During Syria’s five-year civil war, over 300,000 people have been killed, and 4.8 million have been fled the country. Despite the scale of this human loss, an end does not seem to come in a short time. Neither side has been able to achieve a decisive victory, while a political solution seems similarly hard to reach. Two key factors help explain this: the fact that the war is being fought between multiple groups and the role played by foreign powers.
Over the course of the war close to 1,000 different groups have fought President Assad’s government. Militant Jihadist factions have joined those groups formed with the primary purpose of opposing the government, complicating matters further. It seems unlikely that any of the key players will surrender, and even if one group is defeated, another one will step into its place. A political agreement is similarly hard to reach with so many players – the UN has successfully resolved two-thirds of two-sided civil wars, but only one-quarter of multi-sided ones.
The difficulties involved in finding an end to this war have been compounded by the actions of foreign powers. In Syria, each time one side makes gains, foreign players assist the other sides, prolonging human suffering. Russia and Iran have provided military support to Assad’s government, while the US and other states have lent diplomatic and logistical support to rebel groups. Studies have found that foreign intervention on both sides increases the length of civil wars, as foreign supply means that arms do not run out, and foreign support is more likely to lean in the direction of continued war than internal support would, as other countries do not directly experience the consequences.
Foreign intervention has so far proved detrimental, but will Trump’s America-first strategy be any different? Trump has promised to prioritize American interests over undertaking action in Syria, but his anti-interventionist stance has been contradicted in the last week by an escalation of US military presence in Syria. Four hundred marines have been stationed in Raqqa, and there are plans for several thousand troops to be deployed in the region. During his election campaign, Trump proposed teaming up with Russia to ‘bomb ISIS’, and said he would prioritize the defeat of ISIS over opposing Assad’s regime. Targeting Raqqa is in line with Trump’s anti-ISIS strategy, but a plan to target ISIS exclusively is naïve in a war with so many involved. So far, the US military is still fighting on behalf of the rebels. It is unknown whether Trump will honor his proposal to work with the Russian military, and, by extension, Assad’s regime. Lending support to Assad could have the dangerous unintended effect of fostering further extremism within Syria.
Trump’s plan has become even cloudier after Thursday night’s airstrike, which targeted a group of Al Qaeda leaders in Northern Syria. Official reports originally billed this as a success, but residents on the ground told a different story. The airstrike hit a mosque, killing close to fifty civilians and injuring over one hundred. The military has admitted its mistake, but denied purposefully targeting the mosque. Admitting error is not nearly enough after what could be one of the US’ most deadly airstrikes in Syria. What’s more, the military has revealed no official plans surrounding Al Qaeda in Syria, and claims that its strategy in Syria is to stop ISIS. This loss of life seems especially unfounded when it has happened outside of any clear strategy.
Trump’s strategy in Syria is unfocused and short-sighted. It remains unknown what the new government’s long-term vision will be, but it seems unlikely that solutions will emerge which could help bring an end to Syria’s long and devastating war.