As the Assad regime consolidates power across Syria, Mona Yacoubian says that regime change is increasingly unlikely seven years into the civil war. But, the conflict remains complex, as the U.S. and coalition forces continue to work to eradicate remnants of ISIS and Israel becomes increasingly concerned over Iran’s military presence in neighboring Syria.

On Peace is a weekly podcast sponsored by USIP and Sirius XM POTUS Ch. 124. Each week, USIP experts tackle the latest foreign policy issues from around the world.

Episode Transcipt

Tim (Host): What is the state of affairs in Syria right now? The regime is marching to retake territory. There seems to be a shadow war between Israel and Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Let's talk about all of these issues and more with Mona Yacoubian, who is a senior policy scholar at the United States Institute of Peace. The Twitter handle is @USIP. Mona, welcome back, thank you for being on POTUS today.

Mona: Thank you so much for having me.

Tim (Host): Every time we talk about Syria, I keep thinking his days are numbered, President Assad, but he is still there. And one wonders exactly what the state of the battle is right now. Just an overview if you will for a moment, on what we are seeing taking place in Syria right now.

Mona: Sure. Well Tim, I think Bashar al-Assad is very much set to prevail in Syria. I don't think he's going anywhere any time soon. In fact, as you said, what we're seeing is the regime really re-taking territory, consolidating control over much of the country. This really started in earnest back in late 2016, when the regime re-took parts of Aleppo that had been held by the rebels. Of course, with significant help from both Russia and Iran. And since that time, they have steadily been regaining territory, most recently now down in the south. Just last month they re-took the city of Daraa. This was the birthplace of the Syrian revolution. So we're really seeing a trend of the regime essentially re-consolidating its control.

Tim (Host): The United States and Russia at one point, it had been characterized by the Russians as an alliance to fight against the Islamic State or ISIS, that does not seem to have been the case, it was more Russian working with Iran to do some other things right now. First of all, is the battle against ISIS, is that over with now or not, in Syria?

Mona: It's certainly coming toward a close. In early May, the counter-ISIS coalition began something called Operation Roundup, and that's really designed to do just what it suggests, which is basically sweep out the last remaining remnants of ISIS in far eastern Syria and in Iraq.

Tim (Host): Is the United States still committed to any particular course of action in Syria? I'm not quite clear what the policy is right now, other than the fact that the United States is committed to defeating ISIS.

Mona: Well, I think that has been really the major focus of US policy in Syria, frankly going back to 2014. The main focus has been to defeat ISIS in Syria as well as in Iraq. Now what happens after that I think is a big question. President Trump has really expressed a desire to withdraw U.S. troops, there are a small number, 2000 on the ground in Syria. He's suggested that he'd like to withdraw those troops, and pull out of Syria. 

Mona: If that's the case, I think that will have a significant impact on the ground that may open the way frankly for ISIS to re-establish itself. It could also I think signal the Syrian regime, Russia and Iran, that the U.S. really has no interest in Syria, and essentially, yeah, and essentially sort of lay the groundwork for their taking over even those parts of Syria.

Tim (Host): Mona Yacoubian with us, Senior Policy Scholar at the US Institute of Peace as we discuss Syria. Aziz Asbar was a research director at the Syrian Scientific Studies and Research Center. His assassination has not been acknowledged by Israel, but it does raise questions about a series of attacks and it does raise the question, the specter if you will of something called the shadow war. Maybe you could describe what your concerns about that are?

Mona: I think what we're seeing is as the Assad regime has re-established control, it's done it as I said with the help of Russia and Iran. Israel has grown increasingly concerned, in particular about Iran's posture inside Syria. And the Israelis have said that under no circumstances will they tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence on the ground in Syria. So we've seen a steady uptick in these unattributed attacks, aimed largely at military facilities associated with the Syrian regime, Iran, or Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that is a strong ally of Iran on the ground.

Tim (Host): And what is the role of Hezbollah in this also?

Mona: Well, Hezbollah has played a very important role in the Syrian civil war in terms of bolstering the Assad regime. They started their involvement in Syria in 2012, largely in a covert way, and then in 2013, in a much more open fashion, they've been on the ground, providing a lot of sort of extending if you will, ground capabilities for the Syrians and bolstering Assad, ensuring that the regime does not collapse.

Tim (Host): One of the stories today being reported by the Associated Press is about countries that are taking custody of foreign fighters who are detained in Syria, and it brought them home to face justice. Macedonia became the latest country to repatriate detainees captured on the battlefield by the U.S. backed Syrian Democratic Forces, taking seven Islamic State fighters on Monday. The numbers are just a fraction according to the Associated Press of the roughly 600 foreign fighters currently being detained by the SDF. What can you tell us about that?

Mona: Well, I think that's exactly the point. It's an important, maybe small first step, but as you've noted, the number is just a fraction. I think this leads to a much bigger question of what to do with these captured ISIS fighters? The SDF, the Kurdish led Syrian Democratic Forces is not even a national entity, and many of the countries from which these fighters hail, are not interested in repatriating them and having these fighters return to face justice in their country. 

Mona: So it leaves open a very big question, what's going to happen to them? Will they become radicalized even further? Will they escape these detention camps? So it's a big I think, longer term issue that still needs to be resolved. 

Tim (Host): And there's another large issue, a looming issue, and that has to do with refugees. Where are they going? The Lebanese government, we know as you've reported, has said that it would not force refugees back, but would facilitate their return to Syria. Still there are countries that are bursting at the seams if you will from refugees from this battle. What to do about them is a problem that people are going to have to confront, and I'm wondering what is being done about this issue right now?

Mona: I think we're starting to hear much more about this issue of refugee returns. And as you said, the Lebanese government has said they're not going to force Syrian refugees back, but Lebanon hosts the largest numbers of refugees per capita in the world and it seems fairly clear that those communities, their patience is running thin, and conditions for Syrian refugees in these hosting countries, in Lebanon for example, are very, very difficult. 

Mona: So many Syrian refugees are faced with this rather difficult set of choices, to stay in a place like Lebanon where they don't have work, where it's difficult for their children to be in school, or to return to Syria, which is far from secure, in which they face a very uncertain future, will they be jailed by the Assad regime, will they be conscripted if they're young men into the Syrian army? It's a very, very difficult set of choices, but we are starting to see a trickle of Syrian refugees returning to Syria.

Tim (Host): Mona, is your belief that the United States should offer assistance financially or otherwise to these countries that have taken in these refugees, at the very least in the interest of maintaining some level of stability and comfort in other words, so people are not dying?

Mona: Oh, I absolutely. And I think the U.S. for many years has played a leading role as the single largest humanitarian donor, in terms of providing aid and assistance to refugees living in Syria, sorry, living in Lebanon, in Jordan. Now the Trump administration has somewhat of a different focus. They are less interested in providing funding to the UN agency, UNHCR, that provides assistance for these refugees. But I think it's essential that both for the refugees and as well for the countries that are hosting them, which they are doing really at great cost. In many ways, it really is an international public good to host refugees amongst the host communities in Lebanon, in Jordan, in Turkey.

Tim (Host): Mona, last question, kind of returning to where we started. It does appear now that regime change is not going to take place in Syria.

Mona: Well, I think that's exactly right Tim. As I said, I think it's fairly clear that the Assad regime is set to prevail. I think a bigger question is what will that Syria over which he presides, what will it look like? I think it's going to be a very violent and fractured Syria for many, many years to come.

Tim (Host): Mona Yacoubian, thank you for joining us on POTUS.

Mona: Thanks so much for having me. 

Tim (Host): Mona is a Senior Policy Scholar at the U.S. Institute of Peace discussing the situation in Syria. For years we heard of Bashar al-Assad's days are numbered, they have been numbered, but they've numbered even more than the administration of President Barack Obama and who knows what it will like under President Donald Trump, according to what Mona is saying. Regime change not in the offing there. Still a situation the U.S. must deal with, some thoughts about what needs to be taken care of. The Twitter handle by the way is @USIP. 

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