After a decade of conflict, destruction, and severe economic contraction, Syria’s civil war may be nearing an end. Syrian President Bashar al Assad, thanks to extensive military, economic, and diplomatic support from his Russian and Iranian partners, is as close to vanquishing his enemies as he has ever been. The anti-regime opposition is now boxed into a small, crowded corner of northwestern Syria -- a territory only kept out of Assad’s reach by neighboring Turkey, a country petrified of even more Syrian refugees spilling over the border.
Al Assad has all but won the civil war, but Syria is dangerously close to an economic collapse. While policymakers in Washington are coy, a U.S. policy geared toward regime change in Damascus is exacerbating the suffering and hindering Syria’s post-war reconstruction.
Syria is at a tipping point. It will take decades before the nation is able to come back to pre-war levels of economic growth. The war has cost the Syrian economy as much as $530 billion between 2011 and 2019. The Syrian army’s vicious, barbaric prosecution of the war, coupled with U.S. and EU sanctions on the Assad government, has handicapped everything from health care and public services to education. Syria’s product exports have rapidly declined, from $12.2 billion in 2010 to $695 million in 2018. The value of its currency has decreased by 50% this year -- at the same time the price of food has risen by an average of 107% over the past 12 months.
Add an internal regime feud between Assad and his wealthy cousin, Rami Makhlouf, and Russia’s growing impatience with the Syrian government’s inability to govern effectively, and Syria is facing a long-term period of deprivation. The imminent implementation of the Caesar Act, a U.S. law that will sanction any foreign entity transacting with the Syrian government across a wide variety of economic sectors, will further delay whatever small window of opportunity the country’s victims have to begin moving on from the conflict.
Washington is deliberately hindering Syria’s economic and physical reconstruction as it pursues regime change in Damascus. Until Assad makes significant political compromises to his opponents, abides by U.N. Security Council Resolutions weighted against his own government, or agrees to resign -- demands he has shown no willingness to consider -- U.S. sanctions will remain intact and may even tighten. The 83% of Syrians already living in poverty are effectively being punished for the barbarity, corruption, and ineptitude of their government.
In addition to utilizing the power of the U.S. financial system, the Trump administration is also dipping into the U.S. military toolkit. Officially, the American people are told, U.S. troops stationed in Eastern Syria are performing counterterrorism operations against ISIS. The reality, however, is hundreds of American military personnel are being used to block Damascus and Moscow from accessing Syria’s meager oil fields. The logic is fairly straightforward: If Assad is unable to access these fields and export oil again, the financial pressure eventually will force him to offer political concessions to his Syrian adversaries.
Assad has never been open to such an arrangement. Even during the height of the civil war, when Syrian troops were fleeing from the north and rebel groups were approaching the suburbs of the capital, Assad and his inner circle ruled out the prospect of stepping down -- understandably calculating that doing so would result in their death, imprisonment, or exile.
Despite Russian airpower turning the tide of the war in his favor, the Syrian strongman has repeatedly resisted Russia’s entreaties to cooperate diplomatically. If Assad were unwilling to negotiate with his back against the wall, it is naive to expect him to do so when he’s winning on the ground.
This will result in something the American people have seen too often over the last two decades and are increasingly opposed to: the prospect of endless U.S. military deployments to a strategically unimportant country.
U.S. troops were deployed to Syria in 2014 for a very specific purpose: destroy ISIS’s physical caliphate, a pseudo-entity that stretched from the Baghdad suburbs to Raqqa, Syria, covering an area nearly the size of Great Britain. After more than four years of counterterrorism operations, the White House declared mission success when Kurdish-led forces retook ISIS’s last sliver of territory in the dusty Syrian town of Baghouz after a months-long siege. Yet 14 months later, hundreds of American servicemembers remain on Syrian soil, dodging an array of factions -- including regular Russian soldiers -- in pursuit of an objective that is at best open-ended and at worst unnecessary to U.S. national security interests.
The U.S. mission in Syria always had an anti-Assad component, and it has long since transformed completely from counterterrorism into a pressure campaign against a relatively weak and conflict-ridden foreign government. If this is not an example of mission creep, what is?
The strongest, most responsible policy in Syria is to withdraw all U.S. troops from the country, which will encourage all parties to find a tenable settlement. There is no good outcome possible, but every day withdrawal is delayed is one more day the lives of Americans in uniform are needlessly put at risk, and one more day the Syrian people suffer.
Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a columnist at the Washington Examiner. The views expressed are the author's own.