Assad’s Russian-Backed Gains Do Not Change U.S. Calculus on Syria

Assad’s Russian-Backed Gains Do Not Change U.S. Calculus on Syria
Pictures of Syrian President Bashar Assad at a checkpoint to the Hamidiyeh market, Damascus, Syria, Feb. 21, 2016 (AP photo by Hassan Ammar).

With Russian-backed Syrian forces close to encircling Aleppo, thereby cutting off supply lines for the rebels holding the key city, the Syrian civil war seems to have entered a new phase. Russia’s intervention has clearly reversed the course of the conflict, dimming prospects for meaningful compromise by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s newly ascendant regime in peace talks to end the fighting. Instead, the pro-regime coalition seems to have decided to win the war in western Syria on the ground, with the recently agreed cease-fire simply diplomatic cover for a slow consolidation of territorial control.

Since Russia’s intervention last fall, critics of the Obama administration’s Syria policy have contrasted President Barack Obama’s extreme aversion to greater U.S. involvement in the fighting, which they characterize as fecklessness, with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive military approach. Those critics now argue that a Russian-backed victory for the Assad regime would represent a major setback for U.S. regional interests, a possibility Washington should counter with increased aid to Syrian rebels targeted by the joint Russian-Syrian ground and air offensive. Doing so, they argue, would raise the battlefield costs for Moscow and Damascus, making a negotiated settlement more attractive than the prospects of a lengthy war of attrition.

As is often the case with proposed approaches to the Syria conflict, this argument is more convincing in theory than in practice. In particular, it ignores the particular circumstances that facilitated the effectiveness of the Russian intervention, and those that have plagued U.S. efforts to manage the crisis. To begin with, Moscow has a man and a plan in Syria. Though the Assad regime and its regular army were weakened and by all accounts close to collapse at the time Russia launched its air campaign, they retain a deep familiarity with the country’s political and strategic terrain, as well as established chains of command. The pro-regime coalition, consisting of Russia, Iran, Hezbollah and various Shiite militias, shares largely converging or complementary short-term goals, as well as a realistic and achievable endgame: crushing armed resistance with no regard to any sustainable post-conflict political accommodation.

Keep reading for free!

Get instant access to the rest of this article by submitting your email address below. You'll also get access to three articles of your choice each month and our free newsletter:

Or, Subscribe now to get full access.

Already a subscriber? Log in here .

What you’ll get with an All-Access subscription to World Politics Review:

A WPR subscription is like no other resource — it’s like having a personal curator and expert analyst of global affairs news. Subscribe now, and you’ll get:

  • Immediate and instant access to the full searchable library of tens of thousands of articles.
  • Daily articles with original analysis, written by leading topic experts, delivered to you every weekday.
  • Regular in-depth articles with deep dives into important issues and countries.
  • The Daily Review email, with our take on the day’s most important news, the latest WPR analysis, what’s on our radar, and more.
  • The Weekly Review email, with quick summaries of the week’s most important coverage, and what’s to come.
  • Completely ad-free reading.

And all of this is available to you when you subscribe today.