Syria and the Outside Powers: What They Want and Can They Have It? | Wilson Center
6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center

Syria and the Outside Powers: What They Want and Can They Have It?

Webcast available

Event Co-sponsors

Webcast Recap

The Syrian civil war is many overlapping conflicts, including the competition and cooperation among outside powers vying to protect their interests, often at the expense of Syria’s sovereignty. What are Russian, Iranian, Turkish, Israeli, and American objectives in Syria, and can they achieve them? Four analysts of Syria and the region addressed the issue of outside powers and the future of the country.

Selected Quotes


Aaron David Miller

“As we’ve watched the horror and tragedy of the Syrian civil war unfold over the course of the last seven years, the stage has been set now for some time, I suspect, for an expanding role by outsiders.”

“The array of external actors seems to be a kind of a coalition of the unwilling – the cynical, the disinterested, the distracted, and the divided – determined above all to ensure that their interests take precedence over the idealized conception of the free, independent, pluralistic, and confessionally-balanced Syria… It’s no wonder the Syrian civil war has endured for so long.”

“The very reason [the U.S.] got involved in Syria in a kinetic way has nothing to do with the Assad regime. It had to do with what was perceived to be the potential threat of a transnational terrorist group creating a quasi-caliphate and using the most brutal and gruesome of methods and posing a potential threat to the continental United States – which is still, arguably, the reason we’re there.”

David Pollock

“Until now, compared to Russia or Iran or Turkey, Israel’s involvement in Syria has been relatively limited, but there’s a very good chance that it’s going to get bigger as the next few months and years proceed.”

“Even looking back at Israel’s policy over the last seven years, Israel has intervened in small ways, but important ways, in the Syrian conflict in order to secure what it sees as its basic interests.”

“Iran and Hezbollah continue to pour money and weapons and people into increasingly sensitive areas right near Israel in Syrian territory, and there is no sign, according to the best Israeli and American expert assessments, that limited airstrikes of the kind that we’ve seen up until now are going to score more than tactical successes against those potential enemies.”

Amy Austin Holmes

“I witnessed myself how families, for example, were trying to get family members out of Afrin as it was slowly being encircled by hostile forces. Smugglers are charging about a thousand dollars per person to get people out of Afrin.”

“Erdogan claims that this intervention is about targeting the YPG. In fact, it goes much further than that and there are much more serious consequences, because obviously, the civilian population is also being targeted, not just the YPG.”

“The civilian population has suffered. There are 150,000 – possibly 200,000 – people that have fled just from Afrin, but not only are the civilians being targeted; this local model of self-governance they have created is also under assault.”

Robin Wright

“One of the interesting things that has happened because of Syria, and also because of policy recently, is that this has developed into a strategic partnership – and they are very unlikely allies, given the long history of animosity between Russia, the old Soviet Union, and Iran.”

“Syria, from Iran’s perspective, is, in many ways, a tool – an instrument – to protect the Shi’ites of Lebanon. It is an intermediary, geographically, and it is a tool, politically. There is very little invested in Bashar Assad. There is a lot invested in Syria as a property for the Iranians. And that’s why they will invest so much.”

“Iran’s role has grown. The greater the price they pay, the greater the pressure to have something to show for it.”

Paul du Quenoy

“Russian interests in Syria are very much a moving target.”

“Russia wants to have the maximum possible effect in Syria, but with the minimum possible liability in terms of losses that they have to explain to their public and also the potential for confrontation with the West.”

“I really don’t think Russia has achieved its stated goals: ISIS was eradicated by somebody else; resolving the question in the regime’s favor has been elusive; and the future importance that you see in the diplomacy doesn’t suggest any sustainability for any unilateral Russian solution, or even a solution that has a significant Russian role.”




  • Paul du Quenoy

    Former Title VIII-Supported Summer Research Scholar
    Associate Professor of History, American University of Beirut
  • Amy Austin Holmes

    Associate Professor of Sociology, American University in Cairo and 2019 Visiting Professor at the Middle East Initiative of Harvard University
  • David Pollock

    Kaufman Fellow, The Washington Institute; Director, Project Fikra
  • Robin Wright

    Robin Wright

    USIP-Wilson Center Distinguished Fellow
    Journalist and author/editor of eight books, and contributing writer for The New Yorker