America’s On-Again, Off-Again Involvement in the Syrian Tragedy

by December 2021
A street lined with damaged buildings in Homs, 2014. Photo credit: REUTERS/Yazan Homsy

The US was never much interested in Syria. Syria specialists tend to dispute this, and perhaps they are right, but the evidence seems meager. It is true that from time to time Washington’s gaze has settled on Syria, like the beam of a slowly rotating lighthouse. In 1956 and 1957, as Syria was thought to be edging closer to the Soviet orbit, the US supported a succession of failed coup attempts intended to stop the trend. These gambits were half-hearted and in the end, the plotters, and those mistaken for plotters, were rounded up and killed. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles had apparently opposed US involvement, saying that “his people thought it would be a mistake to try and pull it off,” but chose not to block it. (In 1959, he poured cold water on plans to meddle in Iraq because the US “was not sufficiently sophisticated to mix into this complicated situation.”) His brother Allen, who ran the CIA, was cut from a different cloth. It was the golden era of covert operations, on the verge of a messy collapse imposed by Kim Philby’s treachery. In Syria, the CIA’s efforts came to naught, as first Nasser and then the Baath Party held Damascus. 

The US engaged with Syria intensively during the disengagement talks following the 1973 war and again in the early 1980s when Washington tried quixotically to sever Hafez al-Assad’s ties to Lebanon and to push through the May 17 Accord in 1983 between Israel and Lebanon. Assad put a bloody end to that fantasy. Although there is no declassified information confirming that Syria was responsible for the deadly attacks on the US Embassy in Beirut and then on the Marines’ compound in 1983, the attacks served Syrian interests by hastening the American departure from Lebanon.

In 1991 American diplomacy and other inducements brought Syria into the anti-Iraq coalition, but in 1996 Iran staged a deadly attack against the US military in Saudi Arabia coordinated by Iranian personnel in Damascus. After the Gulf War, the US worked to get Syria into George H.W. Bush’s Madrid peace conference, but his successor, Bill Clinton failed to woo Assad into a deal with Israel. Ehud Barak, musing about Assad’s insistence that Syria’s border extend to the Sea of Galilee because he had swum there as a child, remarked that it was a good thing he hadn’t bathed in Lake Geneva. In the early 2000s, the US and Syria wrangled over the cross-border movement of Iraqi insurgents and the shelter that the Assad government apparently had provided them. The mid-2000s saw the US backing a multilateral push to eject Syrian forces from Lebanon following the assassination of Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, but neither the US nor the UN ever succeeded in bringing the perpetrators or masterminds of that crime to justice.

The Obama administration reached out to Damascus and quietly explored a deal that would lead to the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian control. Depending on whom one talks to in Washington about this episode, the response is either peals of laughter or a grim shake of the head. The civil war in Syria, which had erupted more or less simultaneously, wrecked the initiative, along with much else. More recently, the US carried out a massive effort to arm the Syrian opposition to Assad, but this too was largely unsuccessful and was brought to an end by Donald Trump in 2017. So, it’s true that the US has not entirely disregarded Syria.

The US was Syria’s first choice to train its army in 1946, but Washington demurred. Failure of the covert operations in 1956 and 1957 caused the US to take reasonable caution, especially after its erstwhile Syrian contacts went to the wall. President Kennedy was more interested in ties with Egypt and, until the latter’s intervention in Yemen, had a cordial relationship with Nasser. There was neither compelling reason nor a receptive partner to warrant restoring relations with Syria, where, in any case, the Soviets were making themselves at home. In the mid-1960s, the Johnson administration was too preoccupied in southeast Asia to think much about the Middle East until the 1967 war, while Britain’s decision that year to end its military presence east of Suez shook Johnson’s tree. When the Cold War warmed up in the 1980s, the military threat to the US Mediterranean fleet did not emanate from the Syrian port of Tartous but rather from Soviet air bases in southeast Europe. By then the US had thrown in its strategic lot with Israel, further eroding whatever interest the US might have had in Syria. And with the end of the Cold War and Russia’s withdrawal from the Middle East, despite a short-lived experiment with truncated versions of free speech and economic liberalization, did Syria really matter?

During this long period, most Americans knew little about Syria. To those who could find it on a map, or had even just heard of it, Syria was enemy territory, a tormentor of Israel, a dictatorship, and on the wrong side in the Cold War. Few Americans had traveled to Syria. If Americans knew any flesh-and-blood Syrians, they were likely to be the descendants of immigrants who began to arrive in the Midwest in the 1860s, or perhaps Syrian Jews who arrived much later, clustering around Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn. One would not have expected a groundswell of interest in the Syrian Arab Republic itself. Bashar and Asma might have been a hit in Paris, but New Yorkers had other preoccupations. And at no point did the US see how American fortunes would rise or fall because of anything Syria did or did not do. 

 An unhappy compromise. A Free Syrian Army fighter watches Obama's speech in Ghouta, 2013. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah
An unhappy compromise. A Free Syrian Army fighter watches Obama’s speech in Ghouta, 2013. Photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamed Abdullah

Thus, when the Arab Spring broke out, it was scarcely surprising that there wasn’t a tidal wave of American popular support for US involvement. Obama—having just gotten involved on the margin in Libya—heaped the appropriate abuse on Assad but was careful to say that the US would not assist the rebels. This, he said, would be up to the Syrian people, although the US wished them well. Understandably perhaps, the opposition and its advocates in the US did not hear this crucial disclaimer and focused instead on another line in the 2011 speech, to the effect that Assad’s rule and democracy were incompatible. This was a statement that Assad himself would have agreed to, but his adversaries heard it as an American declaration of war. 

There was pressure from within the Obama administration to intervene militarily, but the inability of those in favor to explain how such involvement would yield a new political dispensation in Syria that would align with US values and interests appeared to deter Obama from taking their advice. In his classic work, The American Way of War, Russell Weigley dwells on the longstanding US tendency to view war as an alternative to politics, rather than a continuation of it; but, of course, American theorists were raised on Jomini, not Clausewitz. America and Israel are more alike in this regard than either is inclined to believe. 

In the Syrian case, an unhappy compromise resulted in a program to arm the moderate opposition but without providing direct military support for it. As the moderate opposition faded in the face of jihadist pressure, the costs began to overshadow the benefits of the program. Although arming the moderate opposition did contribute to the defeats that the regime suffered in the spring of 2015, they, in turn, prompted Russian intervention, which, alongside the radicalization of the armed opposition, undermined what little motivation Washington had to stay engaged. The emergence of ISIS in 2014 gave the American commitment a new lease on life in the form of cooperation between the US and its largely—but not exclusively—Kurdish allies against this unruly enemy. A small US force was inserted into eastern Syria. Its stated mission was to impede traffic of undesirables, either ISIS or Iranians, from entering Syria from Iraq via the al-Tanf crossing in southeast Syria. Since the troops were first inserted in Syria—and indeed ever since then—the US has made it clear that they were not there to fight Assad.

Trump continued in this vein by formally dropping support for the armed opposition to Assad while maintaining a US military presence in northeastern Syria. Policy coordination during Trump’s term in office was uneven at best, in part because national security advisors came and went and partly because of Trump’s limited attention span. Trump had wanted US troops out in 2018. They were still there a year later, much to his chagrin. Eventually Trump concluded that the US interest in Turkey outweighed its ties to Syrian Kurds and ordered US troops to step aside and allow Turkish forces into this sector of Syria, where they and their Syrian Arab allies went brutally after the Kurds. Trump also seized Syrian oil fields with the aim, he indicated, of benefiting American oil companies. An outcry in Congress, especially among Republicans, led Trump to temper his unsentimental approach to the US presence in Syria. As for the regime, Trump signed the Caesar Act (the code name of a person who brought to light horrifying evidence of the regime’s brutality) under which Congress threatens non-American organizations, individuals, and governments doing business in Syria with economic sanctions. Although one could impose a unitary rationale onto this confused and confusing welter of statements and actions, it, nonetheless, resists systematization. 

The main elements of Biden’s policy look familiar. His administration still supports the Caesar sanctions, although it is taking steps to discourage overcompliance and has unofficially said it would not oppose transshipment of Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon through Syria; rejects direct communication with Assad; and is committed to keeping a small US troop contingent in Syria. Although Secretary of State Antony Blinken has expressed regret for the absence of American intervention during the Obama administration, he has been careful to avoid speculation about what the US might actually have done. He has also clearly rejected the prospect of a Biden effort to unseat Assad. Given the limited US strategic stake, this is to be expected.

For Israel, Syria has become a free-fire zone. The Israeli Air Force has attacked hundreds of targets linked directly or indirectly to Iran. The only constraint Israel faces is the need to avoid killing Russians and—under the tacit understanding with Putin—refrain from directly destabilizing the Assad regime. With the destruction of Syria’s massive stockpile of chemical weapons by the UN and the depletion of its power projection capability in a grinding civil war, Damascus can no longer pose a strategic threat to Israel. It can even be claimed that Israeli snipers pose a continuing threat to Syrian personnel on the Golan, one of whom was recently shot to death on an inspection tour of the border. During the civil war, Israelis and some American observers fretted about an Iranian land corridor to the Levant. As things turned out, the land corridor evolved into a buffer zone. On balance, the civil war and its outcome so far have served Israel’s interests rather well.

 Turkey has taught the Kurds—and the US—a lesson.  A joint American and Turkish patrol in northeast Syria, 2019. Photo credit: US Army/Spc. Alec Dionne/Handout via REUTERS
Turkey has taught the Kurds—and the US—a lesson.
A joint American and Turkish patrol in northeast Syria, 2019. Photo credit: US Army/Spc. Alec Dionne/Handout via REUTERS

The UAE and Saudi Arabia have also experienced a reversal of fortune. Six years ago, the two states had suffered a serious setback in their attempt to topple Assad, their one-time comrade. Qatar had run circles around them. Working in concert with Turkey, Qatar had stacked the Syrian government in exile with Muslim Brotherhood activists and stoked the radical wing of the armed opposition. Now that the war is drawing to a close, Qatar has lost its purchase and Iran is struggling to demonstrate its continued utility to Assad, given the growing cost of its presence. The gas pipeline is a significant advance for Egypt but also for Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The UAE has now reestablished diplomatic relations with Assad’s Syria, presaging its return to the Arab League. If the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt play their cards right, Arab capital might yet crowd Iran out of Syrian politics—and territory. Key regime members never liked Iran’s presence, fearing that over time it would turn Syria into something like the subservient wreck in Lebanon. Assad’s recent expulsion of the chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria might reflect this instinct. The decline of Iran’s positions in Syria bodes well for Russia, and also for Israel and Jordan, the latter which is repairing its ties to Assad. Turkey should be equally content, having exploited the civil war and its alliance with the US to establish a cordon sanitaire within Syria and gain control of a kind of game preserve for jihadists in northwest Syria that appears secure in the near term. 

At this point, the players are mostly pleased, or should be. Assad is still there and poised to rejoin the Arab fold; Turkey has taught the Kurds—and the US—a lesson; Israel can raid Syrian territory with impunity and teach Iran a lesson; Iran hasn’t found it necessary to learn this lesson, however, and continues to snout around; Russia saved its man in Damascus, averted what it worried would evolve into another Chechnya, got some military and intelligence benefits, a 50-year oil lease, and Arab backing for its commitment to Assad; the Gulf Arabs acquired a foothold in Syria that they had lost for a time during the civil war; and the remnant of the jihadi opposition has found safety in an enclave in the northwestern province of Idlib. The US, for its part, skirted a quagmire.

The only losers have been the Syrian people, who live on a pittance, have no infrastructure to rely on, face terrible public health challenges, are ground down by Western sanctions and the regime’s lack of administrative capacity and resources, and will be devoured by climate change. But this is unlikely to disturb strategic calculations or consciences in the world’s capitals.

Steven Simon
Steven Simon is the Robert E. Wilhelm Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a research analyst at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He served as the National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East in the Obama administration and in other US Government foreign policy positions.
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