Syria, the Ultimate Test in American Diplomacy

Why you should care

Because Syria could prove the beginning of the end for American leadership.

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OZY senior columnist John McLaughlin teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @jmclaughlinSAIS

Seven years into the most violent conflict sparked by 2011’s so-called Arab Spring, the fighting has resumed in Syria after a brief lull — and with no end in sight. It has settled into a military and diplomatic slugging match in which the government of Bashar al-Assad seeks to consolidate and extend what remains of its control while the several major external powers taking part — Russia, the United States, Iran and Turkey — maneuver to hold on to territory and influence.

The original cause of the war, meanwhile, remains unaddressed and continues to motivate fighters. This is the hatred that the majority of Syrians, primarily the Sunni Arab population, has for the harsh minority rule of the Alawite clan headed by the Assad family for the last 47 years. Syria’s Kurds, 7 to 10 percent of the population, also have grievances and have allied with the United States in the fighting.

Although the United States began calling for Assad’s ouster in 2011, the Russians and Iranians have preserved his rule with their vigorous intervention. Since arriving in 2015, Russia has assisted Assad with weaponry, advice and a bombing campaign that has resulted in large loss of life but gradually expanded Assad’s control so that he has now regained about 35 to 40 percent of the country, including most major cities. Russia is motivated to preserve its port and basing facilities but also wants to enhance its role in the Middle East — a linchpin in Moscow’s global effort to extend its influence. Moscow has largely succeeded in this with little hope at this point of reversing its gains.

This is the political and military thicket in which the United States must pursue its aims.

Iran similarly wants to preserve its equities in Syria, which has, since the early 1980s, served as the gateway for support of its proxy and ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah — the Shia Arab organization that has managed to balance a militant terrorist wing with a legitimate political role in the Lebanese government. Iran, which devoted substantial forces and took heavy losses in the Syrian fighting, also looks to establish a fixed presence in Syria — of enormous concern to Israel, which must now contend with a well-armed Iranian presence just across the border near the Golan Heights. Although Israel has conducted several attacks on Iranian positions, Tehran has largely consolidated its goals. With this and its strong influence in the neighboring government of Iraq, Iran now has an arc of influence extending about 1,000 miles from Tehran to the Mediterranean — a long-cherished goal.

Turkey’s goals are more complex. For a time, it called for the ouster of Assad but has deemphasized this as Assad has recovered. Ankara has fought on the ground and by air against ISIS, which has carried out brutal attacks in Turkey (though at one point Turkey was an entry point for fighters joining ISIS in Syria). But Turkish leaders also want to ensure that Syria’s Kurds, in control of nearly a quarter of Syrian territory before Turkey drove them out of their Afrin enclave recently, do not gain autonomy in any Syrian settlement.

Although the United States has partnered with these Kurds, who have proven fierce antiterrorist fighters, Turkey fears they are allied with militant Kurds in Turkey who are pressing for autonomy or independence. This has caused serious tension between the United States and NATO ally Turkey. Ankara’s broader fear is that the Kurds, who spill also into Iran and Iraq, will ultimately unite in an independent Kurdistan that would cut deeply into Turkish territory, a concern historically shared by all four countries.

This is the political and military thicket in which the United States must pursue its aims, which under the Trump administration are hard to pin down. Trump’s emphasis has been on destroying what remains of ISIS, and this has succeeded insofar as the group’s physical “caliphate” — its Syrian capital in Raqqa — is gone. That said, ISIS still exists in pockets in Syria and Iraq, and surviving fighters can retreat into a global network of affiliates and allied groups.

Beyond this, the United States has either been unable or disinterested in gaining traction in the diplomacy aimed at achieving a political settlement. A United Nations process has largely been ineffective, and a separate process run by the Russians, Iranians and Turks has also floundered. The Trump administration has so far shown little interest in grabbing the leadership of either forum. So at this point, diplomacy is either moribund or largely driven by Russia.

The decision looming for the United States going forward is whether its priorities lie in the tactical realm — countering terrorists and aiding those who oppose them — or in the larger geopolitical arena that the Syrian war represents. It is certainly one of the areas of great power competition that Trump’s new National Security Strategy says is the mark of this age.

How Washington plays will send messages to the region and the world beyond, which is waiting to see if we intend to implement that strategy by taking on the burdens of leadership — or whether by “America First,” Trump is really signaling a step back from America’s global role.

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