Assad Is Now Syria’s Best-Case Scenario

The ruthless Syrian dictator is guilty of countless war crimes—and regrettably represents his country’s least bad remaining option.

By Stephen M. Walt, the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
An election campaign poster for President Bashar al-Assad.
A picture taken on May 18, 2014, in the Syrian capital of Damascus shows an election campaign poster bearing a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad. LOUAI BESHARA/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump is taking considerable flak for his impulsive decision to withdraw U.S. forces from northern Syria. He deserves it because it is hard to imagine a more inept or ill-considered response to the imbroglio he inherited there. But let’s not lose sight of the bigger picture: U.S. policy toward Syria has been a failure for years, and the American strategy—if that word is even appropriate—was rife with contradictions and unlikely to produce a significantly better outcome no matter how long the United States stayed. (For a good brief summary of “how we got here,” see Max Fisher’s piece in the New York Times.)

As depressing as it is to write this sentence, the best course of action today is for President Bashar al-Assad’s regime to regain control over northern Syria. Assad is a war criminal whose forces killed more than half a million of his compatriots and produced several million refugees. In a perfect world, he would be on trial at The Hague instead of ruling in Damascus. But we do not live in a perfect world, and the question we face today is how to make the best of a horrible situation.

We might begin by acknowledging that the U.S. commitment to the Kurdish militias—also known as the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)—was never absolute or open-ended. It was tactical and conditional, based on common opposition to the Islamic State. The Kurds did not fight the Islamic State as a favor to the United States, and it didn’t help them out of a sense of philanthropy. Once the Islamic State was under control (if not entirely eradicated), the U.S.-SDF partnership was on borrowed time. I understand the anguish that U.S. military personnel feel at leaving comrades whom they have fought alongside in the lurch, but it was likely to happen sooner or later. With a better president, however, it might have been implemented in a disciplined fashion, and as part of a broader diplomatic agreement, instead of being done capriciously and for no tangible gains. Under Trump, however, that was not to be.

Why were the Kurds in this unenviable position? Because there is no independent Kurdish state and no prospect for one anytime soon. The U.S. government has never supported that goal because it understood that trying to carve an independent Kurdistan out of the Kurdish regions of Syria, Iraq, Iran, and Turkey would ignite a major regional war. But with no Kurdish state in the offing, the SDF was inevitably going to have live under the authority of one of the existing regional powers.

Second, Turkey regards the SDF as a very serious threat. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan may overstate the actual danger that the group poses, but this is a red-line issue for Turkey. As long as the Kurds had de facto autonomy in northern Syria, Turkey was going to be itching for an opportunity to eliminate it. Keeping U.S. troops there delayed that day of reckoning, but their presence did not offer a long-term solution to this problem.

Third, it has been obvious for some time that the Assad regime won the Syrian civil war. This outcome is morally appalling, but moral outrage is not a policy. As long as his regime was weak and as long as U.S.-backed forces occupied Syrian territory, however, Assad was unable to consolidate his position and remained dependent on Russian and Iranian support.

At this point, allowing Assad to regain control over all of Syria will solve a number of vexing problems. It addresses Turkey’s fears about Kurdish autonomy—Erdogan doesn’t like Assad one bit, but he likes the Kurds even less. Once Assad regains full control, the Islamic State becomes his problem, not the United States’. He is certain to deal with the group ruthlessly because the Islamic State is a radical Sunni movement that views Syrian Alawites as apostates. Moreover, the more secure Assad becomes, the less he will need Russian or Iranian backing. Propping him up has been costly for both Moscow and Tehran, and their presence and influence is likely to decline once Damascus is able to exert reliable sway over all of pre-civil war Syria. Some other countries, such as Israel, will be happy to see Iran’s presence in Syria decline. And if Russia and Iran stay in Syria, they will simply be pouring additional resources into a country of minimal strategic importance.

The current situation underscores just how misguided U.S. policy has been in recent years. Once it was clear that Assad would win, the United States should have been pushing for a diplomatic settlement while it still had boots on the ground and skin in the game. But America’s diplomatic efforts were halfhearted and hamstrung from the very start. Under former President Barack Obama, the United States refused to let Iran participate in the initial Geneva talks (thereby guaranteeing that they would go nowhere), and Washington isn’t even participating in the current negotiations between Russia, Turkey, and Iran in Kazakhstan. Indeed, the United States was still hoping for some sort of regime change in Syria, with the U.S. troops there acting as a “bargaining chip to secure not just the Islamic State’s defeat but also political change in Syria.”

A serious diplomatic effort would require the United States to work with each of the other interested parties, but Washington far too high-minded for that. It won’t work with Russia because it’s angry about Ukraine; it won’t talk to Assad because he’s a war criminal; and it won’t deal with Iran because it’s still hoping “maximum pressure” will cause the clerical regime to collapse or convince it to say “uncle” on the nuclear issue and its regional conduct. In the meantime, it has to send more troops to Saudi Arabia because Trump’s maximum pressure campaign has increased the risk of war, belying the president’s pledge to draw down the U.S. military presence in the region.

The bottom line: The solution to the situation in Syria is to acknowledge Assad’s victory and work with the other interested parties to stabilize the situation there. Unfortunately, that sensible if unsavory approach is anathema to the foreign-policy “Blob”—Democrats and Republicans alike—and its members are marshaling the usual tired arguments to explain why it’s all Trump’s fault and the United States should never have withdrawn a single soldier.

We are told, for example, that abandoning the Kurds means that no one will ever trust America again. Please. All great powers—including the United States—have abandoned allies at various points in their history, yet by some miracle each has been able to find new allies when circumstances required. The reason is simple: What brings political allies together and makes a commitment credible is the presence of a clear common interest—I can trust you to do what you’ve promised when I can see for myself that doing so is in your interest. By contrast, credibility is a problem when the other party recognizes that you have good reasons not to come to their assistance. When that’s the case, you have to move heaven and earth to convince them that you will in fact do something that may not make much sense. I’m not defending Trump’s action or endorsing a callous disregard for U.S. partners; I’m suggesting that the long-term impact on others’ willingness to work with the United States when their interests align may not be very significant and especially once there is a less mercurial occupant in the Oval Office.

We are also told that the debacle in Syria—and to be clear, it is an embarrassing display of ineptitude—is a great victory for the United States’ so-called enemies. Really? Syria is hardly a major strategic prize, and neither Russia nor Iran, nor anyone else, is going to get a lot richer or more powerful as a result. I doubt that Assad wants either Moscow or Teheran to maintain a big permanent presence in his country, so their influence is likely to decline as he reconstitutes his authority. It’s possible that one or both countries might remain entangled in Syria for some time, and that means they’ll be pouring additional resources into a country of little strategic value. In international politics, sticking rivals with costly burdens is sometimes a smart play, and it usually makes more sense than trying to solve an intractable problem more or less alone.

More importantly, to the extent that Russia and Iran do look like winners here, it is mostly because they pursued a smarter strategy from the start. From the very beginning, Russia and Iran had one clear, limited, and feasible objective: keep Assad in power. The United States, by contrast, had ambitious and unrealistic goals: It wanted to get rid of Assad, defeat the Islamic State, keep other jihadis from gaining power, and eventually bring some nice Syrian liberal democrats to power. These goals were complex and contradictory—the United States couldn’t get rid of Assad without opening the door to the Islamic State or various al Qaeda offshoots—and there weren’t any reliable and competent Syria liberals on whom it could rely.

Given the mismatch between U.S. goals and the realities on the ground, it’s no surprise the United States ended up where it is today. Interestingly, even a dedicated liberal internationalist like Jake Sullivan has reached a similar conclusion, writing in the Atlantic that he now believes “we should have done more [in Syria] to try to achieve less.” In particular, he regrets that “nobody was arguing to both increase the means (more and earlier pressure on Assad) and temper the ends (give up the demand that Assad leave and focus instead on curbing his worst behavior).” He’s right.

The Syrian tragedy is hardly a proud moment for America, but sometimes setbacks also open the door to future advances. The U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam in 1975 was an ignominious defeat, and it generated the same alarms about falling dominos, lost credibility, and terminal U.S. decline. Yet the U.S. withdrawal from Indochina also facilitated the anti-Soviet rapprochement between the United States and China, and it allowed Carter and Reagan administrations to rebuild defense capabilities that had been neglected while the country fought a long and expensive war. In the end, it was the Soviet Union—not the United States—that collapsed 14 years after the fall of Saigon. Getting out of Vietnam wasn’t a strategic setback; the real mistake was the United States staying as long as it did.

Last but not least, the main beneficiary of America’s recent misadventures in the Middle East isn’t Russia or Iran or Assad—it’s China. While the United States squandered trillions of dollars on unnecessary wars and quixotic crusades, China has been quietly building diplomatic connections, courting countries like Iran, and building a world-class economy at home. I’m sure Chinese President Xi Jinping would have been happy to see the United States stay in northern Syria forever, and he is probably grinning as he watches Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo fixate on Iran and dispatch more troops to Saudi Arabia. I’ll bet he laughed with glee as he read Trump’s asinine and ineffectual letter to Erdogan. I’m sure China’s leaders find Trump’s capriciousness frustrating, but his incompetence must be deeply pleasing. And they undoubtedly love the Blob’s stubborn insistence that America keep intervening in areas of marginal strategic value.

Let me be clear. I don’t enjoy writing a column like this. Acknowledging Assad’s victory and accepting his authority in Syria is the least bad option at this point, but no one with a shred of humanity can take any pleasure in saying so. Nor am I endorsing Trump’s chaotic handling of this matter, for which he bears complete responsibility. It is not easy to abandon the Kurds, alarm your other partners, and further strain relations with Turkey all at once, but the bumbler-in-chief managed to find a way.

No American should be happy about any of this, but there is one final lesson that should be really taken to heart. If the United States wants to avoid having to make painful compromises, and if it doesn’t want to get sucked into open-ended commitments or end up betraying some of its partners, then it ought to think much more carefully about where it commits its resources and honor and do so only when the mission is truly vital to U.S. security and prosperity.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.