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This article first appeared here on ForeignPolicy.com July 23, 2018.
Earlier this month, Syrian regime forces hoisted their flag above the southern town of Daraa and celebrated. Although there is more bloodletting to come, the symbolism was hard to miss. The uprising that began in that town on March 6, 2011, has finally been crushed, and the civil war that has engulfed the country and destabilized parts of the Middle East as well as Europe will be over sooner rather than later. Bashar al-Assad, the man who was supposed to fall in “a matter of time,” has prevailed with the help of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah over his own people.
Washington is too busy over the furor of the day to reflect on the fact that there are approximately 500,000 fewer Syrians today than there were when a group of boys spray-painted “The people demand the fall of the regime” on buildings in Daraa more than seven years ago. But now that the Syria conflict has been decided, it’s worth thinking about the purpose and place of the United States in the new Middle East. The first order of business is to dispose of the shibboleths that have long been at the core of U.S. foreign policy in the region and have contributed to its confusion and paralysis in Syria and beyond.
There probably isn’t anyone inside the Beltway who hasn’t been told at some point in their career about the dangers of reasoning by analogy. But that doesn’t mean such lessons have been regularly heeded. The Syrian uprising came at a fantastical time in the Middle East when freedom, it seemed, was breaking out everywhere. The demonstration of people power that began in Daraa—coming so soon after the fall of longtime leaders in Tunisia and Egypt—was moving. It also clouded the judgment of diplomats, policymakers, analysts, and journalists, rendering them unable to discern the differences between the region’s Assads and Ben Alis or between the structure of the Syrian regime and that of the Egyptian one.
And because the policy community did not expect the Syrian leader to last very long, it was caught flat-footed when Assad pursued his most obvious and crudely effective strategy: a militarization of the uprising. In time, Syria’s competing militias, jihadis, and regional powers, compounded by Russia’s intervention, made it hard to identify U.S. interests in the conflict. So, Washington condemned the bloodshed, sent aid to refugees, halfheartedly trained “vetted” rebels, and bombed the Islamic State, but it otherwise stayed out of Syria’s civil conflict. Lest anyone believe that this was a policy particular to U.S. President Barack Obama and his aim to get out of, not into Middle Eastern conflicts, his successor’s policy is not substantially different, with the exception that President Donald Trump is explicit about leaving Syria to Moscow after destroying the Islamic State. While the bodies continued to pile up, all Washington could muster was expressions of concern over another problem from hell. Syria is, of course, different from Rwanda, Darfur, and Srebrenica—to suggest otherwise would be reasoning by analogy—but it is another case of killing on an industrial scale that paralyzed Washington. It seems that even those well versed in history cannot avoid repeating it.
Many of the analysts and policymakers who preferred that the United States stay out or minimize its role in Syria came to that position honestly. They looked at the 2003 invasion of Iraq and decried how it destabilized the region, empowered Iran, damaged relations with Washington’s allies, and fueled extremist violence, undermining the U.S. position in the region. It seems lost on the same group that U.S. inaction in Syria did the same: contributed to regional instability, empowered Iran, spoiled relations with regional friends, and boosted transnational terrorist groups. The decision to stay away may have nonetheless been good politics, but it came at a noticeable cost to Washington’s position in the Middle East.
The waning of U.S. power and influence that Syria has both laid bare and hastened is a development that the policy community has given little thought to, because it was not supposed to happen. By every traditional measure of power, the United States, after all, has no peer. But power is only useful in its application, and Washington has proved either unable or unwilling to shape events in the Middle East as it had in the past—which is to say, it has abdicated its own influence. That may be a positive development. No one wants a repeat of Iraq. In Washington’s place, Moscow has stepped in to offer itself as a better, more competent partner to Middle Eastern countries. There haven’t been many takers yet beyond the Syrians, but there nevertheless seems to be a lot of interest, and the conflict in Syria is the principal reason why.
Contrast the way in which Russian President Vladimir Putin came to the rescue of an ally in crisis—Assad—with the way U.S. allies in the region perceive Obama to have helped push Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office after 30 years, much of it spent carrying Washington’s water around in the region. The Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Israelis, and others may not like Assad very much, but Russia’s initial forceful response to prevent the Syrian dictator from falling and then Moscow’s efforts to will Assad to apparent victory have made an impression on them. Syria is now the centerpiece and pivot of Russia’s strategy to reassert itself as a global power, and its renewed influence in the Middle East stretches from Damascus eastward through the Kurdistan Regional Government to Iran and from the Syrian capital south to Egypt before arcing west to Libya.
Israel, Turkey, and the Gulf States still look to Washington for leadership but have also begun seeking help securing their interests at the Kremlin. The Israeli prime minister has become a fixture at Putin’s side; the Turkish president and his Russian counterpart are, along with Iran’s leaders, partners in Syria; King Salman made the first ever visit by a Saudi monarch to Moscow in October 2017; and the Emiratis believe the Russians should be “at the table” for discussions of regional importance. The era when the United States determined the rules of the game in the Middle East and maintained a regional order that made it relatively easier and less expensive to exercise U.S. power lasted 25 years. It is now over.
Finally, the situation in Syria reveals the profound ambivalence of Americans toward the Middle East and the declining importance of what U.S. officials have long considered Washington’s interests there: oil, Israel, and U.S. dominance of the area to ensure the other two. Americans wonder why U.S. military bases dot the Persian Gulf if the United States is poised to become the world’s largest producer of oil. After two inconclusive wars in 17 years, no one can offer Americans a compelling reason why the Assad regime is their problem. Israel remains popular, but over 70 years it has proved that it can handle itself. Obama and Trump ran on platforms of retrenchment, and they won. The immobility over Syria is a function of the policy community’s impulse to just do something and the politics that make that impossible.
Perhaps now that the Assad-Putin-Khamenei side of the Syrian conflict has won, there will be an opportunity for Americans to debate what is important in the Middle East and why. It will not be easy, however. Congress is polarized and paralyzed. The Trump administration approach to the region is determined by the president’s gut. He has continued Obama-era policies of fighting extremist groups, but then he broke with his predecessors and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. Trump breached the Iran nuclear deal, though he has done very little since about Iran other than talk tough. He wants to leave Syria “very soon,” even as his national security advisor vows to stay as long as Iran remains.
Despite and because of this incoherence, now is the time to have a debate about the Middle East. There is a compelling argument to be made that American interests demand an active U.S. role in the region; there is an equally compelling argument that U.S. goals can be secured without the wars, social engineering projects, peace processes, and sit-downs in Geneva. In between is what U.S. policy in the Middle East looks like now: ambivalence and inertia. Under these circumstances, Syria, Russia, and Iran will continue to win.