How the U.S. Can End the Syrian Civil War

It will require serious sitting down with Russia.

Robert Zapesochny

Bashar al-Assad would not be in power today, without the combined help of the Russian Air Force, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, and Hezbollah. Even with Russia and Iran, President Assad has only been able to secure control of 34 percent of the country’s territory and 65 percent of the population.

To make things worse, much of the weaponry sent to rebel groups was captured by ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN), which is al-Qaida’s branch in Syria. In 2014, JAN acquired antitank missiles, because two CIA-supported militias surrendered to them.

Beyond theft, JAN has worked with American-backed anti-Assad groups for years. This was why the leader of the American-backed Syrian National Coalition opposed the State Department when it designated JAN a terrorist organization in 2012.

In 2013, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) worked with JAN to seize the Christian city of Ma’alula. While President Trump was right to call Assad an “animal,” there are no good guys in this fight. JAN kidnapped 12 nuns and shelled a Greek Catholic monastery of St. Sergius. ISIS destroyed Mar Elian Monastery in Palmyra.

In 2015, JAN, and their ally, the CIA-supported Fursan al-Haq, seized the city of Idlib. Christians were forced to flee their homes to escape Islamic rule.

In 2016, an American-backed rebel group, Harakat Nour al-Din al-Zenki, beheaded a child in Aleppo. This wasn’t the first time JAN killed children. In 2013, JAN, ISIS, and the FSA launched a coordinated assault in Latakia. They killed 190 Alawites, including 18 children.

Beyond working with JAN and ISIS, American-supplied groups have used these American weapons to fight each other. For example, in 2016, the CIA-supplied militia Fursan al-Haq clashed with the Pentagon-supplied Syrian Democratic Forces about 20 miles from Aleppo.

The Syrian opposition has no shortage of weapons from the United States and from its Sunni allies. In 2017, JAN and the FSA launched an offensive in Damascus, for the first time in four years. The United States cannot end this conflict by sending more weapons into Syria. What Syria needs is an honest broker to end this conflict.

The United States Congress could help by passing the Stop Arming Terrorists Act. This piece of legislation would signal to the Russians that America’s first priority is to defeat ISIS and JAN.

President Trump was correct to support extreme vetting, when it came to Syrian refugees and immigrants from Muslim countries. We know full well that the Syrian rebels are working with JAN and ISIS. The United States should not provide weapons to al-Qaida and ISIS. It should not operate as its air force.

If the United States was able to work with Stalin to defeat Hitler, we can work with Putin to defeat ISIS in the short-term and eventually negotiate a deal to transition Assad from power.

President Trump should not listen to the same incompetent hawks who served President George W. Bush so poorly in Iraq and Afghanistan. From 2001 to 2012, the United States spent $1.4 trillion on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan according to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). This is far more than anything the insurgents could have spent.

Even with these incompetent hawks in charge, the Iraq War was winnable. In 2007, President Bush sent five U.S. Army brigades (18,383 troops) to Baghdad and another 4,000 Marines to al-Anbar province.

The surge worked in Iraq. Even American troops would make no difference in Syria, and there is no political will to send them in.

The rise of ISIS in 2014 was in part because President Obama refused to keep a residual force after America withdrew from Iraq in 2011. Another factor was the despotic rule of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. He alienated the Sunni minority in Iraq.

The Iraqi government understood that it could not regain the trust of the Sunni-minority unless Maliki resigned. With a new Iraqi Prime Minister, ISIS has lost of most of the territory it once held in Iraq.

The Sunni-majority in Syria will never trust Assad to govern fairly. In the long-run, the Syrians will never achieve peace as long as Assad is in power. He is the best recruiter for ISIS in Syria.

The Russians understand that every Sunni rebel Assad kills will only result in more recruits. Lenin himself was radicalized because his older brother, Alexander, was executed in 1887 for plotting to assassinate Czar Alexander III. Lenin would spend the next 30 years plotting to overthrow the monarchy.

If the Syrian Civil War were just about sectarian tensions, sending weapons to Syrian rebels could eventually stabilize the country. That’s not going to happen.

This conflict began after Syria experienced the worst drought in centuries from 2006 to 2010. The drought broke apart whatever trust was left between the Alawites and the Sunnis.

The Sunnis have no reason to believe that the Assad regime will ration Syria’s water fairly. Without water, the Sunnis have nothing to lose.

Only together can the United States and Russia end the Syrian Civil War. Of Assad’s two allies, Russia and Iran, Russia is the preferable negotiating partner.

The Alawites trust Russia to negotiate a deal on their behalf. The United States has the influence to bring Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar back to the bargaining table.

There will never be a long-term peace unless all of the factions believe that both their physical security and their water supply are secure. The Russians might be willing to eventually abandon Assad if they can keep their port in Tartus. If the Alawites can be assured of water and peace, they will also abandon Assad.

Russia has 25 percent of the world’s freshwater reserves. The international community can help Syria buy sufficient quantities of Russian water while the United States and other countries upgrade Syria’s water infrastructure. This could also employ young Syrian men and give them money to provide for their families.

In the last six years, almost 500,000 Syrians have been killed and 12 million have been displaced. The only way this carnage will end is if the United States and Russia work together.