When I met Syrian President Bashar Assad on the eve of the American presidential election, I asked him what he would do to demonstrate to the next president that he could be a potential ally in the fight against the Islamic State.
He scoffed at my suggestion. “The whole argument [is] based on the facts that the United States wants to fight ISIS,” he said, using the common acronym for the terrorist group. “But this is not fact,” he went on. “This is illusion … And this is misinformation. In reality, everything the United States has been doing in Syria, at least since what they call the international alliance or coalition against ISIS was, is to expand ISIS.”
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Assad and his regime acolytes do not rely on alternative facts. Rather, they live in an alternative universe. And last week’s U.S. attack against a Syrian airfield will not bring them back to Earth.
Nevertheless, many politicians and Washington pundits welcomed the strike, believing it has restored American credibility, established deterrence against future use of chemical weapons and put Assad on notice that he cannot continue to attack civilians with impunity.
They are wrong. Shrewd Syria observers know that a one-and-done strike will never change Syria’s calculus. The Ba’ath regime that has ruled the country for 54 years has never genuflected before American threats and has even been willing to skirmish with Uncle Sam’s forces to protect its interests. And attacking Syria gives a pass to the actors who are now doing most of the fighting—the Russian air force and Iranian proxies.
Though analysts are trying to divine Assad’s next move, one need only consult the reflections of former American diplomats and examine the regime’s track record to offer a prognostication. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote in his memoir, “Years of Upheaval,” that “Syria had made intransigence a national characteristic,” while a leaked 2007 American diplomatic cable from Damascus lamented the regime’s “ossified, sometimes inflexible characteristics.” By now, it should be abundantly clear that Bashar has inherited his father Hafez’s legendary stubbornness and reflexive opposition to the West.
Indeed, hard-earned historical lessons suggest that if Washington ratchets up pressure against Syria, it is unlikely to buckle. Syria clashed with American troops in Lebanon in 1983 rather than give in to Washington’s diktats. Two decades later, America singled out Syria as public enemy No. 1 after a former Lebanese prime minister was assassinated in 2005. It imposed sanctions and persuaded its Arab and European allies to isolate Syria. The Assad regime’s banks were paralyzed while its national carrier could barely put planes in the skies for lack of spare parts. But Damascus did not fold. It thumbed its nose at Washington by incarcerating democratic reformers, shutting down American organizations and thwarting its efforts to stabilize Lebanon. Today, nothing less than a U.S. occupation of Syria will change the regime’s thinking. An insular and ruthless Ba’ath leadership that has weathered far worse storms will not cower before an administration that has only threatened a rain shower of cruise missiles.
Upon assuming office, President Donald Trump declared, “I inherited a mess.” In the case of Syria, he is correct. There are no good options on Syria and very little the United States can do to topple Assad and establish the democratic—or even halfway decent—government Washington romantics hope for.
But this has not stopped them from trying. Some hawks in Washington, such as Senator John McCain, believe Trump should take out Syria’s air assets. But the Syrian air force cannot strike its targets with any precision and has been compelled to use primitive barrel bombs—oil drums filled with shrapnel and explosives—to attack targets. Instead, it is the Russian air force that has attacked the armed opposition and civilians with pinpoint strikes.
Others, such as think-tank analyst Robert Kagan, believe Washington should support the moderate armed opposition. But this is a species on the brink of extinction. The few small factions that remain refuse to merge, fearing a backlash from their Persian Gulf backers. Internecine conflicts have erupted, with commanders accusing their rivals of selling American-supplied arms to dealers who pass them on to the Islamic State. All are localized groups, reluctant to fight in provinces far from their home villages.
The few powerful organizations that remain are exclusively Islamist rather than nationalist. Nur al-Din al-Zenki provides a cogent example of this. It was one of the first groups to rise up against the Islamic State in 2013-14. It was part of a CIA program that provided it weapons and funding. But in January, it joined forces with Jabhat al-Nusra, the Al Qaeda affiliate.
In August 2013, when Trump’s predecessor contemplated striking Syria, I wrote that the major beneficiary would be the Islamic State and not the moderate opposition as many claimed. Today, a larger American campaign against Syria would benefit Jabhat al-Nusra. It is the best organized opposition group, with factions spread throughout the country. It is simply too late to leverage the moderate Syrian opposition to force Assad out, or even to the negotiating table.
Washington does have options. When I was in Syria, I saw Hezbollah checkpoints in Damascus and convoys outside of Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. I witnessed Russian special forces in Aleppo’s Old City. It is these players who are propping up a Syrian regime that has fewer than 10,000 battle-ready troops, according to U.S. government officials. Russian forces are certainly off-limits for U.S. strikes, leaving the Iranians and their Shiite proxies as the low-hanging fruit. Degrading their capabilities could stem the opposition’s losses and give it a second wind.
Attacking groups with terrorist capabilities such as Hezbollah would certainly be dangerous. The Shiite extremist group, which emerged during the crucible of the Lebanese civil war, has struck Israeli targets in countries ranging from Argentina to Bulgaria. But equally perilous is embarking on a Syria strategy that does not foresee an endgame. The country is such a mess that anyone who touches it will be tainted with the miasma of its nearly half a million dead. With the United States largely sitting on the sidelines for the past six years as Syria has slowly drifted to Armageddon-like destruction, intervening now will not expunge America’s guilt. Syria is a failed state and there is nothing American power can do to put it back together.