The civil war in Syria—or rather, the U.S. and NATO instigated, financed, and armed jihadist rebellion that was initially supported by several Sunni Muslim countries (notably Turkey and Saudi Arabia)—started 12 years ago this month. Thanks to the impressive resilience of the government in Damascus and its armed forces, as well as Russia’s air support, the conflict was mostly over by early 2018 with a de facto victory for President Bashar al-Assad. He is now well on the way to relegitimize himself as the country’s leader, as perceived in the Arab world but also on the wider stage.
The U.S. policy in Syria has failed: Bashar stays in, the jihadists-cum-“pro-Western moderate rebels” are mercifully down and out, and some 2 million Syrian Christians still remain in their ancestral homes, after all. This is in stark contrast to their coreligionists in Iraq, where, 20 years after the American attack, only a pathetic remnant is still in place. Any “regime change” in Damascus was always going to be a disaster for Syria’s Christians, Alawites, Druze, and moderate Sunnis (the majority of the country’s 20-plus million people) for as long as the likes of the Nusra Front—sponsored by Washington, London, Ankara, Riyadh, and Doha—provided the alternative to Assad.
Two factors have accelerated the process of Assad’s rehabilitation in recent weeks. A deadly earthquake on Feb. 6 provided the pretext for some previously reluctant Arab countries to normalize ties with Damascus, ostensibly in order to provide more effective relief but in reality because they wanted to do so anyway. More importantly, the agreement between Saudi Arabia and Iran mediated by China has been followed by the imminent resumption of normal diplomatic relations between Syria and Saudi Arabia. The ceremonies for the reopening of the respective embassies in Damascus and Riyadh reportedly will take place at the end of Ramadan, next month.
The forthcoming Arab League summit in Saudi Arabia on May 19 will hear the proposal—at present opposed only by Qatar, Kuwait, and Morocco—to bring Syria back to the pan-Arab assembly. There is a notable precedent for this development: in 1979, the leading country of the Arab world, Egypt, was suspended from the Arab League because its then-President Anwar al-Sadat signed a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt’s full membership was inevitably restored a decade later, however, and almost everyone in the Arab world has pretended ever since that the unpleasant episode never happened.
The failure of the jihadist rebellion in Syria is a good thing. That it happened in spite of the massive U.S.-led Western weapons supplies and relentless propaganda by the mainstream media—not to mention the influx of Muslim volunteers from all over the world, Western Europe included—is a testimony to the determination of a critical mass of Syrians unwilling to suffer the fruits of pax Americana, as seen in Baghdad and Tripoli. No Russian air power could have succeeded had this not been so: half a million American boots on the ground in Vietnam failing to prop up a deeply unpopular regime confirm that much.
The Obama Administration’s Syrian strategy, based on the relentless insistence that “Assad must go!” as expressed by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, gave way in 2017 to a less dogmatic yet often inchoate approach of Donald Trump and his team. Some of its members—notably, his short-lived National Security Advisor John Bolton—were rabid interventionists determined to subvert rather than support Trump’s policy of gradual disengagement. As a result, in 2020, the Trump administration expanded sanctions again, mandating “diplomatic and coercive means . . . to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbours.”
There is no rational explanation for such fanaticism. The government of Syria has never had a hand in a terrorist attack. Quite the contrary: in the aftermath of 9-11, Damascus passed on to the U.S. hundreds of files on Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist individuals and movements throughout the Middle East.
More seriously, U.S. support for the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) has been a major factor in the progressive alienation of the formerly staunch NATO ally, Turkey. That process is by now well-nigh terminal and irreversible. Ankara regards the YPG to be the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a designated terrorist group in Turkey. To make matters worse, the announcement in the fall of 2019 of a forthcoming Turkish attack on the YPG in northern Syria led to the speedy withdrawal of most U.S. troops from that region, which created the impression that local Kurdish allies of the Americans were left in the lurch.
The current lines of control have not changed much since October 2019, when then-President Trump decided to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria. The areas controlled by Turkish-sponsored rebels, by the U.S.-supported Syrian Democratic Forces mostly made up of the YPG militia, and by other anti-Assad forces, still account for at least a quarter of the country—including the oil wells in the eastern desert region—but there is hardly any fighting. The government controls the most populous and economically viable areas—including the major cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Homs, and Hama—and nearly all capitals of governorates.
Unsurprisingly, under the Biden presidency, the demand for Assad’s ouster has returned. This time the mantra has been reduced to a rhetorical tool aimed at subverting the possibility of a negotiated solution rather than a serious policy objective: everyone in Washington knows that Bashar is there to stay. Speaking in 2021, Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, said the U.S. had four main objectives in Syria: “to reduce violence, maintain military pressure on ISIL, address Syria’s humanitarian crisis, and to support Israel.” Many Syrians and other Arabs suspect, however, that the true order of priorities stands in reverse to the one stated.
It is a reflection of America’s diminished standing in the Middle East that the Arab world is paying little heed to Washington’s position on Syria. They also see the petty vindictiveness of the Biden team, evident in its 180-day partial lifting of unilateral U.S. sanctions against Syria, announced by the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control three days after the February earthquake. Ostensibly, the easing allowed aid groups to perform recovery work without fear of legal repercussions in the U.S. In reality, this limited exemption implicitly reiterates than no foreign entity considering long-term contracts for infrastructure rebuilding projects in Syria will be safe from the U.S. government, since no such project can be planned, designed, and completed in six months (the 180-day reprieve).
In the end, sanctions meant to prevent Syria’s recovery will remain in place. They are an instrument of war, not an alternative to it, but the camarilla known as “Joe Biden” does not grasp the fact. The sanctions are not a strategy but a neurotic condition.
That condition is intolerable. America’s involvement in a faraway land where no vital U.S. interest is at stake—especially in a volatile, majority-Muslim country with a complex ethno-religious chessboard—is an inherently bad idea. With its regional stature diminishing anyway, the U.S. should stay away from the costly and unpleasant Middle Eastern morass. There never were any “good” or “bad” parties in Syria, and the final settlement remains irrelevant to the welfare or security of the U.S. It should be left to the Syrians themselves, and to their Arab cousins.
“Syria will never be a stable democracy ruled by a moderate, pro-Western government,” I wrote in Chronicles in November 2015. “As such she is no exception to the rest of the Arab world.” It was in the American interest, I argued, to disengage and to give up on the creation of a caliphate that would further destabilize the region and send fresh millions of refugees to Europe.
Almost eight years have passed. My argument holds.