The War in Syria
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Giovanni Sale, SJ

 Giovanni Sale, SJ / Issue 1808 / 26 July 2018

Even though it is still unclear where and when lasting peace negotiations will take place,[1] some analysts believe that 2018 could be the year the civil war in Syria ends. Successive rounds of talks – in Geneva, Astana and Sochi – have so far proven, for one reason or another, unable to resolve this grave situation. While further unforeseeable upheavals are still possible, it now seems clear that Bashar al-Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies have won militarily, although these forces are still engaged throughout the country in their attempt to eliminate the last anti-regime resistances. According to various intelligence sources, the anti-regime forces that have thus far put up strenuous opposition have been suppressed by Damascus, which has even resorted to the use of chemical weapons prohibited by international law.

The behavior of Western governments, in particular the U.S., toward Syria is rather ambiguous, mainly due to the lack of a clear Middle Eastern political strategy. From a military point of view, it is important not to overlook that the U.S. finds itself in a rather thorny position because its allies in the territory – the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) composed of Kurds and Arabs – are under attack from Turkey, a NATO member. Moreover, with the almost complete military defeat of Islamic State, leaders in the West, and in particular Donald Trump, believe that by tearing down the strongholds of ISIS and eliminating terrorists they have fulfilled their commitments to the region; therefore, they insist on leaving the battlefield for other regional actors to replace them.[2]

In reality, U.S. conduct on this point has not always been univocal. In October 2017 the U.S. Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, declared that U.S. troops would remain in Syria in order to influence (positively) the outcomes of the Geneva peace talks and to favor the democratic transition, a necessary condition for the reconstruction of a country destroyed by seven hard years of civil war. Even Rex Tillerson, the Secretary of State at the time, confirmed the same line, adding that there was a need to contain the influence of the Shiites and, in particular, of Iran.

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