Russia’s interference in the eight-year-long Syrian Civil War has bolstered Bashar al-Assad’s grip on his crumbling country, at the cost of extensive human rights violations and thousands of civilian lives. In 2015, Russia started to establish its military presence in the region launching what was primarily an air campaign. At the time that Russia got involved, Assad stated that he was in “a dangerous situation,” according to Reuters, facing a Western-backed opposition. Since 2015, Russia has been Assad’s biggest ally, shielding Syria from UN sanctions and allowing rebel territory to be regained. Putin has larger goals than just supporting the Assad regime, however. He has used the Syrian War as an opportunity to assert Russia’s position in the Middle East and to strengthen ties with Iran and Turkey. According to the BBC, Putin wants to see communism in the Middle East and reestablish Russia as a major world power. Russia has realized some of its goal of deterring Western forces in Syria, as President Trump withdrew American troops from the country in 2019, saying, “Syria was lost a long time ago. We’re talking about sand and death.”
Despite Russia’s military success in the region, it is not clear that it will be able to help the country rebuild itself with stable political footing. According to the Wilson Center, a 2020 poll showed Assad’s popularity had dropped to 32%. Aleksandr Aksenenok, former Russian ambassador to Syria and vice president of the Russian International Affairs Council, stated, “it is becoming increasingly obvious that the regime is reluctant or unable to develop a system of government that can mitigate corruption and crime and go from a military economy to normal trade and economic relations.”
Russia has been able to maintain its hold in Syria in part due to inaction from the West, which also has not held Putin and Assad accountable for their grave human rights abuses. The New York Times quoted Aleksandr Shumilin, Middle East specialist at the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow: “it must be said that all of Russia’s most significant successes in Syria have not been reached as a result of deliberate efforts by Moscow. They simply crashed down onto Putin and Moscow as manna from heaven as a result of the peculiar behavior of the Western countries and of Turkey.”
The U.S. initially established ties with the Kurdish militia, raising fears in Turkey that Kurds within their country would also be compelled to rebel. According to The New Yorker, Turkey wanted to establish a “peace corridor” where Syrian refugees could be resettled. Turkey decided to stage an operation in northern Syria against the Syrian Democratic Forces, an army led by Kurds. The Kurds were expecting American troops to come to their defense, but they did nothing to stop them. Desperate, the Syrian Democratic Forces had to reach out to the regime and Russian military units. Ferhat Abdi Sahin, a Kurdish commander known as Mazloum, told the New Yorker that the choice to do so was one between “painful comprises” and “the genocide of our people.” It is an example of America’s lack of support at a time when it was needed most by the allies it had made in Syria. American diplomat William V. Roebuck stated that the U.S. had “stood by and watched” an “intention-laced effort at ethnic cleansing.”
The New Yorker also observed that the weak U.S. support started with Obama’s lack of action, followed by Trump’s impulsive actions to withdraw troops from Syria. Trump discontinued budgets for Syrian aid from the State Department and USAID. Vox quoted him saying, “We’re out of Syria, other than we kept the oil. I kept the oil. And we have troops guarding the oil. Other than that, we’re out of Syria.” He neglected to emphasize the point that the U.S. was in Syria to defeat ISIS, not for oil. Presidential candidate Joe Biden called Trump out on his attitude towards Syria, saying in an August rally, “Did you hear the president say a single word? Did he lift one finger?”
Furthermore, the Syrian regime and Russia are responsible for chemical weapons attacks and bombing of health facilities that have killed thousands of civilians. In 2016, there were 400 attacks on medical facilities; in 2017, 110; in 2018, an average of one attack a day. Chlorine gas was used in Ghouta and Idlib against civilians. According to The New Yorker, a video in 2017 depicted Russians killing a Syrian civilian with a sledgehammer, decapitating him, and burning his corpse. These human rights violations have led to a catastrophic refugee crisis in Turkey and Western Europe, where refugees are often unable to receive proper social services. According to The New Yorker, in Turkey alone, there are two million Syrian refugees. According to Frontline, in 2018, UNHCR counted a total of 6.7 million refugees from Syria.
The West needs to counter the current power balance in Syria with harsher sanctions on Russia and the Syrian regime. The BBC quoted a Munich security conference participant asking, “Just what has Russia done in terms of moderating its behavior – intrusions into election campaigns, social media activity, the use of chemical weapons on foreign soil, cyber-attacks and so on – to merit a re-engagement?” The BBC stated that there has been a “vacuum of leadership” in the West, with Trump uninterested in the situation in Syria and in countering Russia. As long as Trump is in power, sanctions can begin through European powers.
Russia’s advantage in Syria is that it is clear on what it wants, whereas the West is not sure what their strategy is or where they should allocate resources. They are hesitant to provide reconstruction aid to battered cities, for fear that rebuilding these cities would strengthen the regime. The New Yorker quoted a senior humanitarian officer saying, “It’s become a collective consensus among donors that we will not do reconstruction in Syria. Reconstruction is a dirty word.” As a result, the UN and the World Bank are also not leading any substantive reconstruction efforts. Reconstruction should be a humanitarian priority, not a political strategy, as Syrians are living in bombed-out cities still strewn with bodies. If adequate sanctions are imposed on the regime, they will weaken and regulate the regime’s authoritarianism and abuse of power, at the same time that cities are being rebuilt and refugees are able to come back to the country.
Another way to limit the regime’s power is to hold Assad and Putin accountable for their human rights violations through the International Criminal Court. There is plenty of evidence that shows these leaders were trying to decimate the population by whatever means to maintain power, and absolutely enough justification to have them be tried as war criminals. The BBC quoted Emile Hokayem, Middle East expert at the ISS in London: “President Assad’s strategy from the outset has been one of de-population.”
An additional solution is to provide a strong alternative for new power in Syria. As Assad has become very unpopular, there is no good option for who might take his place without causing a collapse of the state. The international community needs to come together on potential, legitimate new leaders and thoroughly consider how power can be shifted to them.
The most immediate potential solution to the issue is for Americans to vote in the upcoming election. This could shift the U.S.’ priorities in Syria. As Biden rebuked Trump for his inadequacy in addressing the conflict, perhaps his election would lead to a stronger U.S. presence in Syria, and more priority on the war’s humanitarian consequences.