In a little remarked-upon statement in May, James Jeffrey, the State Department’s envoy for Syria policy, said that his goal was to turn the war-torn country into “a quagmire for the Russians.” By using economic leverage, this policy has achieved modest success, writes Jonathan Spyer:
The application of quiet but unrelenting pressure is transforming President Bashar al-Assad’s victory into ashes. What it has yet to do is persuade Russia to cease backing the Assad regime, which means the strategy remains at a stalemate.
Regime spokespeople and apologists in the coming period are likely to highlight the difficult humanitarian situation in regime-held areas and call for a softening of restrictions. But it’s hard to credit any sincerity to the regime’s belated discovery of humanitarian concerns toward its own citizens. In covering Syria from the early years of the civil war, I witnessed the deliberate targeting of civilian infrastructure, including hospitals, by the Assad regime’s air force in Aleppo in the summer of 2012. Such tactics, replicated throughout the country, were the main reason for the terrible loss of civilian life during the Syrian war.
The U.S. strategy has not yet succeeded at its ultimate aim of changing the Syrian regime’s calculations. The main result instead is emergent strife between different elements of the pro-regime camp, including public criticism of Assad by the Russian government . . . and growing tensions between Russian-aligned and Iranian-aligned elements of the Syrian security forces in the strife-torn Daraa province. But a strategy of this kind doesn’t require immediate results. The direct cost to the United States of an economic blockade of Assad’s Syria—like the maximum pressure campaign against Iran—is low or nonexistent.