The government of Bashar al-Assad, lacking manpower, reliant on allies and almost broke, is no longer capable of a military win in Syria’s civil war, U.S. officials said Monday, pushing back against Russian and Syrian assertions that victory is only a matter of time.
Senior officials described a severely weakened Syrian state, grappling with challenges including loss of oil revenue; severe infrastructure damage; increasing reliance on outside powers for cash, food and fighters; and a military barely able to keep multiple armed groups at bay.
“When we look at what it would take to make a victor’s peace sustainable in any country, the Syrian regime does not have it,” one official said during a briefing for reporters, speaking on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the Trump administration. “They’re not wealthy, they’re not rich in manpower, they’re not rich in other capabilities, and the grievances, if anything, are sharper now than they were at the beginning of this conflict.”
Describing the Trump administration's assessment of the Syrian war, officials cited a recent battle to recapture Bukamal, along the Syria-Iraq border, that included almost no Syrian government units.
The Trump administration believes that about 80 percent of the military manpower fighting in support of the Syrian government is made up of foreign forces from Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iraqi militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.
When government units undertake offensives against opposition forces, the official said, they must leave behind poorly trained and sparsely equipped troops to defend those reclaimed areas, making them vulnerable to militant attack.
That picture is sharply different from the one presented by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who assured Assad during a recent visit to Russia that the long Syrian conflict is "nearing completion."
Moscow, which reversed the course of the war with its decision to intervene on Assad’s behalf in 2015, is now hoping that a grand political deal can be brokered in short order. But the Russian vision does not include an immediate departure for Assad, a key opposition demand.
As the Trump administration turns to the broader conflict in Syria after helping to oust the Islamic State from major population centers, U.S. officials are embracing new cooperation with Russia on a potential peace process. But despite President Trump's recent discussions with Putin, U.S. officials also appear nervous that Syria and Russia will use their perceived strength to secure an unwelcome outcome at the negotiating table.
They are hoping instead to emphasize the dwindling resources of Syrian authorities, who are dependent on Russia and Iran for infusions of cash and wheat. And, in the U.S. view, Syrian forces are unlikely to be able to hold areas under the control of opposition forces or Syrian Kurds, even if they can recapture them.
“The Syrian state is a mere shadow of itself,” the official said.
The officials spoke after the United Nations’ latest attempt to foster peace talks suffered a setback last week, when the Syrian government delegation abandoned discussions in Geneva over the opposition’s demand that Assad be pushed aside.
Assad “wants a political process that would give him a hasty political outcome,” the official said.
The Trump administration is hoping to secure a political solution in part to ease the pressure of millions of Syrian refugees on Western nations.
The administration remains unlikely, though, to commit the kind of military resources that would be required to dramatically alter the trajectory on the ground, where opposition groups remain fragmented and unable to secure a sweeping victory of their own.
The official spoke as U.S. military leaders made plans to extend their modest military presence in northern Syria, which officials hope will translate into Syrian concessions at the negotiating table. He declined to provide details on the evolving military footprint within Syria.