Over six years ago in the midst of the Arab Spring, rebel groups from all sides began to wage war against the Assad regime. After suffering enormous loss of life and property as well as being disgraced by most of the Western world, the Syrian regime today is probably in better shape than it has been since 2011. Out of a population of almost 21 million at the onset of the civil war, there are over half a million casualties and a minimum of 1 million refugees from Syria alone; yet with the support of the Russians and the Iranians President Assad is more in control of his country today than was imaginable, given all of what has transpired. With the help of his allies–as well as the U.S.–radical Islamic groups appear largely to have been eliminated, expelled, or driven underground. In fact, the Assad regime appears to have moved into a very aggressive mode against some of its opponents.
It is a virtually implausible story that Bashar al-Assad has remained in power, ousted his opposition, and avoided an invasion from the West, all while seeing more than 5% of his population disappear. The problems that exist today are both different and similar to those the region faced six years ago. The geopolitical shifts include the significant presence and influence of Russia; Putin’s alliance with Iran—in the name of fighting radical Islamists; the unclear and shifting role of Iraq; the growth and power of Hezbollah in Lebanon; the immediate reduction of the threat from ISIS; and the growing potential danger all of these swings pose to Israel.
There is an additional force which has been affected by the tumultuous changes in Syria; the West in general and the United States in particular. If not before than certainly since Obama’s 2013 aborted “line is the sand” mis-spoken policy threat, U.S. policy has fluctuated and been confused. Since January 20, 2017, it has been further affected by the ambiguous Trump-Putin relationship, the extensive vacancies now in the State Department, the absence of an engaged Secretary of State, and the overall failure of the Administration to articulate a reasoned, coherent foreign policy—anywhere.
Arab hostilities and rivalries make resolution of the continuing crises from within virtually impossible. Outside intervention that is supportive of one side is seen by the other side as contaminating. The role of the U.S. is overladen with heavy political overtones, both domestically as well as globally.
At home, observers are not at all clear where Trump’s political instincts rest. After today’s meetings with congressional leaders on their legislative strategy, there is additional skepticism–even within the Republican Party. They know he wants “wins” but they do not know which fights he wants to win; assuming the President recognizes that he cannot win them all.
Internationally, no foreign country at the moment can or does truly trust Trump; largely because no one comprehends what he stands for or desires. Neither friend nor foe are able to articulate whether he supports or opposes their positions. This may be a clever technique for real estate negotiations but on the stage of world affairs if you cannot convey trust and sincerity to friend and foe alike you will never win. In fact, you will leave the world much less stable.
It is no wonder, therefore, Syria’s role in the future of Middle East politics is unknown and disturbing.