Iran and Russia Won Syria’s Civil War (and the U.S. Lost It)

After a 12-year absence, Syria will return to the Arab League summit this week. It’s both an undeniable political victory for the Islamic Republic of Iran—gained via military means—after backing Bashar al-Assad’s regime during the Syrian Civil War, and a massive moral stain on the soul of U.S. foreign policy.

When the Arab League kicked Assad’s regime out, its fall was a matter of “when,” not “if.” The league, never too fond of that regime, was pleasantly preparing itself for the inevitable. Yet, Assad survived for three reasons. First, he had no qualms about killing as many people as needed (even if it meant the entire nation) to remain in power. Second, then-President Barack Obama refused to get involved. And third, he had good friends in Tehran and, later, Moscow.

The Syrian Civil War remains the greatest moral catastrophe and strategic blunder of this century (yes, worse than the Iraq War, in my judgment). President Obama drew a red line against the use of chemical weapons—which Assad interpreted as a green light to kill as many people as he wanted without resorting to weapons of mass destruction—and then he refused to enforce his own red line.

What followed was a half-million deaths, 15 million Syrians displaced, the rise of the Islamic State, and irreparable damage to U.S. credibility. The war also exacerbated the refugee crisis and a proliferation of terror attacks in Europe, which in turn energized the rise of right-wing populism on the continent, and the election of Donald Trump in 2016. And its latest dividends are paying in Ukraine.

The United States stayed out of Syria for two reasons. On the one hand, foreign restraint, both as an ideology and an impulse, was growing on both sides. On the other, the administration feared that actively working to topple the close partner of the Islamic Republic would undermine its diplomatic efforts to reach a nuclear arms control agreement.

Eventually, the adopted line became that “there is no military solution in Syria.”

But there was a military solution, and Iran and Russia later provided it.

Months into the Syrian Civil War, the Islamic Revolution’s Guardians Corps (IRGC) deployed to Syria to defend Assad’s regime. In 2015, IRGC General Qassem Soleimani traveled to Moscow and convinced Vladimir Putin that Assad’s regime could survive. The Russian military subsequently entered Syria. There, it attacked U.S.-backed groups with no U.S. response, giving Putin the impression that the United States had lost any appetite for confrontation, and Iran got to audition its drones for him—which he now buys and uses to kill Ukrainians.

The result was the first imperial deployment of Iran’s military beyond its borders in centuries, at last at Israel’s doorstep, and the return of the Russian military to the Middle East in nearly half a century. On top of that, Hezbollah entered the fight. Upon receiving arms from the Islamic Republic in Syria, it managed to strengthen itself to the point that it successfully took Lebanon’s politics hostage. Most dramatically, America left an impression of indifference that factored into Putin’s belief that he could successfully conquer Ukraine without much U.S. interference.

Despite this blunder, on top of genocide in Syria, Assad is welcomed back to the Middle East as a normal state. How did this happen?

First, The United States—under three successive administrations—has promised to leave the Middle East and acted accordingly. Middle Eastern states have finally come to take America for its word. This comes at a time when the Islamic Republic, growing in military power, is likely to soon acquire nuclear weapons. It also leaves the surrounding Arab regimes (mostly Sunni targets of Iran’s Shi’ite theocracy and traditionally aligned with U.S. interests)—vulnerable and nervous that they’ll be left on their own. So the Arab states are trying to smile at Iran, including by smiling at its partner, Syria.

Second, Assad’s regime—victorious in its war against its own people—has returned to being the status quo, and there is no indication that this will end in the near future. Genocides happen all the time. Let’s get back to business!

However, Arab leaders will not foolishly believe that making pleasant overtures toward Iran will solve their problems. So we should expect that they—especially Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates—will increasingly arm themselves.

Consider the Islamic Republic and Saudi Arabia armed to the teeth against each other, without America in the region to stop them. This is going to end well, right?

The Syrian Civil War is a gift that keeps on giving—to the worst people. It energized populism in the United States and Europe and diminished U.S. power abroad. The new regional order is permanent Islamic Republic military bases on Israel’s border—and a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon also doing Iran’s bidding against Israel.

Worse, Assad, in the words of his subordinates, burned his own country, committed genocide, and got away with it. America and the rest of the free world overlooked it. So nobody should be surprised that the Arab League is overlooking it, too. (In defense of the Arab League, unlike the Americans and the Europeans, its members don’t go around claiming moral superiority in their foreign policies.)

Inaction is a decision, and decisions have consequences. The consequence of President Obama’s Syria policy is many things, but, above all, it’s a moral stain that Americans, repeatedly saying “never again,” ignored a genocide yet again. And by doing so, they not only damned tens of millions of Syrians and dishonored themselves, but also, they handed a victory to Iran and Russia.

Shay Khatiri is a Senior Policy Analyst at JINSA. 

Originally published in The Daily Beast.