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Steven A. Cook is Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies and director of the International Affairs Fellowship for Tenured International Relations Scholars at the Council on Foreign Relations.
It has been ten years since Syrians rose up in peaceful protest against Bashar al-Assad demanding political change. In that time, half a million people have died and roughly half the population has been displaced. The uprising turned into a civil war that became a regional proxy battle and a zone where great power competition continues to grind on.
Although in recent years, observers have come to believe that the Assad regime—with both Russian and Iranian backing—will prevail, victory for Damascus remains elusive. The Assad regime controls most of Syria’s territory, but significant regions in the North, Northwest, and Northeast remain beyond its control. In addition, Syria’s sovereignty is compromised. Aside from Russian and Iranian/Iranian proxy forces that support the regime, the United States and Turkey have forces on the ground in Syria and Israel routinely violates Syrian airspace in its low-level war against Iran and its allies. The Syrian Defense Forces—a Kurdish dominated group—continues to fight the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliates for control of Idlib. In this dynamic environment there are several scenarios for increased conflict, including between Turkey and the Kurds, Turkey and regime forces, Turkey and Russia, as well as conflict between the United States and Iranian-backed militias. There is also the risk of miscalculation and accident in the field that could lead to blows between American and Russian forces. And there is ever-present risk of a recrudescence of the Islamic State and other extremist groups. The likelihood of these conflicts materializing vary, of course, but they are all plausible.
The question of whether and to what extent the United States should be involved in Syria has vexed two administrations. The conflict’s complexities are also likely to take up time and resources of the new Biden administration. The United States cares about the humanitarian disaster in Syria, wants the end of Assad’s rule, seeks to blunt Iran’s efforts to reinforce its reach in the Levant, and counter Moscow’s growing influence in the region starting with Syria. Yet, American policymakers have neither the will nor the domestic political support to invest military and financial resources to meet Syria’s challenges. As a result, barring a direct escalation of fighting that targets Americans or a significant threat from extremist groups, the United States will likely remain in Syria with modest forces, continue to employ sanctions to deny the Assad regime financial relief or the benefits of reconstruction, and use both as a leverage for a potential political solution, though thus far this policy has not produced the desired results. The status quo may be the best the United States can do, however.