Half the population is displaced. More than 4 million people have become refugees abroad.
The capital city is struggling without water.
Hundreds of thousands are dead. A generation of children is shut out of the classroom. There is destruction on a monumental scale. A civil war continues to rage and ISIS is still holding territory.
Such is the state of Syria as President Barack Obama gets outlasted by the leader whose departure he called for in 2011, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. As it turned out, the time had not yet come for Assad to step aside in 2011, as Obama famously stated, and it remains decidedly unclear when that moment will arrive.
What is clear is that with the help of Russia and Iran, Assad is staying. And his country is in shambles, ravaged by Russian air strikes, ISIS destruction and a civil war that is far from over.
Only now, Syria is no longer the Obama administration’s to worry about. The new team of President-elect Trump is now on deck to deal with the bloodshed and the chaos of the Syrian civil war. And Trump’s national security team is likely to find out fairly quickly just how limited American leverage is in a conflict where America’s chief goal for years could be summed up in four words: stay out of it.
Candidate Trump spoke regularly about Russia’s commitment to fighting ISIS. But in recent days, the current defense secretary, Ash Carter, has said Russia’s efforts against ISIS amount to “virtually zero,” and several of Trump’s national security nominees have expressed concerns about Russian ambitions. The nominee to head the Pentagon, Gen. James Mattis, went as far as to say that Russia’s leader is “trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.” Squaring the President-elect’s desire to work more closely with Russia with his nominees’ concerns about Russia’s approach and ambitions will be one of the challenges ahead.
From the start, the US worked hard to not be pulled into the Syrian civil war either directly, with its own forces, or indirectly, by arming nationalist rebels fighting Assad. Only after years of turning down a menu of options for further intervention did the Obama administration eventually find itself dragged into a train-and-equip program that had so many strings attached to it and came so late in the game that few fighters signed on. (The covert program administered by the CIA is a separate discussion.)
Now that Aleppo has fallen under a barrage of Russian airstrikes, the US finds Syria talks scheduled for January 23 in Kazakhstan’s capital, led by Russia and with America on the sidelines. Former rivals Russia and Turkey, previously on opposite sides of the fight, have signed a deal to coordinate airstrikes. Turkey is looking to Russia for air support as it battles ISIS — and Syrian Kurds — in northern Syria. Turkey opposes the Syrian Kurd forces with whom America is fighting — it considers them terrorists — and questions abound about what this will mean for the US coalition against ISIS as the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS looms.
So as Mr. Trump takes office, the Syrian civil war looks not a lot closer to ending. And the fight against ISIS, on which Trump has said he is most focused, faces questions about exactly which force made up of which armed group will take the fight to the terror group.
The next administration faces the choice of proceeding with the allies it has now, doubling-down on that force with even more American advisers alongside, or rethinking its overall approach to the anti-ISIS battle, perhaps moving even closer to the Russian side.
Right now it’s unclear which option Trump will choose. What is clear is that the ISIS fight is now his. And so is deciding what America’s role in ending the Syrian civil war will — or will not — be.
Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of The New York Times best-seller, Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.