Taking advantage of the July ceasefire agreement, which applies in certain areas of southern Syria, Bashar al-Assad and his allies have been consolidating and expanding their control in other parts of the country. What’s more, writes Dennis Ross, the Russians “have agreed to several previous ceasefires or cessations of hostilities and have enforced none of them,” suggesting that they, and forces loyal to Assad, might resume fighting elsewhere when it suits them. If, with Russian support, Iran-backed, pro-Assad groups expand their influence, they will no doubt threaten U.S. interests and even undermine attempts to prevent the resurgence of Islamic State. Ross explains how the U.S. might be able to limit Russia and Iran from further taking advantage of the situation:
The Israelis have made it clear they won’t let Iran open up a . . . front against them in Syria. Maybe this will deter the Iranians; at a minimum, they will test and probe to see just how serious the Israelis are. Unfortunately, they are far less likely to be deterred from trying to position themselves along the Jordanian border, convinced this will give them the means to destabilize the Hashemite kingdom and threaten the Gulf states from yet another direction. . . .
[T]he ceasefire agreement is supposed to keep the Syrian regime and the Iranians 40 kilometers from the Jordanian border. [This], however, depends on the Russians stopping the Syrians and Iranians. If the past is any guide, they won’t, unless, of course, they decide that this will extend the conflict and increase their costs.
The Trump administration could make it clear that there is a cost. If it were prepared to say the U.S. will enforce these ceasefire areas and buffer zones if the Russians don’t, Putin would pay attention. Not only would it signal that the U.S. was going to be an arbiter of events in Syria—something Putin seeks to avoid—but it would also mean we would act to punish the Syrian regime for its transgressions.
One of Putin’s objectives has been to show that the Russians stand by and protect their friends. He is not going to want to have to protect further Syrian efforts at expansion if it costs the Russians, and he is also likely to be leery of having the insurgency re-emerge after seemingly containing it. One way for the U.S. to punish the regime would be to resume lethal assistance to Syrian opposition groups. That may seem very unlikely after the Trump administration has ended such assistance, but if the Russians appear to be retreating from the ceasefire agreement, this could be an option for the administration.