Looking back at seven years of Syrian civil war, it is striking how many pivotal moments have been the result of foreign intervention and external meddling. 

That is not to say events since 2011 have played out according to a foreign script. Portraying Syria’s civil war as a process masterminded by foreigners would be unfair to Syrians – and, given the state of Syria, probably also to the foreigners. In reality, although many outside powers have tried to rearrange the Syrian battlefield, most of their grand ambitions have sunk without rescue into Syria’s swamp of competing factions.

But although local realities have fixed the conflict’s terms and frustrated many meddling outsiders, Syrians have had little power over their fate. Once it was clear that President Bashar al-Assad would not bend to the demands of his opponents and that those opponents had waded so far into the struggle that they could no longer see a way back, events began to unfold according to their own infernal logic.

In that spiral of state breakdown and social polarization, what one side felt to be a desperate act of survival would be perceived by the other as unconscionable escalation and met in kind. The structural makeup of the warring sides largely determined their behavior from 2011 onward, with many little situational upsets and gambles but few big-picture surprises – except for those that came from outside Syria’s borders.

In retrospect, some such interventions stand out as especially important. Most have of course been thoroughly dissected.

For example, the 2013 chemical weapons crisis has gained near-mythical significance in both Syrian and US politics, becoming a strange sort of shibboleth. But though the events of that summer and autumn were undeniably important, it is hard to shake the impression that President Barack Obama’s decision to settle for a Russian-inspired deal instead of firing missiles into Syria did more to disperse the fog of politics from existing circumstances than to break new ground.

 Had Obama opted to pull the trigger anyway, for a one-off display of overwhelming dominance, Assad’s regime would likely have received one more disfiguring scar, the conflict would have taken a few extra spins, and the question of Syria’s chemical weapons program would have lingered as an equal or greater problem than it is today.

But there is little reason to assume that the conflict’s fundamentals would have evolved along radically different paths. Given the way the regime worked and the opposition did not, Obama had no credible path to victory on terms compatible with US politics – he knew it, and was trapped by that understanding.

In some sense, the 2013 crisis was like Assad’s December 2016 retaking of eastern Aleppo: a devastating turning point for the opposition and its backers, but also, ultimately, an unsurprising outcome of the war’s configuration at that moment.

Less obvious, but no less important, were the roads not taken.

In June 2012, the late Kofi Annan, who at the time served as a joint envoy of the UN secretary-general and the Arab League, summoned a group of major international players to sign off on basic principles for a peaceful solution in Syria. What came out of the Geneva I meeting could not have ended the war – the actual plan was idealistic claptrap. But if a UN-guided framework for international talks had been brought forward with appropriate caution and a stringent focus on more achievable goals – like trying to limit civilian suffering, preventing regional spillover, and hashing out mutually acceptable red lines – Annan’s gambit might have succeeded in routinizing conflict management habits more effective than the angry shouting matches that were to follow.

A display of early diplomatic pragmatism and collaboration on second-order issues might have spared Syrians some of the heartbreak that followed. Or maybe the opportunity would have been squandered by clashing agendas and over-ambitious diplomats.

We will never know, because Russian-US collaboration instantly broke down in a clutter of irreconcilable statements, partly, it seems, due to the strains on the White House in election season. Not until 2015 were Syria’s main foreign actors brought into the same room again, in very different circumstances: then, as a result of the reality-check provided by a Russian military intervention.

Unlike the United States, Russia did have a stand-alone partner that it could work with on the ground toward an end state that would be ugly but acceptable to Moscow. That combination allowed for the deployment of untrammeled military power in Assad’s favor, which made all the difference.

The Russian intervention in September 2015 became one of the Syrian war’s decisive turning points. Ever since President Vladimir Putin’s air force went to work against the rebellion, it has slowly and brutally transformed the battlefield.

The intervention also wrought changes on the regional and international stage. Being browbeaten by Russia was what finally forced Turkey to shift its position, in mid-2016, to seek some form of understanding with Assad’s allies. That, too, was a game changer.

History writes itself in a terrible hand, which can take time to decipher. But it seems clear that Syria is now in a new and different phase of the war, which looks to be an endgame of sorts. Barring a regional war or a dramatic upset inside the Syrian, Russian, or Iranian regimes, all of which are structurally unsound in their own ways, the battle for Damascus is over: Assad has won.

What is left is a mostly Russian-piloted contest over Syria’s economic future and independence, including the refugee crisis and the fate of three remaining border enclaves: the US-controlled areas in Tanf and the northeast, and the Turkish-run northwest. Will these areas revert to central government control, or stay propped up by external patronage in a frozen conflict? Again, foreigners will call the shots.


[Other roundtable submissions can be found here]