After Raqqa falls
|"An Air Force A-10 Thunderbolt II flies after receiving fuel from a KC-10 Extender while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve, May 31, 2017. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Michael Battles."|
The crisis is irresolvable, but that does not mean the bloodshed must continue
The days of Islamic State's (IS) control of its Syrian "capital", Raqqa, are numbered. US-backed, Syrian Kurdish-led forces have already taken parts of the city. The liberation of Raqqa from IS is a matter of "when" rather than "if". This brings fresh, and potentially worse, problems, however: US-backed forces are getting closer to Russian- and Iranian-backed ones. Things already grew more tense last month, when the US shot down a Syrian regime jet targeting US coalition-backed forces on the ground near Raqqa. Iran also launched its first cruise missile strikes on another country in decades last month, targeting IS forces in Syria. Crucially, that targeting also seemed to be aimed at assisting Syrian regime forces nearby. There has been speculation that the launch was as much a message to the US as it was an attempt to weaken IS. The message? "We're still here and we're not going to give up our influence in Syria lightly."
This gets to the crux of the issue: seizing control of IS's territory will not mark victory. As many have pointed out, that will not even be the end of IS, which is expected to return to global terrorism with greater force once it has lost its so-called caliphate. Even putting aside the continuation of the anti-IS fight, however, no one knows what will happen next in Syria. The US, Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, and the Kurds have been able to ignore this issue, agreeing to leave each other mostly alone while they focused on fighting IS. Once that mission is accomplished, however, all bets are off. The result will almost certainly be further chaos and bloodshed—but this time, it'll be chaos and bloodshed that brings US-backed forces (and likely some US soldiers and airmen themselves) into direct contact with Russian, Syrian, and Iranian forces and their proxies. As The Economist recently argued, war with Iran is a very real prospect, as is the creation of a vacuum that allows jihadists to regroup.
Under President Barack Obama, the US was slow to get involved in Syria, which meant it had little leverage and was mostly relegated to pleading with the active parties from the sidelines. Obama did slowly build up an anti-IS coalition in Iraq and Syria, however, and since the fall of Mosul, President Trump has intensified US involvement in the latter. This means the US has more leverage than it once did. It should use that leverage to attempt to create the most stable and peaceful situation it can. With luck, some creative thinking, and the nerve to see it through, such a modest goal may be achievable. A peaceful, stable, and democratic Syria is not.
With apparently iron-clad Russian and Iranian backing, it is unlikely that the Assad regime, or something similar to it, is going anywhere. The amount of US involvement needed to change that is almost certainly not forthcoming—and given the continued bloodshed it would require, and the uncertain gains it would bring, it is also undesirable. In any case, Russia is simply too powerful, has too much influence in multiple spheres, and cares too much about the survival of the Syrian regime (and its influence with it), to allow that to happen. "Option 1" is therefore no option at all.
The next possibility is for the US to declare the fight against IS over and withdraw its support. Besides the fact that the fight against IS will not be over with the fall of Raqqa, selecting this option would also have horrendous consequences. Leaving those it supported in the lurch is dishonorable and would harm the US's reputation. Who would dare ally with the US in the future? The reputational damage would reduce its ability to form coalitions in other areas, therefore curtailing its military capabilities abroad and requiring it to send more of its own troops in the future if it wished to get anything done. That is hardly a recipe to "make America great again". More importantly, choosing this option is unlikely to produce the most stable and peaceful outcome possible. US defense officials and Syria experts I spoke with at a defense summit late last year agreed that Assad cannot retake Syria anymore, even with Russian help. (Several of their arguments are summarized here.)
Withdrawing US support and involvement would thus not guarantee a swift end to the war and could even lengthen it. All it would likely accomplish, beyond the aforementioned reputational damage, would be to surrender the little leverage the US has and increase the influence of Iran, Russia, and the Sunni-Arab Gulf States in Syria, none of which has many qualms about backing extremist groups if they can help defeat the other side. This is the aforementioned "power vacuum that allows jihadist groups to regroup" risk. It is not a good option for anyone, though those involved might each harbor delusions that they could win the war and reunify the country under their own control. One side might eventually be proved right—but at an unimaginable cost. Syria has already been devastated by war. There would hardly be a "country" left to rule if it continued for several more years, as would be a serious possibility in this scenario.
So what would be the best (or least bad) outcome? Syria's fractures look irresolvable. In fact, they probably are irresolvable in the foreseeable future. Leaving them unresolved does not mean continuing the bloodshed and destruction, however. With a firm commitment to defending those in territory conquered by the forces it backed (i.e. one that matches the commitment Russia and Iran have given to their own proxies), it may be possible for the US to help "freeze" the civil war in place. Agreement on the partition of Syria or on some sort of federal structure for it that all sides could trust does not appear achievable in the short to medium term. An open-ended ceasefire with clear red lines for deterrence, but no on-paper change to Syria's status and makeup may be the best achievable outcome for the time being. The priority here should be saving lives and reducing destruction. Over time, other possibilities for reconciliation (or divorce) may become possible. Until then, a non-bloody stalemate may be the best "solution" on offer.