After Raqqa’s Fall

The Syrian Al-Assad regime’s survival owes a lot to its foreign patrons, as well as U.S. incompetence.

Fighters from Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in Raqqa, Syria, July 28, 2017. Rodi Said/Reuters

Fighters from Syrian Democratic Force (SDF) in Raqqa, Syria, July 28, 2017. Rodi Said/Reuters

A complex tragedy called Syria is moving inexorably toward a denouement. The last man standing will be most likely President Bashar Al-Assad, bucked up by Iran and Russia. It is sad, unjust and criminally insane, but nonetheless a reality. U.S. policy, represented first by the Barack Obama administration’s abdication of all responsibility for the fate of the non-Islamist Syrian opposition and second by the total disinterest of President Donald Trump in anything outside the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and harmony with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, have combined to assure Al-Assad of this unfolding victory.

In Syria, the fight against ISIS has not gone as smoothly as it has in Mosul. To be sure, the militant organization is headed toward an ignominious defeat in Raqqa, capital of the so-called caliphate, largely due to the unity and efficacy of the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the direct involvement of U.S. forces. However, the political arrangement that worked in Iraq, where a consortium of Iraqi, Kurdish and Shiite forces cooperated to retake ISIS territory despite their rival foreign patrons, never took root. Turkey opposes the leading role of the Kurdish militias; the Al-Assad regime has vigorously protested American support for the Syrian opposition; and Iran has refused to take a backseat. Russia, meanwhile, has maneuvered its forces and support for the Al-Assad regime to make sure that the Syria-Iran-Russia axis remains ascendant in the aftermath of Raqqa’s anticipated fall, and the territorial disintegration of ISIS.

The Trump administration, after an initial huffing and puffing, and a missile strike on a practically deserted airfield in western Syria, has all but abandoned any pretense at confronting the Al-Assad regime or Russia in Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Tillerson recently stated that his government is content to leave the fate of Bashar Al-Assad in Russia’s hands.

Then again, the U.S. long ago ceded the fate of Syria to the rival Russia-Iran axis. President Barack Obama, while supporting the Syria opposition rhetorically, provided weapons and training reluctantly, and with the condition that U.S. support go toward the fight against ISIS and not against the Al-Assad regime. President Obama was not willing to challenge either Russia or Iran in Syria largely out of fear of sliding into another Iraq-style quagmire. It was certainly clear to many in the administration that defeating ISIS could leave Al-Assad, Iran and Russia more empowered in Syria—and Iran, via Iraq’s Shiite militias, stronger in Iraq. The battle for Qusayr in mid-2013, won decisively by the Lebanese Shiite militant organization Hezbollah, paved the way for a strategic victory for the Al-Assad regime—having thus secured a defensive line that protected Damascus and the entire border with Lebanon against any serious incursions by ISIS forces. The destruction of Aleppo completed that strategic line from the Turkish border down to the Jordanian one leaving the regime forces in a position, with significant help from Russia’s air force, to take its time in expanding that line eastward.

With ISIS on its hind legs in Raqqa and fighters fleeing for their lives, Al-Assad’s forces are now on the move eastward, intent on securing the Iraqi-Syrian border from Al-Tanf to Deraa and taking as much territory back from ISIS as possible along the way. ISIS, along with the rival Sunni jihadist organization the Nusra Front, cling onto a pocket along the Lebanese border near the town of Ersal, and another in Deir Ezzor. The Lebanese army and Hezbollah have resolved to expel the Nusra Front and other Islamist fights from around Ersal, and at this writing are readying a final assault for that purpose. Deir Ezzor is more complicated as both the Syrian regime and U.S.-supported opposition forces are competing for reclaiming the territory from ISIS.

Obama’s reluctance to assert American power, combined with Trump’s indifference, have come home to roost. Russia is ascendant in the Levant, with an air-defense network that covers all Syrian skies and then some. Iran is as influential as ever with the Al-Assad regime and, combined with Hezbollah, has strong assets on the ground: Iranian-trained and -equipped Shiite militias, arms depots and factories that produce Iranian weapons. Given the small number of American forces, and Washington’s lack of interest in putting more troops and assets on the ground, only a diminished and divided Kurdish, Islamist and Syrian opposition stand in the way of the regime ultimately regaining most of the country’s territory.

The opposition has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed. The integration of the organized political opposition overseas with armed opposition (mainly, the Free Syrian Army) on the ground never really happened and the Islamists, tainted by their foreign and extremist connections, never really took root inside Syria, prevailing only by force of arms and through sheer brutality. But the SDF, Deir Ezzor, and the northwestern city of Idlib (held by the Nusra Front and its allies) remain immediate obstacles toward the Al-Assad regime regaining full control of Syrian territory. The SDF will not on its own be able to hold and defend Raqqa—nor should they aspire to since the territory is not contiguous with their own. But Syria’s Kurds might try to hold the city briefly as a card to obtain concessions from the regime—ones which the regime will most likely be glad to offer in return for continued quiet with the northern, predominantly Kurdish regions. Al-Assad will sooner or later have to come to terms with Turkey regarding guarantees on the borders that would make it pointless for Turkey to keep any troops inside Syria or to keep supporting their favored Arab Syrian opponents to the regime. Deir Ezzor will in all likelihood have to be taken by force as the last holdout for ISIS. Idlib on the other hand, given that the Nusra Front and Jaish Al-Islam are holed up there, can in principle achieve an accord with the regime that would allow gradual reabsorption of the province into the state.

But what about good governance? Or absorbing opposition demands for reform into the regime? Both are important questions. But it is doubtful that President Al-Assad, who rejected genuine reform before the civil war broke out and while pressed hard by the opposition, will now from the position of victor be motivated to turn into the kind democrat many of his former friends tried to convince him to be. If the regime is destined to survive the civil war, it is sadly unlikely to learn the right lessons from seven years of destruction and mayhem.

Nabeel Khoury is a nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. On Twitter: @khoury_nabeel.