After seven years of horrible death and refugee displacement the Syrian civil war is entering a final stage with little doubt as to the outcome. Bashar Assad is certain to remain in power and the only open questions are what foreign forces will remain in Syria and what parts of Syrian territory will be lost. As the war winds down, the U.S. as well as Israel and Russia all have key roles to play that need to be based on national interest and reality.
The final stage in this war is now underway in Southern Syria around the city of Daraa, close to both Israel and Jordan, where some rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army have already offered to lay down their arms if permitted to stay in their homes. Syrian forces backed by Russian bombing will likely eliminate the rebels fairly soon. Major concerns here are the refugees, which could number an additional 160,000, and any residual presence of Iranian forces in the area.
At present a cease fire brokered by the Russians and Jordan would return state rule to the area in exchange for an end to the violence that would only increase the toll in civilian casualties.
Israel has just moved tons of relief and medical supplies into Syria as a humanitarian move to aid the refugees. Jordan, which already houses over 700,000 Syrian refugees is unable to take in more. Under the Obama administration aid promised to Jordan for this refugee relief was delayed due to what can only be called bureaucratic stupidity, at the same time they were sending planeloads of cash to Iranian terrorists.
Bottom line here is that Jordan has done more than can ever be expected in helping with the flood of refugees and can’t do more. European nations and Lebanon which have taken in millions fleeing Syria are already hard-pressed to take in more either. It can only be hoped that the conflict in this area will end quickly without adding to the refugee toll.
The second major concern is that when Syria finally prevails, it does so without Iranian forces, and Iranian-backed Hezbollah in the area. This is a major concern for Israel, which has been working with Russia for some time on this problem. For decades Israel’s concern has been stability on the Syrian border and not having rockets launched from Syria into Israel. The agreement reached between Israel and Syria after the 1973 war was not a peace treaty but resulted in some 40 years of peaceful co-existence.
Israelis and Syrians on both sides of the line prospered, and the farmlands, vineyards and even resorts in the area looked nothing like Gaza. This is not to say Israel and Syria have not had their issues, but at several points peace was at hand, and Israel takes the practical view that the best they can hope for now is an Assad regime that again controls areas around the Golan Heights without Iranian and their proxies there.
For their part the Russians pose no threat to Israel, and long-term want to maintain their naval and air bases in Syria. Do the Israelis really care about this? Absolutely not. For several years now, Russian forces have attacked ISIS, at the same time they have supported Mr. Assad, and have actively worked with Israel on “deconfliction” of air operations. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Russian President Putin have met on multiple occasions to work on a common strategy.
There is considerable evidence that the Russians are working to limit further Iranian involvement in Syria and remove Iranian forces now there. Recent reports indicate that Russia has warned Iran to keep out of the area around Daraa while the final stage of the civil war plays out. To what extent Iranian forces remain in Syria after the war winds down remains to be seen.
Under President Trump U.S. operations in Syria have been appropriately limited and deal with the realities of the situation. Unlike Mr. Obama and his team who mistakenly assumed and repeatedly stated that Mr. Assad would be gone “soon” and they would be dealing with some successor government, the U.S. has focused on eliminating the ISIS presence in Syria with considerable success. The U.S. stopped military aid to the mythical moderates, which ultimately fell into the hands of terrorists.
Most recently the U.S. has stated that they were not going to support any rebel groups in Southern Syria — for good reason. To do so would only prolong the war, increasing the casualty count and lead to yet more refugees. The limited number of 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria remain focused on the primary mission of removing the last vestiges of ISIS, which is a mission that both makes sense and is achievable.
Coming into office Mr. Trump inherited a policy in Syria, largely based on bad information and myth as well as obvious inaction when Mr. Obama drew his much-touted “red line” on Syrian chemical weapons and failed to act. Recent actions by Mr. Trump and his team reflect a far better strategy based on reality and common sense. When Mr. Trump meets Mr. Putin in July in Helsinki Syria will be a major topic on the agenda and can be an area of common interest.
Already the U.S. and Russia have collaborated on the defeat of the ISIS caliphate in Syria with considerable success. Going forward there are a range of positive steps which the U.S. and Russia can take together in the wake of the Syrian civil war, meeting Israeli security concerns, restraining Iranian forces and influence in the region, dealing with refugee resettlement, and working with allied nations such as Turkey and the Kurds on remaining territorial issues left by the war. It is doubtless that this is already on the on the summit agenda. Hopefully, Mr. Trump and his team can make this happen.
• Abraham Wagner is a senior fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies on Terrorism.