Stuck in an Intractable Syria
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Stuck in an Intractable Syria
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Have you ever wondered why the Syrian conflict has dragged on for so long?

At the core of the struggle is that local Syrian actors have so far been unable and unwilling to agree on an acceptable and sustainable way to end their conflict.

And as attested to by the recent back-and-forth struggle over the fate of Aleppo -- Syria’s second largest city -- none of those actors seem powerful enough to best the others. None can restore the old order, and none can create a new order -- not even with the help of outside powers.

So what about those outside powers?   

There’s a tendency to blame the United States in the main for failing to act more assertively. But there are any number of other participants -- Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia -- who instead of showing a willingness to work together, show little beyond narrow self-interest when it comes to addressing the two central questions that define the Syrian civil war: what to do about Bashar Assad, and how to deal with the Islamic State.

Civil wars usually end in one of a few well-defined ways: one party gains a decisive advantage; all sides exhaust themselves and are open to compromise; or outside powers intercede to tip the balance. 

None of these outcomes is possible in Syria right now, and the outside powers only seem to complicate matters. All have different agendas, and some of those agendas align better with the others than with Washington’s priorities. Indeed, the administration of President Barack Obama seems like the odd man out -- committed to the defeat of ISIS and to a vision of Syria that does not appeal to its counterparts. Without an unlikely congruence among the outside actors, the conflict will go on, to America’s disadvantage.

Russia is perhaps the most dynamic of the outside players. President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention, launched in September 2015, clearly reflects his desire to enhance Russia’s influence and leverage on the international stage while blocking American wishes and securing the Assad regime’s place in whatever arrangements are to outline the new Syria.   

Russia’s role in the siege of Aleppo makes it pretty clear that Moscow is both supporting the Assad regime’s efforts to regain control over the city and at the same time trying to persuade the Americans that in exchange for restraining Assad, Washington should align with Moscow in striking radical Islamist groups such as Fatah al-Sham -- formerly Jabhat al-Nusra -- long a Russian core priority.   

Moscow is also backing Kurdish forces in the struggle for Aleppo -- an indication that Moscow understands that the Kurds may well expand their territorial ambitions in northern Syria. In short, Russia has a game plan for Syria, and it’s not one that envisions a unified country under the control of the Sunni majority without Assad or at least an Alawite successor.

Iran seems even more determined to oppose any solution that doesn’t involve a key role for Assad’s regime. Tehran laid the groundwork for Assad’s forces to move on Aleppo by deploying units of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and mobilizing Shiite militias.

For now, Russian and Iranian goals have aligned to play a major role in keeping Assad in power. That Russia is now flying bombing runs against Assad's opponents from Iranian airbases drives home that point. We don’t know whether Tehran believes a military victory for Assad in Aleppo and beyond is possible. But what is evident is that Iran relies on the presence of a friendly Alawite regime in Syria, and views it as vital to strategic Iranian priorities: to the need to maintain its ties to Lebanon; not to see its window into the Arab-Israeli conflict closed; and to avoid encirclement by its Sunnis neighbors. Tehran is even more set on keeping Assad in power over part of Syria than is Moscow.

Turkey also has clear goals in Syria that depart from America’s. And the recent abortive coup will not make a U.S.-Turkish alignment any easier. The coup attempt will likely undermine the military’s readiness and preparedness and will discourage any major military involvement  against Assad or ISIS. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is focused on limiting Kurdish gains both at home and in Syria. And tensions with Washington over the presence in Pennsylvania of Mr. Erdogan’s archenemy, Fethullah Gulen, and the Obama administration’s support for the Syrian Kurds, will continue. Putin is already moving closer to Iran. Now, the United States should expect little help from Turkey in Syria -- and potentially a lot of trouble.

Saudi Arabia clearly is focused more on trying to weaken Assad rather than striking at ISIS. But Riyadh seems much more concerned with checking Iranian influence closer to home in Yemen than in making major contributions to the fight in Syria. The Saudis argue of course that getting rid of Assad would in fact be a blow to Tehran’s regional influence and reach. But bogged down in their campaign against the Houthis, there’s little the Saudis are prepared to do, outside of funneling money and weapons to Islamist groups battling Assad. Many of those groups are only one step removed from ISIS in their radical aims. Right now, given the numbers of civilians that Riyadh has killed in their airstrikes, Saudi Arabia is more concerned about its image in Yemen than in Syria.  

All of this leaves the United States isolated and alone. Washington’s efforts with Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia have not paid off in Syria yet.

Washington’s policy is focused on defeating ISIS and al-Nusra in Syria and trying as best it can to work with Moscow to find ways to tamp down the violence and create a stable political transition. Focusing primarily on an anti-ISIS agenda seems to be paying off. But surely Washington would also like to see Assad go. Indeed, as a recent interview I did with the NSC’s top Middle East hand Robert Malley suggests, the administration knows that without a solution to the Assad problem, defeating ISIS and creating anything like a stable state in Syria won’t be possible. Neither Russia nor Iran is willing to do that. Nor is the administration -- worried about getting too heavily involved in Syria militarily, confronting Russia, and mucking up the Iranian nuclear accord -- willing to play tough with Tehran and Moscow in order to induce a change in their policy. In other words, Washington won’t place direct U.S. military pressure on Assad or create no-fly zones to limit Russian and Syrian airstrikes.

This leaves the Obama administration betwixt and between a number of powers that are willing to risk much in defense of their interests. More than likely, come January 2017, neither the Assad nor the ISIS files will be closed. Syria will still be a mess, and the next administration will be wrestling with powers in the country that it can neither contain nor influence.