib falls, the regime will turn its attention to these forces and the US will have some difficult decisions to make.
The natural inclination is to simply withdraw American forces from Syria, and leave the country to the victorious regime and its Russian and Iranian allies. But this, I believe, would be a mistake. Even with military victory, the regime is fundamentally weak and incapable of ruling the country on its own. The devastation of Syria has been unimaginable. Nearly every town and city has been reduced to rubble comparable to the fire bombings of Dresden and Tokyo in WWII. Hundreds of thousands have been killed, and unfortunately for the regime a disproportionate number of these casualties have come from the regime’s traditional core of support: the Alawite community. The Assad regime has for decades, since its inception, been a regime by and for the Alawites. Alawites have formed the overwhelming majority of its fighters, and the high losses mean the regime no longer has the manpower to secure the country. There are perhaps tens of thousands of foreign fighters (Hezbollah, Iranian forces, Iraqi Shite militias, Russian contractors, Afghan mercenaries) supporting the regime, sometimes outnumbering native Syrian troops in individual engagements. Should all these boots on the ground leave, the regime’s control of the country would collapse.
This means that Russia and Iran will have to occupy Syria to stabilize it. Indeed, the regime itself acts as an occupying power given its very small base of support. However, it must be noted that Russia and Iran are relatively weak countries and are unlikely to be able to sustain the costs of long-term occupation, let alone reconstruction. The costs of reconstruction are incredibly high, with a recent UN estimate being a minimum of 250 billion dollars and most likely a far higher sum. Assad also shows no interest in reforming his “Bureaucracy of Death,” and as such will remain a deeply hated ruler within the country. Even after all significant rebel groups are destroyed, it seems likely the Syria will continue to be plagued by guerilla attacks and some kind of sustained insurgency. This increases the odds that Syria will collapse again in the future, despite Russian and Iranian involvement.
A collapse of Syria is in no-one’s interest. But should the US really help Assad and the Russians and Iranians rebuild the country? No. The moral case is quite clear. The Assad regime is abhorrent and vile, and should receive no assistance in restoring the chains on its victims. Perhaps the US should make aid conditional on political reform? That is an option, though it seems folly to believe that the stress of victory will force change that the horrors of war did not. Given the choice between slaughtering dissidents or relinquishing control, the regime will most likely turn away aid and double down on terror. The Assad regime is unwilling to make the reforms necessary to ensure its long-term survival, and the Russians and Iranians are incapable of providing the resources to maintain stability. A second Syrian Civil War, perhaps many years down the road, seems likely. It is important to remember that even now, with all the recent victories, the Assad regime on its own remains weaker than the rebels.
The United States needs to begin preparing for this scenario now. Our greatest mistake thus far in the Syrian Civil War has been our slowness to act, which meant that there was little we could do when we finally did get involved. From a practical standpoint, the US needs to remain involved in Syria as a collapse of the country would currently lead to a failed state acting as an incubator of jihadism and terrorist groups. But if we maintain some influence in the country, using reconstruction aid and our present military presence as leverage, we can hope to influence events should, and most likely when, the regime collapses again.
In the short run, the US should maintain its military presence in Syria, but also pressure the Kurds to come to some kind of agreement with the Syrian government. Iraqi Kurdistan can be a model: autonomous but still officially part of the country. American troops will act as peacekeepers. This would involve returning significant chunks of territory to the regime. We should also act to increase the costs of occupation for the regime’s backers, Russia and Iran. This would involve hefty sanctions on the countries, and particularly companies and organizations that would be involved in reconstruction. We also need to maintain our ties with the Syrian opposition, both in exile and within the country. We need to assist the opposition in maintaining itself as an organized force in the country, even if it only operates in secret.
But there are also obvious moral reasons for the US to remain involved in Syria. Even before the Civil War, the Assad regime stood out among the nations for its use of sheer, unadulterated terror to keep its people in line. With its present weakness, the regime will unleash new levels of horror upon Syria to maintain control through fear. We cannot stand by and do nothing. The last seven years in Syria have turned the country into a cauldron of blood. Cities have been reduced to dust, and people reduced to eating the dust that remains. As long as Assad rules the country, Syria will be watered by blood and tears. As long as Assad rules the country, a renewal of conflict remains a definite possibility. The Assad regime remains fundamentally incapable of ruling the country, and the “Syria Problem” isn’t going away.