Forcing Moscow to take ownership of Syria is the smartest card for the U.S. to play. Does anyone doubt what Russia would do if the roles were reversed?
Putin’s representatives are talking with European and U.S. officials as I write, hoping that Washington will bail out the Kremlin. The Trump administration should politely tell the Russians to take a hike. To do anything other than sternly decline would not only lift a great burden off Putin’s shoulders, it would also make the mistake of pouring U.S. taxpayer money into a country which is immaterial to America’s national security policy in the Middle East.
Putin needs help rebuilding Syria
It is no mystery as to why Moscow is lobbying for foreign assistance. Syria is no longer the proud, fiercely nationalist country it was prior to the outbreak of the civil (and proxy) war. In November 2017, the United Nations estimated it will take at least $250 billion to bring Syria back to its pre-war potential. Other estimates are far higher; World Vision, the global children’s charity, assessed that the war will cost Syria $1.3 trillion by 2020, a number that will require significant investment from the international community over the long-term for the nation to recover.
Assad may have won the war, but he now presides over a pile of rubble, a destroyed hospital system, an anemic economy, a national army wholly reliant on foreign powers like Russia and Iranian-paid irregular militias, and a population that is exhausted, grieving and in many cases homeless.
Entire cities lie in ruins, with aerial pictures of East Aleppo and the Damascus suburbs looking like Dresden, Berlin or Tokyo after World War II. Moscow has nobody to blame for this terrible situation other than itself and its ally, Assad; Moscow’s three years of indiscriminate bombing took an already catastrophic humanitarian crisis and made into the worst calamity of the 21st century.
Facing such apocalyptic devastation of its own making and short of the cash needed to repair it, it’s no wonder Russian officials are flying to European capitals, calling their American colleagues and approaching the U.N. Security Council hat-in-hand forfinancial assistance. Putin is staring at a situation that he created, but which he can’t or won’t pay for.
President Donald Trump, who has correctly argued that re-establishing a more constructive dialogue with Moscow is in the U.S. national security interest, may be tempted to use Syria as a bridge in pursuit of a detente. But he should not offer to partner with Russia on a Syria rehabilitation and reconstruction initiative. If Moscow is now a strategic competitor with the U.S., as the administration’s National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy says, it would be the epitome of poor judgment for Washington to ease the massive financial headache that Putin is trying so desperately to escape.
Forcing Moscow to take ownership is the smartest card for the U.S. to play. Does anyone think the Russians would act any differently if the roles were reversed?
Syria is not America’s responsibility
There is another reason the White House should steer clear of any stabilization initiative: it is wholly unnecessary.
U.S. policy in the Middle East should serve one narrow purpose: to protect the American people and defend America’s core interests in the region.Those interests are few: to disrupt transnational terrorist groups seeking to attack Americans or American soil; to promote diplomatic solutions to systemic problems and make regional governments responsible for their own neighborhoods; and to ensure, in partnership with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait and other major oil producers, that the international energy market is stable. As 15 years of mistakes illustrate, for Washington to do anything more is a recipe for more heartache and failure.
Assad is a ruthless tyrant who killed his own people and destroyed his own country to stay in power, but he is not an American responsibility. Nor is Syria, a broken, angry, dysfunctional and relatively energy-poor country, a particularly important or influential state in the Middle East. To devote American resources to a Syrian rebuilding project — a task Washington has never excelled at — would turn what should be a Russian and Iranian problem into an American one.
Some will argue that withholding American assistance to Syria would be dangerously close to the collective punishment of an entire population. This, however, would be a complete misreading of who is to blame for the plight of the Syrian people today — and who is not.
The U.S. must be smart with its money. Syria is a bad investment, both financially and geopolitically.