National Interest: Assad Winner of War, US Strategy in Syria Putative
By Staff, National Interest
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has essentially vanquished his many enemies through attrition, some big help from his friends in Russia and Iran.
The question is no longer centered around whether the Syrian government will survive. For all intents and purposes, Assad was on course to win the war as soon as his forces recaptured the city of Aleppo in 2016 after years of fighting. Assad’s victory was further cemented in April 2018, when hundreds of militant fighters decided to withdraw on busses traveling to the north.
The question now is whether Washington swallows its pride and admits cold-stone reality – Bashar al-Assad has not only won the war militarily but will stay in power until his dying days. Or, alternatively, whether the Trump administration still believes it can push the Syrian dictator out of Damascus.
At the present time, the Trump administration has taken the latter course. The signing of the Caesar Civilian Protection Act last December essentially guarantees US sanctions on any firm, individual, or financial institution that seeks to support Syria’s post-conflict reconstruction. Washington’s strategy appears to be predicated on quarantining Syria’s eastern oil fields and scaring away potential investors from touching the Syrian market until Assad accepts at the negotiating table what he refused to accept on the battlefield: getting out of the way for free and fair elections. Because this simply isn’t going to happen, US policy on Syria will remain one of diplomatic isolation and economic strangulation for the next few decades.
It’s hard to see how a permanent US sanctions regime will make the Syrian people’s lives any easier to manage. The country has lost $226 billion in GDP between 2011-2016. UNICEF reports that two out of every five schools in Syria are damaged or destroyed and that half of the country’s health facilities are either underperforming or not functioning at all. Syria was once able to meet 90% of its medicinal needs; now, Damascus has to import those items. Since imports are trickier, shop owners have to rely on the more expensive black market, which means they have to raise prices to make a profit. The Syrian government is hurting for cash and trying to salvage the situation through government-enforced fuel, food, and cooking oil rationing.
The problem, of course, is that doing so also means that the Syrian population will suffer as well. Washington’s strategy is now entirely putative and attached to a fantasy policy objective.
The war in Syria is not yet over, but it has approached a point where the killing is at least winding down. Washington will have to figure out whether its interests are best met punishing the Syrian government (and by extension, the Syrian people) for crimes past and present or by becoming more discriminate in how it uses its sanctions authorities.