The tsunami of condemnations and calls for action on and in Syria that followed the chemical weapon attack in the town of Idlib hides a truth that no honest observer can avoid: the ongoing war in Syria has been raging for nearly six years, and stands a good chance of continuing for another six years, simply because its continuation is in the interest of Israel, the United States and Russia to perpetuate Syria’s civil war. Decrying a lack of action against President Assad’s regime smacks of insincerity.
President Donald Trump, contrary to his declared strategy, ordered a surgical, limited strike on Syrian military assets on April 6. Even if this is not a one-time U.S. military response to Syrian atrocities, it can still be seen as mostly an act of symbolic venting rather than a strategic turnaround. It is unlikely that President Trump wishes to butt heads with Putin’s Russia just now, and he’s even less inclined to get the United States mired in another Middle Eastern conflict.
The war in Syria started around July 2011, on the heels of the sadly named “Arab Spring” that rocked the entire Middle East and North Africa. Since then, more than 400,000 Syrians paid with their lives, including about 100,000 civilians. Almost five million Syrians fled the country to become refugees, and a staggering 6.7 million Syrians became what is known as Internally Displaced Persons—uprooted from their lives and forced into a miserable existence inside Syria.
The total population of Syria, before the war, was a bit more than 22 million. That means that more than half the population of Syria were directly and catastrophically impacted by the war. And all this before we add the economic, ecological, health, education and other upheavals that traditionally accompany such conflicts.
Given the extreme consequences in this horrible conflict, one imagines world powers (even those with divergent national interests) would seek to encourage a measure of stability in Syria. But they do not. Let’s examine each external party’s motivations and resultant strategy.
Russia: The Russians have a deep-water port in Tartus, on the northwestern tip of Syria, on the shore of the Mediterranean. This is Russia’s only warm water port outside of the Crimea, which is why it was so crucial for Russia to annex that asset. As Putin’s Russia labors to recapture its status as a global super power, it’s unlikely that Russia will give up its strategic Middle Eastern foothold, which in addition to essential naval facilities includes a large airbase (Khmeimim) and a powerful electronic eavesdropping facility (Latakia). Under Assad, the Russians will get to keep these facilities; under rebel control, there is no chance Russia will be allowed to maintain these assets. So why not push for a decisive Assad win? Because Russia does not want a strong, assertive Assad; it wants a weakened, begging Assad, and a continuing war in Syria virtually guarantees that.
Israel: A retired Israeli general recently speaking on Israeli radio noted that Israel’s real nightmare in Syria is a win for Iran and the Hezbollah—a win that will establish a firm foothold for Iran throughout Israel’s northern and northeastern flanks. Israel calls the Syrian-Hezbollah-Iran alliance the “Axis of Evil.” This was the situation before the Syrian civil war, and Israel will do whatever it takes to prevent such a configuration from becoming a reality again. On the other hand, Israel is not looking forward to facing a coalition of radical Islamists on its northeastern border, which is what will result if the rebels win this war. Even if the so-called Islamic State is defeated and loses much of its ground-based advantage, hundreds of Syrian rebel groups are still active and pose a significant potential threat, particularly if they gain access to Syria’s substantial arms caches in the aftermath of an Assad’s regime collapse. Given these factors, Israel’s best option is to encourage the Syrian war to continue as long as possible. Havoc in Syria is good for Israel; it weakens all of Israel’s enemies (Iran, Hezbollah and Syria) and allows Israel to insert an intervening finger into the situation any time it feels it needs to do so.
United States: Both the recently replaced Obama administration and the current Trump administration see a strategic picture that is similar to the Israelis. There is also an American interest in seeing Russia pay a daily price in damaged international reputation (as the chief-supporters of the apparently blood-thirsty and immoral Assad regime) and in coin and life (as they continue investing and losing equipment and personnel in the ongoing skirmish). But the most desirable prize for the Trump administration is its ability to continue bleeding Iran as the United States continues its efforts to construct a new Muslim-Sunni-Arab “wall” as a check on an expansion of Iran’s power. This American strategy has the enthusiastic support of most of the Sunni-Arab world, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf states. An Assad win will give the Iranians a highly desirable foothold in the Middle East, something both America and Arab Sunnis do not want to see. But the United States knows that an Assad loss will bring a resurgence of the most militant branch of Sunni-Arab Islam, forcing America to act against them with full force, most likely continuing the picture of Syrian misery (except this time with American military might as its chief instigator). As such, the U.S. interest is to keep the current attrition on both sides going as long as possible, hoping they bleed each other to oblivion while simultaneously branding Russia as the world’s new “bad guy.”
As the dust settles after the missile strike on Syria and the world’s fleeting attention is diverted elsewhere, we should remember that when it comes to Syria, there are no real good guys around to pick up the fight – only cynical “accountants.” Unless world public opinion forces the central power players in Syria to choose a side, deal with the consequences and move to quell the conflict decisively, this horrible war will likely continue for years. The poor Syrians are in for a long period of hellish existence, and we are in for an endless stream of well-publicized atrocities followed by well-rehashed clichés and obfuscations by every politician with a microphone.
Dr. Doron Pely, an expert on Muslim/Arab conflict management, is the Executive Director of the Sulha Research Center, and is also an Associate with the Homegrown Violent Extremism (HVE) Studies Program at the University of Southern California (USC). He is also the Director of Special Projects at TAL Global Inc. Dr. Pely is the author of Muslim/Arab Mediation and Conflict Resolution: Understanding Sulha.