The Syrian civil war, which has been raging since 2011, is one of the worst tragedies of the early twenty-first century. Approximately half a million people have died, about six million people have fled the country, and another six million people remain internally displaced. Much of the country lies in ruins, perhaps never again to recover.
The war is also far from over. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been gaining momentum, but his regime has failed to recapture many parts of the country. Multiple foreign powers remain active in Syria, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, Israel, and the United States. In the northwest, Idlib Province is dominated by tens of thousands of Islamist militants, many of whom are active in al-Qaeda-style terrorist organizations.
“It’s a kind of conflict where the kindling is sufficient for it to burn for decade after decade and continue to be an engine of jihadism and instability for the entire region and beyond,” a senior US State Department official said early last year.
The leaders of the United States have called for a political settlement, but they have played a central role in fueling the conflict. As they have tried to oust Assad, they have settled on a strategy of stalemate, keeping the war going as a means of pressuring the Syrian leader into relinquishing power.
The Obama administration, which designed the strategy, spent years providing Islamist militants with just enough support to keep them fighting the Assad regime but not enough support for them to overthrow the government.
“What we’re trying to do is to make sure the moderate opposition continues to stay strong, puts the pressure on the regime,” CIA Director John Brennan explained during the administration’s final year in office. “We don’t want the Syrian government to collapse. That’s the last thing we want to do.”
Administration officials feared that if the rebels overthrew the government, the country would implode, making it into a center of Islamist extremism and terrorism. They wanted Assad gone, but they did not want the country to become another Libya, which had devolved into a bitter civil war after the ouster of Muammar Qaddafi in 2011.
“We have huge interests because of the stability of the region, because of the need to fight against extremism, the need to prevent the country from breaking up and having a negative impact on all of the neighborhood,” then-Secretary of State John Kerry said.
Sharing these concerns, the Trump administration ended support to the rebels but turned to other forms of leverage. For the most part, the Trump administration has been exploiting the areas outside of the Assad regime’s control, trying to prevent the regime from reclaiming those areas and reestablishing its authority.
“Bashar al-Assad can think he’s won the war, but right now he holds on to approximately half the territory of Syria,” James Jeffrey, the administration’s special envoy for Syria, remarked in 2018. “He’s sitting on a cadaver state.”
This “cadaver state,” as Jeffrey described it, provides the guiding vision for the Trump administration’s strategy in Syria. To keep pressure on Assad, the Trump administration is trying to preserve the cadaver state, keeping Syria dead and dismembered until Assad steps down from power. Implementing its own version of the stalemate strategy, the Trump administration wants to achieve something morticians might call the embalming of Syria.
The civil war has divided Syria into several areas of control. Although the Assad regime controls much of central Syria and the capital in Damascus, other groups control large areas in the northwest, northeast, and south.
In the northwest, the opposition controls Idlib Province, its last and largest stronghold. Since 2015, an al-Qaeda offshoot called Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) has dominated the area, using it to organize resistance to the Assad government. Early last year, HTS took administrative control of the region.
Excerpted from: ‘The Embalming of Syria’.
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