The Syrian civil war, which has been raging since 2011, is one of the worst tragedies of the early twenty-first century. Approximately half a million people have died, about six million people have fled the country, and another six million people remain internally displaced. Much of the country lies in ruins, perhaps never again to recover.
The war is also far from over. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been gaining momentum, but his regime has failed to recapture many parts of the country. Multiple foreign powers remain active in Syria, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the United States. In the northwest, Idlib Province is dominated by tens of thousands of Islamist militants, many of whom are active in al-Qaeda-style terrorist organizations.
“It’s a kind of conflict where the kindling is sufficient for it to burn for decade after decade and continue to be an engine of jihadism and instability for the entire region and beyond,” a senior State Department official said early last year.
The leaders of the United States have called for a political settlement, but they have played a central role in fueling the conflict. As they have tried to oust Assad, they have settled on a strategy of stalemate, keeping the war going as a means of pressuring the Syrian leader into relinquishing power.
The Obama administration, which designed the strategy, spent years providing Islamist militants with just enough support to keep them fighting the Assad regime but not enough support for them to overthrow the government.
“What we’re trying to do is to make sure the moderate opposition continues to stay strong, puts the pressure on the regime,” CIA Director John Brennan explained during the administration’s final year in office. “We don’t want the Syrian government to collapse. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
Administration officials feared that if the rebels overthrew the government, the country would implode, making it into a center of Islamist extremism and terrorism. They wanted Assad gone, but they did not want the country to become another Libya, which had devolved into a bitter civil war after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
“We have huge interests because of the stability of the region, because of the need to fight against extremism, the need to prevent the country from breaking up and having a negative impact on all of the neighborhood,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Sharing these concerns, the Trump administration ended support to the rebels but turned to other forms of leverage. For the most part, the Trump administration has been exploiting the areas outside of the Assad regime’s control, trying to prevent the regime from reclaiming those areas and reestablishing its authority.
“Bashar al-Assad can think he’s won the war, but right now he holds on to approximately half the territory of Syria,” James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for Syria, remarked in 2018. “He’s sitting on a cadaver state.”
This “cadaver state,” as Jeffrey described it, provides the guiding vision for the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria. To keep pressure on Assad, the Trump administration is trying to preserve the cadaver state, keeping Syria dead and dismembered until Assad steps down from power. Implementing its own version of the stalemate strategy, the Trump administration wants to achieve something morticians might call the embalming of Syria.
Keeping Syria Dismembered
The civil war has divided Syria into several areas of control. Although the Assad regime controls much of central Syria and the capital in Damascus, other groups control large areas in the northwest, northeast, and south.
In the northwest, the opposition controls Idlib Province, its last and largest stronghold. Since 2015, an al-Qaeda offshoot called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has dominated the area, using it to organize resistance to the Assad government. Early last year, HTS took administrative control of the region.
Some U.S. officials say the province is now home to one of the largest concentrations of terrorists in the world. They are particularly concerned about an al-Qaeda branch called Hurras al-Din, which could be plotting attacks against the West. Perhaps the strongest symbol of what has happened to the area is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State, was found hiding there during the U.S. raid that resulted in his death last year.
“There is no dispute that Idlib has become a hornet’s nest of multiple terrorist organizations,” Defense Department official Robert Karem told Congress in 2018.
Although the Assad regime has been working with Russia in an ongoing military campaign to retake control of the terrorist stronghold, the Trump administration has been trying to slow the attack. Administration officials argue that a major offensive will create a humanitarian catastrophe. More than three million people live in the province, and many of them are refugees from other parts of Syria.
The bigger fear in Washington is that Assad’s military campaign will succeed in destroying the terrorist groups. Although U.S. forces have taken several actions of their own against them, U.S. officials want the militants to keep pressure on Assad. When the Syrian government attempted to retake control of the area in 2018, Jeffrey warned that a Syrian victory “would have meant essentially the end of the armed resistance to the Syrian Government.”
As the Trump administration has sought to prevent the Syrian government from retaking Idlib, it has been pursuing a similar objective in Rojava, the Kurdish-led area in the northeast. Since the war began, Kurdish militias have controlled the northeastern part of the country, benefiting from Assad’s decision early in the war to withdraw forces and send them elsewhere.
After Assad’s forces left, the Kurds faced a major challenge from the Islamic State, which began conquering large parts of central Syria. Once the Islamic State began moving into Kurdish areas, the Kurds put up effective resistance, notably in Kobani from late 2014 to early 2015.
Impressed by the Kurdish resistance, the Obama administration began partnering with the Kurds, helping them fight the Islamic State. With U.S. support, the Kurds defeated the Islamic State and secured control of the northeast. Leading a major social revolution, they started creating an autonomous confederation of cantons outside of the control of the Syrian government.
Officials in Washington, who repeatedly praised the Kurds for their bravery against the Islamic State, came to value them even more for their control over northeastern Syria. In their view, the Kurds had acquired significant leverage over Assad.
“This area accounts for roughly one-third of the country east of the Euphrates River and is the United States’ greatest single point of leverage in Syria,” a 2019 report by the congressionally mandated Syria Study Group (SSG) stated.
Although Trump seemingly abandoned this leverage when he began withdrawing U.S. forces from the area in October, administration officials persuaded him to keep nearly a thousand U.S. troops inside the country. The soldiers may not be able to regain control of the bases they lost to Turkish, Russian, and Syrian forces, but they continue to control strategically important oil fields.
U.S. control provides “a good negotiating leverage point,” according to Gen. Joseph Votel, a former commander of U.S. Central Command.
In the meantime, the Trump administration has been maintaining another significant leverage point in the southern part of Syria, where it keeps about a hundred U.S. soldiers stationed at the al-Tanf military base. “I think U.S. officials and other officials around the region consider the U.S. presence at Al-Tanf to be of strategic importance,” SSG co-chair Michael Singh told Congress last year. It is useful “for maintaining a kind of presence in that kind of swath of Syria.”
Keeping Syria Dead
As the Trump administration has kept Syria divided and broken, it has made a major effort to prevent the Assad regime from reviving the areas it does control. Using a mix of economic and military power, the Trump administration has made it impossible for the country to recover under Assad’s leadership.
For years, U.S. sanctions have kept Syria weakened and isolated. By maintaining the comprehensive set of sanctions that previous administrations had already imposed on Syria, the Trump administration has kept the country under what is essentially a full economic embargo.
According to the Treasury Department, the U.S. sanctions regime is “one of the most comprehensive sanctions programs” administered by the Office of Foreign Assets Control, which implements and enforces U.S. sanctions.
Adding to the economic pressure, the Trump administration has also been blocking reconstruction aid to Syria. Despite the fact that the war has left countless people homeless, administration officials actively discourage the international community from directing any kind of reconstruction assistance to areas under Assad’s control.
The withholding of funds is one of the Trump administration’s “potent levers” over Assad, State Department official David Satterfield told Congress in 2018.
Administration officials even acknowledge that they are trying to prevent the country from recovering. Destroyed parts of the country are “going to stay part of rubble in a graveyard until the international community sees some kind of movement towards our list of issues and answers and policies,” a senior State Department official said in November.
Taking more direct action, the United States and its allies have also been carrying out airstrikes against Syrian infrastructure. Once in April 2017 and again in April 2018, the Trump administration launched missile attacks against Syria, insisting that they were a necessary response to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime.
At one point, Trump even considered assassinating Assad, saying “Let’s fucking kill him!” Then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis told the president that he would look into it, but Trump’s national security team decided against it, arguing for airstrikes instead.
Also favoring airstrikes, the Israeli government has carried out hundreds of attacks inside Syria. Its targets have included weapons convoys, Syrian infrastructure, Iranian forces, and Iranian infrastructure. Both Assad and the Iranians “have Israel to contend with in basically a silent war in the skies and on the ground in Syria,” Jeffrey told Congress last year.
The Future of a Failed Strategy
From one perspective, the Trump administration appears to be achieving its goals in Syria. By keeping the country permanently weakened, it has prevented Assad from winning the war.
From another perspective, however, the Trump administration has failed. Not only has it been unable to pressure Assad into leaving office, but it has made no progress in convincing Assad to hold meaningful negotiations with the rebels. The only thing the Trump administration has done is prolonged the war, causing more death, destruction, and misery.
“We failed, and the failure continues,” former U.S. official Anthony Blinken said in 2018.
Regardless, the Trump administration has continued implementing its own version of the stalemate strategy. When it was facing widespread criticism last year over its decision to betray the Kurds, Jeffrey reassured Congress that the United States maintains significant leverage over Assad.
“We had the leverage of a totally broken state, which is what we still have today,” Jeffrey said. The war is “stalemated” and the country remains “basically a pile of rubble,” he added. “I think that it’s open to question whether Assad personally is going to lead that country indefinitely.”
Indeed, the morticians in the Trump administration remain convinced that they can oust Assad. All they need to do, they believe, is keep the war stalemated, keep the country a pile of rubble, and keep Syria dead and dismembered, no matter the costs to the Syrian people.