Four hard conclusions if the Syrian war is to end

Russian intervention turned the tide in what until then had been the topsy-turvy fortunes of all sides in the conflict

Dr. John C. Hulsman
Published: Updated:
Enable Read mode
100% Font Size

Despite what its detractors say, there is a morality behind the realist foreign policy school of thought. From Aristotle to Thomas Aquinas, through to Edmund Burke and Reinhold Niebuhr, the imperative is simple to understand, if devilishly complex to live up to: Have the bravery to see the world as it is, warts and all, and then endeavour to make it better, when and where you can. I will try to live up to that daunting edict in evaluating how the terrible carnage of the Syrian War just might be brought to an end in the relatively near term.

For there can be no doubt the Russian intervention turned the tide in what until then had been the topsy-turvy fortunes of all sides in the conflict. Flowing on from this, four stark lessons stand out as inconvenient truths that have to be grasped if the Syrian charnel house is to cease operating.


First, Russia cares far more about the strategic outcome in Syria than the United States ever will. While there is no doubt President Putin actually knows what he is doing in terms of foreign affairs (a real rarity), both his critics and detractors somehow miss the point that the Kremlin is merely playing a bad hand well.

Before the Arab League suspended Syria in 2011, of its 22 members 21 were American allies; Syria amounts to the only Arab ally Russia has. The Kremlin is not about to become the dominant power in the Middle East, given this geopolitical reality. What Putin is trying to do is merely prop up the Assad regime in the strategically important eastern portion of the country, secure his one ally (with the Kremlin likely agnostic about Assad’s long-term personal survival), and make sure Russia’s only Middle Eastern bases--the air base in Latakia and the naval base in Tartus—are safeguarded.

It is precisely because Syria represents Russia’s only toe-hold in the Middle East that it is quite prepared to expend blood and treasure to prop up its sole ally. On the other hand, a preoccupied America, both wary of another Iraq and increasingly fixated on Asia, sees this as a conflict to avoid wading into much further. It is hard to see even the far more aggressive Hillary Clinton really undoing this primary US strategic calculation. So ironically, it is Russia’s relative weakness and America’s relative indifference—neither likely to change—that explains both the Kremlin’s aggressive policy in Syria, as well as America’s relative indifference.

Second, and flowing on from point one, Assad is likely to stay on, at least for the time being. President Assad himself has become a totemic symbol to both sides in the Syrian civil war, the bloodstained tyrant for the rebels and the emblem of stability for his Iranian and Russian backers. As the Russians and Iranians are ‘winning’ the war (to use the term very loosely), if there is to be a peace in the near term Assad and his regime will stay in place, at least in the eastern portion of the country.

A preoccupied America, both wary of another Iraq and increasingly fixated on Asia, sees this as a conflict to avoid wading into much further

Dr. John C. Hulsman

In the longer term, his political survival may well be in doubt. For what the Russians and the Iranians desire above all else is stability in the Syria. It is certain that they well remember that it was Assad himself who lost control of the country in the post-Arab Spring protests that ignited the war; he may not be such a great long-term bet to reassert control. Another, more decisive, member of the regime’s security elite would certainly suit Assad’s clients just as well. But for the moment, given his totemic importance and barring assassination, Assad is probably secure.

Third, the new Syria will under no conditions look like the old unitary Baathist state that it used to be. The only two real world political options for Syria going forward is it becoming (as it is now) a shattered polity, where de facto it is split into many factions, with Assad controlling the east, the Kurds dominating the Turkish border, and ISIS retaining its terrible sway in the eastern and central portions of the country. A peace deal that just enabled the fiction of Syria remaining a unitary, sovereign state—while the facts on the ground, as in Iraq, dictate otherwise—is the most likely outcome.

Confederal settlement?

Ironically, the only other better outcome for Syria as a whole is to consciously recognize and embrace the forces that split it asunder. Given the mindless and counterproductive centralizing instincts of the Assad regime, it will up to the Russian and the Iranians to bully through such a confederal settlement, where vast swathes of power are devolved to the various regional powers (excepting ISIS) in country, in exchange for their grudging residual (and largely nominal) loyalty to the centre in Damascus.

This outcome would actually mirror the present political facts on the ground, and would stand the best chance of producing the stability that is necessary for the rest of Syria to finally concentrate on eradiating ISIS. However, such an optimal outcome is a long-shot at best, but one that should be striven for.

Fourth, “winning” the Syrian war could well amount to a poisoned chalice. If a settlement is reached which enshrines Russian and Iranian interests, the irony is that then they will have to rebuild the failed state, almost from scratch.

This would be a daunting task for a $15 trillion economy like the United States. For a Russia whose economy contracted at almost -4 percent of GDP last year, utterly tied to the plummeting global oil price, it amounts to another onerous expense at the least opportune moment.

Likewise, an Iran just emerging from crippling sanctions understandably wishes to focus on refitting its own economy for greater involvement with the outside world. Running the world’s largest reclamation project is probably not what the Rouhani government had in mind when it came to power promising to fix Iran’s moribund economy. So as always in the Middle East, the wise adage ‘be careful what you wish for’ holds.

These four unpalatable realities hold the key to what happens next in Syria. All the world can do is hope that statesmen on all sides follow the realist adage and accept them, making the world better after seeing how it is constructed, warts and all.

Dr. John C. Hulsman is the President and Co-Founder of John C. Hulsman Enterprises (, a successful global political risk consulting firm. An eminent foreign policy expert, John is the senior columnist for City AM, the newspaper of the city of London. Hulsman is a Life Member of the Council on Foreign Relations. The author of all or part of 11 books, Hulsman has given 1500 interviews, written over 510 articles, prepared over 1280 briefings, and delivered more than 470 speeches on foreign policy around the world.

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.
Top Content Trending