Previous U.S. policies to influence the Syrian civil war haven't worked, or at least that's what the White House seems to believe. The Washington Post reported on July 19 that U.S. President Donald Trump decided a month ago to phase out the CIA's covert train and equip program launched in 2013 to support Syrian rebel forces opposed to the government of President Bashar al Assad. The end of the program points to a strategic shift by the United States in its approach to the Syrian civil war, acknowledging Washington's inability to force al Assad from power and its almost exclusive focus on the fight against the Islamic State over the past few years. But what happens in Syria after the militant group's inevitable conventional defeat can't be ignored. And unfortunately for the United States, no matter what it does diplomatically or militarily, even if its efforts lead to less violence in the short term, it won't secure a stable Syria.
A Not-So-Covert Covert Program
Even before the United States launched its military forces against the Islamic State, Washington has long understood that the Syrian civil war is a threat to U.S. national security interests. The conflict has weakened governance in Syria, driving refugee flows across the region and into Europe and creating a power vacuum that has been exploited by various extremist organizations such as the Islamic State, enabling them to grow in strength and plan and launch attacks throughout the region and the globe.
While the Pentagon directs the mission against the Islamic State, the covert CIA program was launched even before that as a response to the Syrian civil war conundrum. The United States, having learned from the disastrous disbandment of Iraqi government institutions shortly after the 2003 Iraq War began, didn't want to see a similar government collapse in Syria. The program was launched in the hopes of bolstering the rebels to pressure the al Assad government to make the necessary concessions that could lead to a compromise transitional government that would end the conflict.
The CIA program was also a way for the United States to exert control over its regional allies and their effort to arm the rebels. Through it, the United States could have greater leverage in coordinating with Turkey, Qatar, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, among others, on the type of weaponry being sent to Syria as well as the groups receiving the support. The program achieved some success in this regard, curtailing the transfer of problematic weaponry such as man portable air defense systems.
The covert program was initially successful. It undermined loyalist forces, particularly with shipments of anti-tank guided munitions during the 2015 Idlib campaigns that negated the Syrian military's advantage in armor. The program also bolstered the longevity of the Free Syrian Army, particularly through U.S. efforts to channel the bulk of the support to the some 80 rebel groups that passed the vetting process.
But even as the pressure was mounting on the Syrian government in 2015 (partly as a result of the CIA program's enhancement of rebel capabilities), the concessions from the Syrian government never materialized. Instead, Iran dramatically escalated its support for Damascus at the same time that Russia intervened in the conflict on the side of the loyalists. Support for the rebels, including the CIA program, simply could not compete with the backing the Syrian government received, which extended beyond equipment and funding to a significant Russian air force contingent and large numbers of Iran-directed militia forces. While Tehran and Moscow were willing to put their forces in the line for the al Assad government, the United States and its regional allies were not willing to do the same for the rebels.
What Is the U.S. Willing to Do?
Over the past two years, the United States has largely focused on the fight against the Islamic State, occasionally attempting diplomatic initiatives with Russia toward an end of the conflict that were bound to fail given the disparate goals of both sides. In the meantime, the rebels suffered another massive blow with the fall of Aleppo, a defeat that was in no small part linked to Turkey's growing desire to curb the ascendant Kurdish People's Protection Units (YPG) to the detriment of the rebel fight against the Syrian government. With odds becoming ever more precarious, the rebel landscape (particularly in Idlib) became increasingly dominated by extremist factions such as al Qaeda-linked Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
With the conventional battle against the Islamic State reaching its last phases in Syria, it's become clear to the United States that the Syrian civil war is a conflict it can no longer largely ignore. Absent a comprehensive and successful effort to stabilize the fighting, the Islamic State or other extremist groups will continue to benefit from the chaos in the country to rebuild and potentially re-emerge as a powerful force. After all, when its enemies focused on each other in the past, the Islamic State benefited, using the security vacuum to grow and expand its power in the less critical areas of Syria.
That leaves the United States with two choices. It can either redouble its efforts to support the rebels in the hope of forcing the Syrian government to compromise, or change tack completely by giving up on the removal of the al Assad government and working with Russia on cease-fire efforts that would stabilize, if not end, the conflict.
The first option is remote. It's been abundantly clear for years that the United States has no intention of going toe to toe with Russia and Iran over Syria, and was instead absorbed almost exclusively with the fight against the Islamic State. Moreover, even if the United States again started aiding the rebels, after years of fending off Iran- and Russia-backed offensives, there is little chance that the they could pose the same threat to the Syrian government they did in 2015 and before, even with U.S. support. Facing a depleted enemy, Damascus has little incentive to compromise anyway. The second U.S. option of working with Russia in Syria at least takes advantage of Moscow's desire to engage more with the United States and to secure its achieved objectives in Syria by drawing down the conflict.
Out of the Ashes
Unfortunately for the United States, the decision to reverse its approach to the Syrian civil war won’t be painless. First, the end of the CIA program all but seals the fate of the vetted Syrian rebel groups, discarding them to be gradually overwhelmed and annihilated by extremist groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. Second, with Turkey still prioritizing the fight against the YPG and with the Qatar dispute roiling the Gulf Cooperation Council, the other allies of the rebels could prove equally ineffective in sustaining their proxies against the loyalists and extremists alike. Aside from Turkey-backed rebel forces integrated in its Operation Euphrates Shield, the Southern Front, and some isolated Free Syrian Army units, it's now all but inevitable that extremist rebel factions will dominate the Syrian rebel landscape. Idlib, the largest rebel bastion in Syria, may in time go over entirely to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and like-minded factions.
It's also clear that the al Assad government will persevere, securing a divisive president who will continue to foment unrest in Syria for the rest of his government's reign. Indeed, the U.S.-Russia cease-fire and de-escalation zone agreements only mask the fact that the Syrian government, with Iran's backing, has no intention of surrendering any part of the country. With Damascus angling for total victory against the rebellion and with Turkey determined to find a way to cut down the Kurdish YPG, a stable Syria in the next several years is unlikely. The country will be a hotbed of unrest and conflict, which will be exploited by the Islamic State in attempts to regroup, and by other, new extremist groups emerging from the conflict.