ISIS Defeated, Assad Empowered, the Syria Quagmire Begins in Earnest

 In World
This article first appeared on the Atlantic Council site.

It is hard to have a conversation about Syria without speaking or hearing the words, “How depressing.”

This has, in fact, been true for years.

The Obama administration observed, unopposed, a relentless, multi-year campaign of civilian mass homicide by a larcenous, incompetent, and brutal regime, one fully enabled and encouraged by Russia and Iran.

The administration protected not one Syrian from a homicidal government, pretending that to try to do so could make things worse: a time-honored excuse for inaction in the face of mass murder.

It stood aside and averted its gaze from the slaughter of innocents so that a nuclear agreement—supposedly the jewel in the crown of the administration’s foreign policy achievements—could be had with the Assad regime’s principal accomplice.

Indeed, given the extent of humanitarian abomination and policy malfeasance, depression may be the luxury of those not directly affected by systematic state terror and its consequences, both human and policy.

As the Trump administration catalogues the Syria-related policy wreckage it has inherited, it does so from the perspective of the bottom of a deep pit.

GettyImages-853644302 A member of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) walks through the debris in the old city centre on the eastern frontline of Raqa on September 25, 2017. Syrian fighters, backed by US special forces, are battling to clear the last remaining ISIS group fighters holed up in their crumbling stronghold of Raqa. BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty

Yes, the Syrian policy odyssey of the Obama administration was almost entirely subterranean. It is not the fault of the new team that it is looking up to see down.

But has it stopped digging?

Some senior American officials perceive the possibility—even the likelihood—of a positive role to be played by Moscow. They reason that a ruined Syria is no good for Russia; it will trap Moscow in endless conflict and render Syria worthless as a client.

Russia, according this line of thinking, views massive reconstruction as essential and realizes that no one with real money for grants, loans, and investments will channel anything of value through a Syrian regime for which thievery is as natural as breathing.

Is it not logical, therefore, that Russia will support power-sharing in Syria sufficient to enable the flow of reconstruction funding into the country? These officials also see the Moscow-Tehran relationship in the context of historical rivalry and enmity, rather than a collaborative effort to sustain Assad and expel the West.

The danger, of course, is that this may prove to be sleep-inducing wishful thinking; a re-phrasing of President Obama’s self-serving advice to his Russian counterpart that military intervention in Syria would entrap Moscow in a “quagmire.” We may now be hearing Quagmire 2.0.

It is true that Russian officials are calling on the world to rebuild Syria. Yet: is there evidence that Moscow wants Bashar al-Assad to share power in any meaningful way? Is there evidence that Russia can compel Assad to empower a unity government in Damascus and permit empowered local governance throughout Syria?

It seems clear enough that a criminal operation like the Assad regime cannot simultaneously share power and exist. And there is no doubt that Iran—the preeminent external power in Syria—wants its reliably subservient subordinate to share power with no one. Assad alone will put Syria at the disposal of Iran’s irreplaceable tool for terror and regional hegemony: Hezbollah.

Are the goals of Moscow and Tehran in Syria ultimately incompatible?

Conventional wisdom suggests Russia wants a strong Syrian state able to sustain bilateral partnership through trade, arms purchases, and regional influence, while Iran only wants strategic depth for Lebanon’s Hezbollah and a Syria molded for that specific purpose.

Even if conventional wisdom proves correct, both sides may see Assad rule as enabling full Iranian-Russian compatibility. And excluding the West from Syria while degrading Western influence in the region may suffice for President Putin and Supreme Leader Khamenei to set aside historic enmity between Iran and Russia.

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