With Bashar Assad and his Russian allies on the verge of victory in Syria’s civil war, the Trump administration is facing new pressure to respond forcefully and prevent a bloodbath of historic proportions — but analysts say the U.S. has virtually no good options, as seven years of muddy American policy toward Syria has left Moscow holding all the cards.
Influential lawmakers in Washington and key partners around the world in recent days have pleaded with the White House to intervene more directly in Syria and stop a looming humanitarian disaster, arguing that the human toll and the geopolitical consequences of inaction will be severe.
Mr. Assad’s forces, with crucial support from Russia and Iran, are days away from launching a brutal assault against Idlib, the last major rebel stronghold in Syria. Analysts say a victory in Idlib all but ensures Mr. Assad will prevail in the conflict, which has raged since 2011 and claimed hundreds of thousands of lives.
Top U.S. officials — such as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and Defense Secretary James Mattis — have threatened retaliatory strikes if Mr. Assad once again uses chemical weapons, a step he has taken at least twice. Ms. Haley also said there will be “dire consequences” for Russia and Iran if they continue their air campaign against the rebels in Idlib, a precursor to the inevitable ground attack from Mr. Assad’s forces.
But regional analysts say there is little that can be done at this point beyond tough talk and perhaps one-off U.S. airstrikes in response to the use of chemical weapons.
Both the Obama and Trump administrations, analysts say, backed themselves into a corner with policies that centered on defeating Islamic State terrorists in Syria but never offered realistic plans to stop the bloodshed and oust Mr. Assad. Russia’s outsized role in the conflict further complicates matters because the U.S. simply isn’t willing to fight Moscow in Syria.
“There’s always been overlapping or unclear objectives. There’s never been an unambiguous strategy. Unlike the Russians, as we know, who have always had one clear strategy: the preservation of the Assad regime. And they’ve backed that up with military force,” said Michael Sharnoff, associate professor of Middle East studies at the Daniel Morgan Graduate School of National Security.
“We’ve been unclear as to what exactly we want,” Mr. Sharnoff said. “We keep flip-flopping or changing our minds. At the end of the day, when you look at big-picture geopolitics, Russian influence has remained and will persevere in Syria. … It does seem likely the Syrian regime will reconquer Idlib and prevail. And there’s very little the U.S. can do about it.”
The U.S. policy for years has focused only on defeating the Islamic State, and that objective appears within reach. American military officials say the group, also known as ISIS, has lost the vast majority of the territory it once held across Syria and Iraq and is no longer the force it used to be.
But that approach has done little to slow Mr. Assad’s slow march to victory over rebel forces. With the Idlib offensive on the horizon, some powerful members of Congress have grown more vocal in urging the Trump administration to rethink its strategy in Syria before it is too late.
Late last week, Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican and outspoken voice on national security, wrote a blistering takedown of U.S. policy toward Syria. He said “it’s time to act” or accept the reality that tens of thousands will soon die in Idlib and Russian influence over the region will increase dramatically.
“Our lack of a strategy in Syria has been a failing practice. The initial attacks already happening in Idlib are just a prelude to the civilian bloodbath that the world will soon witness if Assad once again uses chemical weapons on his own people,” Mr. Kinzinger wrote in an op-ed for Defense One. “We cannot stand idly by and allow this humanitarian crisis to compound further. … It’s time to act.”
Mr. Trump ordered airstrikes against Mr. Assad’s forces in April in response to their use of chemical weapons. The brutality of those chemical attacks seemed to strike a nerve inside the White House and led to the rare use of American air power directly against the Assad regime, but critics say those one-time moves have done little to change the larger dynamic on the ground.
“I’m not suggesting the U.S. invade Syria, post up thousands of U.S. troops and start World War III. But I am suggesting we take a stand for what is right, what is just and what is in the best interest of the United States and the freedom-loving people around the world,” Mr. Kinzinger said. “We need a long-term strategy in Syria that leads to a solution of peace and an end to the ongoing, deadly conflict. This strategy should also include the end of the Assad regime and a place at the table of government for the Syrian people.”
U.N. officials last week called on all parties — particularly Mr. Assad’s allies Russia and Iran — to protect civilians and not allow Idlib to turn into the massacre many fear.
“This would unleash a humanitarian nightmare unlike any seen in the blood-soaked Syrian conflict,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.
Key U.S. partners in the region also are speaking out, blasting Washington’s yearslong tack of responding only to chemical weapons attacks but doing nothing when Mr. Assad uses conventional weapons to crush his foes and inflict civilian casualties across the country, or when Russia uses its own impressive air power to bomb rebel positions into oblivion.
“All members of the international community must understand their responsibilities as the assault on Idlib looms. The consequences of inaction are immense. We cannot leave the Syrian people to the mercy of Bashar Assad,” Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal.
“It is crucial for the U.S., which has concentrated on chemical attacks, to reject its arbitrary hierarchy of death. Conventional weapons are responsible for far more deaths,” Mr. Erdogan wrote. “Idlib is the last exit before the toll. If the international community, including Europe and the U.S., fail to take action now, not only innocent Syrians but the entire world stands to pay the price.”
At the U.N. last week, Mrs. Haley and other world leaders huddled on the global response to the coming Idlib fight. She made clear that the U.S. will respond forcefully if chemical weapons are employed. Beyond that, she offered vague threats toward Mr. Assad and his allies.
“If Assad, Russia and Iran continue down the path they are on, the consequences will be dire,” Mrs. Haley said.