Syria is a bad investment

By Daniel DePetris

The civil war in Syria may still be continuing at a less intensive pace, but it has been abundantly clear for months that the government of Bashar al-Assad has won the conflict.

Countries like Turkey, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia—three nations that once transferred money, supplies, intelligence support, and arms to armed opposition groups fighting to displace Assad—have changed their priorities and are now operating on the assumption that the Assad regime (as corrupt and inhumane as it is) will continue to rule the country for the foreseeable future. 

After three years of military intervention, Moscow has solidified its proxy’s position. Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, is now confronted with a different set of problems: resettling the nearly six million Syrian refugees who were pushed out of the country over the last seven years and financing a post-conflict reconstruction package that will reach gargantuan proportions. 

Putin’s representatives are traveling around Western Europe and talking with U.S. officials as we speak, hoping that Washington will bail out the Kremlin. The Trump administration should politely tell the Russians to take a hike. To do anything more than issue a stern decline would not only relieve a great burden off Putin’s shoulders, but would also make the mistake of pouring U.S. taxpayer money into a country which is immaterial to America’s national security policy in the Middle East.

It is no mystery as to why Moscow is lobbying for foreign assistance. Syria is no longer the proud, fiercely nationalist country it was prior to the unbreak of the civil (and proxy) war. In November 2017, the United Nations estimated that it will take approximately $250 billion to bring Syria back to its pre-war potential—a figure that has only increased in the eight months since that assessment was made. Assad may have won the war, but he now presides over a pile of rubble, a destroyed hospital system, an anemic economy, a national army wholly reliant on foreign powers like Russia and Iranian-payed irregular militias, and a population that is exhausted, grieving, and in many cases homeless.

Entire cities lie in ruins, with aerial pictures of East Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs looking like Dresden, Berlin, or Tokyo after World War II. Moscow has nobody to blame for this terrible situation other than itself and its ally, Bashar al-Assad; Moscow’s three years of indiscriminate bombing took an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis and made into the worst calamity of the 21st century.

Facing such apocalyptic devastation of its own making and short of the cash needed to repair it, there should be no wonder why Russian officials are flying to European capitals, calling their American colleagues, and approaching the U.N. Security Council hat-in-hand for financial assistance. Putin is staring at a situation that he created, but which he can’t or will not pay for.

President Trump, who has correctly argued that re-establishing a more constructive dialogue with Moscow is in the U.S. national security interest, may be tempted to use Syria as a bridge in pursuit of a detente. Yet the president would be committing a fundamental error if he offered to partner with Russia on a Syria rehabilitation and reconstruction initiative. If Moscow is now a peer, a strategic competitor with the United States as the administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy says, it would be the epitome of poor judgment for Washington to alleviate the massive financial headache that Putin is trying so desperately to escape from.

Forcing Moscow to take ownership is the smartest card for the U.S. to play. Does anyone think the Russians would act any differently if the roles were reversed?

There is another reason the White House should steer clear of any stabilization initiative: it is wholly unnecessary. 

U.S. policy in the Middle East should serve one narrow purpose: to protect the American people and defend America’s core interests in the region. U.S. interests in this violent part of the world are few: the disruption of transnational terrorist groups that seek to attack Americans or American soil; promote diplomatic solutions to systemic problems with the goal of regional governments taking responsibility for their own neighborhood; and to ensure, in partnership with Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Kuwait, and the region’s other major oil producers, that the international energy market is stable. As 15 years of mistakes illustrate, for Washington to do anything more is a recipe for more heartache and failure.

Bashar al-Assad may be a ruthless tyrant who killed his own people and destroyed his own country to stay in power, but he is not an American responsibility. Nor is Syria, a broken, angry, dysfunctional and energy-poor country relative to its neighbors, a particularly important or influential state in Middle East. To devote American resources into Syria in order to fund a rebuilding project—a task that Washington has never excelled at—would make what should be a Russian and Iranian problem into an American one.

Some will argue that withholding American assistance to Syria would be dangerously close to the collection punishment of an entire population. This, however, would be a complete misreading of who is to blame for the plight the Syrian people are experiencing today—and who is not. 

The U.S. must be smart with its money. Syria is a bad investment, both financially and geopolitically.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by USA Today on August 3, 2018. Read more HERE