Two years after celebrating victory in the Syrian civil war, the regime of Bashar Assad is facing renewed unrest. A mini-insurgency is under way in Daraa province, the birthplace of the 2011 revolt. Stormy demonstrations are under way in adjacent Suwayda. The economy is hurtling toward the abyss.
What has changed, in two short years? How has Assad's triumph turned to disaster?
The answer is the Trump administration's Syria policy. The application of quiet but unrelenting pressure is transforming the Syrian president's victory into ashes. What it has yet to do is persuade Russia to cease backing the Assad regime, which means the strategy remains at a stalemate.
Quiet but unrelenting American pressure is transforming Assad's victory into ashes.
When James Jeffrey, U.S. special envoy for Syria, said on May 12 that his job was to make Syria "a quagmire for the Russians," the remark went largely unnoticed. Jeffrey's words were not merely, it turns out, intended to convey a general sense of opposition to Russian designs in Syria. They headlined a series of measures intended to prevent the return of normality to regime-controlled Syria, to foment renewed crisis, and thus to turn Syria from an asset to a burden for both Moscow and Tehran.
The main method for achieving these goals has been the strangling of the Syrian economy. Assad urgently needs money for reconstruction. The United Nations estimates the cost of Syria's rebuilding at roughly $250 billion, which is four times Syria's prewar GDP. Assad's main allies, however, have no money to give. Iran is currently reeling from U.S.-led maximum-pressure sanctions; Tehran's disastrous response the coronavirus pandemic; the cost of imperial commitments in Yemen, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, and Gaza; and the loss of the man who managed those commitments, Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, who was killed in a U.S. drone strike early this year. Russia is facing collapsing oil and gas prices, as well as sanctions.
Assad urgently needs money for reconstruction, but his allies have no money to give.
The urgent need for reconstruction and the absence of funds have created a lever against the Assad regime that the United States has been diligently working. First, the United States has maintained with the European Union a united front on demanding that no reconstruction funds will be made available to Syria so long as the regime refuses a "comprehensive, genuine and inclusive political transition, negotiated by the Syrian parties to the conflict on the basis of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254"—a long way of saying that for as long as Assad refuses to negotiate his own departure, his regime won't get any money.
Second, the United States intends to block any possible economic escape routes for the regime. The so-called Caesar sanctions against the Syrian government took effect on July 17. They will severely penalize third parties doing business with Assad's Syria. China and the United Arab Emirates have both expressed a willingness to be involved in the reconstruction of Assad's Syria. The UAE is likely to reconsider in light of the Caesar Act. (Predicting China's response is more difficult.)
Third, the United States is working to prevent a final regime military victory. Despite talk of the war "winding down," Assad and his allies still only control around 60 percent of Syria. Around 15 percent is in the hands of the Turks and their Sunni Islamist allies—recently, they started using the Turkish lira currency in those areas, in place of Syria's devastated pound. An additional 25 percent is controlled by the U.S.-aligned, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces. The United States backed Turkey in its confrontation with a regime- and Russian-led offensive in March this year. And contrary to U.S. President Donald Trump's tweet announcing withdrawal in October 2019, U.S. forces are still present in the Kurdish-dominated area.
The main U.S. goal is to secure regime acceptance of a nationwide, unlimited cease-fire.
The immediate goal of the Trump administration's Syria policy—which emerged from and is being run by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's office—is to secure regime acceptance of a nationwide, unlimited cease-fire. That would freeze the current battle lines in place and allow negotiations about the country's political future to begin. Free elections and the departure of Assad are what the United States hopes would follow, but Washington would retain the ability to dial economic pressure up or down, depending on the extent of cooperation from Assad and Russia.
In the absence of such cooperation, the strained status quo in Syria will persist. That includes the growing scarcity of basic goods for Syrian civilians and the collapse of the Syrian currency (today, 3,000 to the dollar on the black market versus 50 to one before the war). It also includes armed attacks of the sort seen in Daraa over the last year, and growing rifts at the top of the regime, where Assad has recently struggled to pry money from family members, including his billionaire cousin Rami Makhlouf.
For poorer Syrians, the results of all this are dire. Danny Makki, a journalist with close connections in Syrian government circles, tweeted on June 7: "The economic situation in #Syria is at breaking point, medicine is very scarce, hunger is becoming a normality, poverty is at the worst-point ever, people even selling their organs to survive."
Regime spokespeople and apologists in the coming period are likely to highlight the difficult humanitarian situation in regime areas and call for a softening of restrictions. But it's hard to credit any sincerity to the regime's belated discovery of humanitarian concerns toward its own citizens. In covering Syria from the early years of the civil war, I witnessed the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, by the Assad regime's air force in Aleppo in the summer of 2012. Such tactics, replicated throughout the country, were the main reason for the terrible loss of civilian life during the Syrian war, and they were never informed by the regime's newfound humanitarianism.
The U.S. strategy has not yet succeeded at its ultimate aim of changing the Syrian regime's calculations. The main result instead is emergent strife between different elements of the pro-regime camp, including Russian public criticism of Assad, the falling-out between the president and Makhlouf, and growing tensions between Russian-aligned and Iranian-aligned elements of the Syrian security forces in strife-torn Daraa. But a strategy of this kind doesn't require immediate results. The direct cost to the United States of an economic blockade of Assad's Syria—like the maximum pressure campaign against Iran—is low or nonexistent.
The key obstacle facing Assad is the weaponization of Western economic strength.
Those wondering about the future shape of U.S. power projection in the Middle East should be paying close attention to the current look of Syria policy. The key element is the weaponization of Western economic strength. The camp around Assad is practiced in political and proxy warfare, and ruthless in pursuit of its goals. It has bested over the last decade the efforts of Western-aligned regional powers to oust the Assad dictatorship. But the Achilles' heel of this camp is its scarcity of economic resources. This vulnerability is now being exploited, at minimal cost to the United States and without the large military commitments that both the president and the public prefer to avoid. The intention is to turn Syria into a quagmire for the dictator and his allies.
Although Syria's active war may have largely concluded, the United States has ensured that its underlying issues remain unresolved. The resulting stalemate—marked by frozen conflict, continued poverty, and a messy de facto division of the country—has prevented a triumph for Assad and his allies. This will remain the country's only practical future until Assad and his allies are finally prepared to negotiate on terms that their opponents are willing to accept.
Jonathan Spyer is director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and Analysis and a Ginsburg/Ingerman Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum.