During seven devastating years, war in Syria has killed at least 150,000 people, turned more than ten million into refugees, and reduced once-thriving towns and cities to rubble. Finally it is winding down. Syria now has a chance to begin rebuilding. The country can be reunited, its economy can start to function again, and a measure of political stability can return. None of that, however, is likely to happen. American military and security planers are determined to prevent it as long as President Bashar al-Assad is in power. The specter of a peaceful and prosperous Syria under Assad’s leadership terrifies them. They believe that until he is gone, it is in America’s interest to keep Syria divided, unstable and impoverished.
Much of Syria’s water, much of its oil, and much of its best agricultural land lie in regions controlled by US-backed rebel factions. This gives the Americans a magnificent opportunity. We could encourage our Kurdish allies and other rebel groups to negotiate a peace accord with Assad, who seems likely to remain in power for years to come. That would lay the foundation for a stable Syria—which is why we are unlikely do it.
According to the logic behind American strategy in the Middle East — and the rest of the world — one of our principal goals should be to prevent peace or prosperity from breaking out in countries whose governments are unfriendly to us. That outcome in Syria would have results we consider intolerable. First, it would signal final victory for the Assad government, which we deluded ourselves into thinking we could crush. Second, it would allow Russia, which has been Assad’s ally, to maintain its influence in Syria. Most frighteningly, it might allow stability to spread to nearby countries. Today, for the first time in modern history, the governments of Syria, Iraq, Iran and Lebanon are on good terms. A partnership among them could lay the foundation for a new Middle East. That new Middle East, however, would not be submissive to the United States-Israel-Saudi Arabia coalition. For that reason, we are determined to prevent it from emerging. Better to keep these countries in misery and conflict, some reason, than to allow them to thrive while they defy the United States.
War in Syria began as civil conflict — a dispute among Syrians. Soon after it turned violent, outside powers rushed in. Iran and Russia sided with the government. The United States supported rebel groups, including several that were part of the Al Qaeda and Nusra Front terror networks. Turkey also sent weapons to terror groups, but then changed course, became friendlier to the Assad government, and turned its fire on the Kurds. Syria has become an arena for big-power conflict. It can no longer shape its own fate.
The United States is hardly the only outside power that is more interested in scoring points against perceived rivals in Syria than in stopping bloodshed. But our role is now crucial because our sway over mostly-defeated rebel groups allows us to push them toward either war or peace. From Washington’s perspective, peace in Syria is the horror scenario. Peace would mean what the United States sees as a “win” for our enemies: Russia, Iran, and the Assad government. We are determined to prevent that, regardless of the human cost.
Governments often make strategic calculations that place their own geopolitical interest ahead of humanitarian concerns. In this case, though, our determination that Syria not be stabilized under its present government is shortsighted. Stability in the Middle East is in our long-term interest. If we promote policies that allow strong middle classes to grow in Syria and nearby countries, those countries will be less warlike, and may even evolve toward democracy. The strategy we are pursuing will have the opposite effect. Poverty — not ideology or religion — is the main force driving young men into the ranks of terror groups. By keeping Syria poor, we provide those groups with an endless supply of recruits.
In Washington, this is considered an acceptable price to pay in order to prevent our rivals from racking up a “win.” In fact, though, our national security does not depend on how much influence various countries have in the Middle East. We wildly exaggerate that region’s importance. Our security will not be decisively affected by whether or not a gas pipeline is built from Iran to Syria’s Mediterranean coast, or how the political jousting between Iran and Saudi Arabia unfolds. These are Middle East issues and should be resolved by the people and governments of that region.
President Trump has declared repeatedly in recent weeks that he wants to pull American troops out of Syria. “We’re going to be coming out of there real soon,” he told a rally in Ohio. Later he trenchantly assessed the balance of our 21st-century misadventure in the Middle East. “Seven trillion dollars over a 17-year period,” he said. “We have nothing — nothing except death and destruction. It’s a horrible thing.”
Trump’s instinct is based on common sense. That same instinct led him to declare that he would pull troops out of Afghanistan — until his generals persuaded him to send more instead. The security imperatives that keep us in Syria are fantasies of fevered military minds. We should stop trying to turn Syria into an American protectorate, and look for ways to withdraw our troops rather than justifications to keep them there forever.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University. Follow him on Twitter @stephenkinzer