April 16, 2018
By Stephen Gowans
Claims that the Syrian government has all but won its long war against US-backed Islamist insurgents, now in its eighth year, and that all that remains for Syrian forces is a mopping up operation, are far too sanguine. The United States is not prepared to allow the Syrian government, and its allies Russia, Iran and Hezbollah, a victory just yet. Indeed, with the United States military occupying nearly one-third of Syrian territory, and at the same time enforcing a de facto no-fly zone east of the Euphrates,  it’s difficult to accept the “Assad has won” narrative as anything but wishful thinking.
More soberly, there are strong indications that the US foreign policy establishment, or at least influential sections of it, favor a protracted war in Syria. And it is well within US capabilities to keep the fires of war burning in the Levant for some time to come.
Washington has for decades envisaged an orderly transition in government, from Assad’s ideologically-inspired Arab nationalists to Sunni business people who are more interested in making money than in politics.  The last thing Washington wants is the current government’s collapse and its replacement by a government led by ISIS, Al Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. Accordingly, Washington has been careful not to tip the balance too far in favour of its Islamist insurgent allies. The prescribed role of Washington’s jihadist proxies is not to take over the reins of government, but to create a quagmire from which the Arab nationalists in Syria can never extract themselves.
A quagmire in Syria is seen to offer Washington two benefits.
First, if the Arab nationalists perceive that the United States will never abandon its pursuit of regime change, and is committed to prolonging the war in Syria indefinitely, they will eventually arrive at the conclusion that their cause is hopeless and accede to a negotiated transition to a US-approved government. It is hoped that the Syrian population will arrive at the same conclusion even sooner, and pressure the president to fall on his sword.
Second, echoing Che Guevara’s strategy of weakening the United States by creating not one, not two, but three Vietnams, the view in some US foreign policy circles is that prolonging the war in Syria hands Iran its “Vietnam.”  Engagement in a prolonged Syrian struggle would, it is hoped, weaken Iran by forcing it to squander precious resources on an unwinnable war, thereby increasing its vulnerability to Washington’s regime change efforts directed at Tehran itself.
US tactics in Syria appear to have coalesced around the holding and reconstruction operations US Defense Secretary James Mattis spoke of earlier this year in connection with the policy announced by former secretary of state Rex Tillerson of an open-ended US military occupation of Syria east of the Euphrates. Mattis said the United States would hold areas US forces and their allies had already captured, rather than expanding into new territory, while focussing on reconstruction within captured areas. 
Ryan Crocker, a former US ambassador to Syria, has presented a policy proposal that appears to fill in some of the gaps of Mattis’s plan.  Washington’s intention is to spend heavily on reconstruction in areas held by US forces and its allies, while working to deny reconstruction funds to areas held by the Syrian government. With US forces in control of Syria’s main petroleum-producing assets, Damascus has already been denied access to an important internal source of revenue it needs for reconstruction. The idea is to create material incentives for the Syrian population to favor cooperation with the United States. The aim is to induce Syrians within government-controlled areas to pressure the Assad government to step down as a condition of unlocking the reconstruction funds needed to restore their lives to some semblance of normalcy. The policy, in short, is one of economic blackmail.
For the plan to work, US forces must be in a position to hold the territory they and their allies have captured. Crocker is urging Washington to proclaim all Syrian territory that is not under Syrian government control, including that held by Islamist insurgents, as “safe-zones,” with embedded US forces to call in airstrikes to repel any steps the Syrian Arab Army might take to recover the government’s sovereign territory. The plan, of course, assumes the complete disregard of international law, under which the United States’ uninvited presence in Syria is wholly untenable.
Exponents of the view that Assad has won have been misled by either of two misinterpretations of the conflict in Syria. One misinterpretation is that the conflict is a civil war, and while, to be sure, elements of a civil war are present, the conflict is more aptly described as an international war, involving a multiplicity of States and foreign actors, in a tightly confined space. Were the conflict only a civil war, the conclusion might be drawn that the Syrian government is on the cusp of victory. But the conflict is more variegated and larger than that.
Another misinterpretation holds that the aim of the US government has been to replace the Syrian government with Islamist proxies, and that, with these proxy forces now largely contained or in disarray, Washington’s aims have been foiled and Assad has won. But fearing the consequences of the Syrian government’s collapse, Washington has never intended Islamist insurgents to topple Assad. Instead, it has sought to pressure the Arab nationalists in Damascus to accede to an orderly transition to a government acceptable to Washington, while ensuring the Arab nationalists’ rule was never actually truly threatened.
The illusion that Assad has won rests on the victories the Syrian Arab Army, with the indispensable aid of its allies, has won in recovering territory from ISIS, Al Qaeda, and their ideological cognates. But while these victories were being achieved, the United States established facts on the ground east of the Euphrates. The declaration of all territory currently held by opponents of the Syrian government as US protected safe-zones, would further extend de facto US control of Syrian territory, to the detriment of international law and Syrian sovereignty. It would also call into question the all too premature formulation that total victory is within the Syrian government’s immediate grasp.
From the point of view of public opinion, the US position’s weaknesses lie in Washington’s flagrant violation of international law, to say nothing of its apparent absent mandate under US law to conduct operations in Syria to deny the legitimate government access to its sovereign territory and resources it needs for reconstruction. Public opinion is unlikely to support a war on Syria whose aim is regime change, which may account for why the US occupation of Syrian territory is kept largely under the radar of public awareness through its infrequent coverage by the mainstream media and minimization as a small scale effort involving “only 2,000 US military personnel,” a miscounting the Pentagon acknowledges.  The benefits to ordinary citizens of the West of Washington’s prolonging the war in Syria, to say nothing of the benefits to Syrians, are difficult to grasp, if only because there are none.
The vast majority of the citizens of the United States, the UK, France and other Western satellites of the United States, do not benefit in the least from Washington’s long war on Syria, and on the contrary, are disadvantaged by it; they bear its monetary costs. And ordinary Syrians certainly do not benefit either; on the contrary, the war casts them as victims of a blackmail.
US policy, then, rests on untenable foundations. It is illegal and in principle unsupportable by public opinion. These are weaknesses that can be used against Western governments to pressure them to abandon their unlawful, wasteful and morally unconscionable plans for the prolonged infliction of misery on Syrians.
1. See Stephen Gowans, The (Largely Unrecognized) US Occupation of Syria, what’s left, April 6, 2018.
3. “Trump’s Next Syria Challenge,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018
4. Aaron Stein, “Turkey’s Afrin offensive and America’s future in Syria: Why Washington should be eyeing the exit,’ Foreign Affairs, January 23, 2018; Dion Nissenbaum, “As ISIS recedes, US steps up focus on Iran,” The Wall Street Journal, December 13, 2017; Nancy A. Yousef, “U.S. to send more diplomats and personnel to Syria,” The Wall Street Journal, December 29, 2017.
5. Ryan Crocker and Michael O’Hanlon, “After the Syria Strike, a Strategy,” The Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2018.
6. See Gowans.