Photographer: Natalia Kolesnikova/AFP/Getty Images
Editorial Board

What the U.S. Lost in Syria

The deal cut by Iran, Russia and Turkey shows how little influence Washington has in the Middle East.

The duration of the latest Syrian cease-fire may matter less than its genesis. Russia, Turkey and Iran brokered the agreement without U.S. involvement -- a worrying sign of the waning regional influence of the world's only superpower.

Whether this decline is temporary or permanent remains to be seen. What is abundantly clear is that, having decided not to intervene to stop the worst humanitarian catastrophe since World War II, U.S. President Barack Obama lacked both the leverage and the standing to be part of a solution. The resulting agreement could doom the U.S. proxy forces fighting the Syrian civil war.

Even if this cease-fire proves to be as short-lived as its predecessors -- which looks increasingly likely -- its outlines may provide a template for future deals. Under the agreement, the three negotiating powers would assume "spheres of influence" in a de facto divided state. Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad would control the most populous parts of the country for several years, after which he would be replaced by another member of his Alawite religious minority; some sort of joint effort would be carried out to eliminate Islamic State, al-Qaeda's proxy force and other terrorist groups; Russia would end its direct military involvement; Sunni Arabs, who make up the majority of the rebels, would get more autonomy; and the Syrian Kurds, who have been the most effective U.S.-backed forces, would be left with nothing.

Strategically, the gains of the various parties at the table are even greater. Russia will have more influence in the Middle East than at any time since the Soviet era. Iran will have overland access to Beirut, increasing its sway in Iraq and allowing it to ferry arms and other supplies to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah. The Turks will get stability on their southern border while ensuring that the Syrian Kurds, whom they tie to a Kurdish terrorism movement in Turkey, don't gain a foothold in an independent state. And Assad will gain a few more years, if not more, in power.

Other than the Syrian Kurds, most vulnerable under this deal are Sunni Iraqis, who will have to contend with greater Iranian influence in their fragile nation; Israel, which will face an increasingly potent Hezbollah; and Gulf Arab states, which fear a declining influence in the region -- especially since the U.S. reached its nuclear deal with Iran.

And then there is the U.S. By failing to carve out a safe zone in northeastern Syria before Russia intervened, the Obama administration basically abdicated any constructive role. It will be left to President-elect Donald Trump's administration to work out a realistic plan to get the Russians and Syrians to cooperate in fighting Islamic State and other terrorist groups, create a safe zone in northeastern Syria after Russia pulls back, and dissuade Turkey from carrying out military operations against the Kurds.

These steps would allow the U.S. to salvage something from the fiasco. Unfortunately, it is too late to do anything about the half-million Syrian deaths, the destabilization of the Middle East and Europe, or the damage to U.S. stature and influence.

    --Editors: Tobin Harshaw, Michael Newman.

    To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net .

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