Ending America’s Diplomacy-Last Syria Policy
The United States should accept that the situation in Syria has changed since 2011 and adjust its policies in light of the intractable political and military facts on the ground. This is a bitter pill for many people who hoped to see the departure of Syrian President Bashar al Assad — myself among them. But it will ultimately be in the best interests of the United States.
Since March 2011, when Assad met largely peaceful calls for reform in Syria with an iron fist, U.S. policy has nominally been predicated on Assad’s departure. Washington has interpreted United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 2254, approved in 2015, as facilitating a transition away from Assad; this would be the presumed outcome of the free and fair elections and Syrian-led peace process called for in the resolution. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has time and again reaffirmed Washington’s. commitment to the 2015 UN resolution and rejected normalization with the Assad regime. But we are now well past the window for the administration’s first-year review of Middle East policy, and it has become clear that the cake in Syria is all but baked. Washington should heed nudges from allies in Europe and the Middle East, as well as many Syrians across the political spectrum, and take a more pragmatic approach to Syria. This means rejecting the false choice between normalization and maximum pressure. Far from embracing the murderous Assad regime or rewarding it by footing the bill for Syrian reconstruction, the administration of President Joseph Biden should continue to wield its limited leverage to secure realistic goals and achieve core U.S. interests.
There was a time when the United States had sound strategic and moral reasons to act more decisively in Syria. Reasonable observers in Washington might have disagreed on the ends and means, but few argued that Syria never mattered. The war’s consequences were considerable — diminished U.S. prestige, increased Russian and Iranian influence, ISIL, the refugee crisis, and the rise of right-wing nationalism in Europe. But the damage is done, and Syria matters far less for U.S. national security interests today. Now, the United States is being boxed out in Syria by a Russian, Iranian, and Turkish marriage of convenience, as well as by regional states — including Greece, Israel, and many in the Arab world — who have accepted the hard truth that Assad is going nowhere.
This is also privately accepted by Syrian opposition officials; Syrian and international aid workers; diaspora leaders in the United States, Europe, and Turkey; and Syria policy experts in and outside of government that I have had conversations with over the last three years. Many now have a chastened view of prospects for a post-Assad Syria. There are indicators that Syrian actors — the regime in Damascus, civil society, military leadership in Idlib, the exiled opposition in Istanbul and Doha, and Syrian Kurdish leaders — have quietly read the tea leaves. Only those who are insulated from the costs of a maximalist policy can seriously assert otherwise. Many understandably find it difficult to accept that a regime that precipitated the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II can claim victory. But soon the threats that prompted limited U.S. military, economic, and diplomatic intervention in Syria will no longer be salient. And at this point, U.S. policy may very well end up doing more harm than good.
The United States has leverage, but this leverage has a shelf life. The Biden administration’s first term will likely be the only period in which Washington can obtain minimal concessions from Syria and its backers. The carrots and sticks at the administration’s disposal are the limited U.S. military presence in northeast Syria and existing and looming U.S. and E.U. sanctions, most notably those codified by the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act of 2020 (Caesar Act). There is also diplomatic pressure, $13.5 billion in humanitarian aid, and Turkey’s military occupation of northern Syria. These should be leveraged over time, in tandem with engagement and pressure by Washington’s regional allies, to test the regime and its backers’ willingness to make constrained compromises. U.S. objectives should include the safe return of any surviving American detainees in Syria, better burden-sharing on counter-terrorism, uninterrupted delivery of humanitarian aid, and the creation of conditions amenable for refugees to return.
Inertia is Not a Policy Option
What is most striking about the Syria debate in Washington is just how much it lags behind events on the ground. Much of the debate today centers on Arab normalization with the Assad regime, and specifically the public advocacy by the Kingdom of Jordan for a regional approach to securing limited behavioral shifts from Damascus. The opposition to this less-than-maximalist approach is understandable, as Arab states’ rapprochement with Assad entails accepting him as the victor of Syria’s civil war. But these developments should be hardly surprising. The facts on the ground are a half-decade old. Assad’s victory was all but secured after Russia’s intervention in late 2015, and the ill-fated Red Line Moment passed two years before that. Today, limited U.S. coercive measures, including an expanding sanctions regime, are failing to change regime behavior. Critics resentful of the Obama administration’s Syria policy have directed their ire at Biden, especially given Biden’s willingness to withdraw from an open-ended U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. But they seem to ignore the fact that the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” approach yielded little, forgetting that he was a tweet away from withdrawing all U.S. forces in northeast Syria. They also may have missed that in the twilight of Trump’s term, a high-level U.S. delegation secretly visited Syria for a quick win on the return of U.S. hostages ahead of the 2020 elections. The normalization seal was already broken.
Advocates for a more robust Syria policy suggest that if the United States prioritizes Syria, speaks out more forcefully against Assad, and perhaps appoints a high-profile U.S. Syria envoy à la the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, then the United States can wield enough international diplomatic pressure to bring Assad and his backers to the negotiating table. However, the United States has for a decade attempted to pressure Assad when he was at his most vulnerable but failed to achieve any meaningful changes in the regime’s behavior. I — and much of the foreign policy leadership cadre of the Obama administration — believed that between 2012 and 2015 there was a window where some form of limited humanitarian intervention, or more robust support for what was then the moderate Syrian opposition, would have worked. Today, there is a struggle among the Syria-watcher community to articulate a policy that goes beyond “say something” or “do something.” This author is guilty of trying. But I and many in this community have come to accept that the window for the sort of military pressure that enabled Holbrooke’s diplomacy in the Balkans is all but shut. And it is worth remembering that even Holbrooke achieved his success by sitting down — to much criticism — with the murderous Slobodan Milosevic.
No one can accuse the Biden administration of having done nothing in Syria. On the diplomatic front, America’s UN mission has supported justice and accountability, and worked to ensure the continuation of cross-border humanitarian aid. Most notably, the Biden administration navigated a UN Security Council showdown, in which Russia threatened to veto an extension of cross-border aid to northern Syria via Turkey, and secured a nominally year-long, cross-border aid extension for nearly 4.5 million Syrians. In June, the Biden administration announced an additional $436 million in Syria aid, atop more than $13 billion in U.S. taxpayer dollars that already represent the lion’s share of global humanitarian aid to Syrians. The State Department has issued more than 30 statements about Syria since Biden took office, and Blinken has chaired a ministerial meeting on Syria and held discussions on the sidelines of the Arctic Council with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Biden himself raised the topic of Syria with Russian President Vladimir Putin at the U.S.-Russian summit in Geneva in June. Biden’s first known military act was a strike on Iranian targets in eastern Syria. And in July, the administration issued new human rights sanctions on the Syrian regime and opposition actors. Far from ignoring Syria or embracing Assad’s normalization, Biden’s team has maintained the previous two administrations’ course while tactically leveraging Syria as one front for confronting U.S. great power adversaries on an array of human rights, humanitarian aid, counter-terrorism, and regional stability issues. But despite all this, nothing has changed in Damascus.
Biden’s detractors need to suggest what more Biden could do to demonstrate American resolve short of direct military intervention. Continuing the current sanctions regime on auto-pilot will not be enough. By the time the Caesar Act’s sanctions mandates sunset in 2025, the threat of secondary sanctions will have deterred many foreign actors from investing in or providing humanitarian aid to Syria. The remaining U.S. sanctions, established by executive orders, are not time-bound. But despite this, the regime’s inner circle will continue to find black market sources for their creature comforts, as Assad’s cousin illustrated when he was spotted recently driving a Ferrari in Los Angeles. Syria, a narco-state with a drug trade worth $3.5 billion (five times Syria’s legal exports), will continue to blame sanctions for the suffering of everyday Syrians. And in the long-term, China’s efforts at creating alternative international financial institutions and arrangements that render the U.S. dollar—and U.S. sanctions—less central, will provide a lifeline for regimes like Assad’s.
Jordanian King Abdullah’s overtures to the White House and Congress for a revitalized diplomatic process — and more recently, Abdullah’s phone call with Assad — follow similar diplomatic olive branches extended to Syria by the United Arab Emirates, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Egypt, and Algeria over the past five years. And this is to say nothing of intelligence ties rekindled, if they were ever unkindled, between regional states and Damascus, including a recent reported meeting in Baghdad between Syria’s national security head Ali Mamlouk and Turkey’s intelligence chief Hakan Fidan. Even some former U.S. officials who once supported a forceful policy in Syria have argued that the Jordanian-led effort can advance U.S. interests without securing Assad’s departure or Russian withdrawal. The choice the United States faces is not one between normalization and the status quo. The fact is normalization with Arab and regional states will continue regardless of U.S. opposition. The choice, therefore, is whether or not the United States will effectively wield its influence in coordination with its regional allies and partners.
What would a more pragmatic policy look like? Washington should bargain the phased withdrawal of U.S. forces, the easing of sector-wide sanctions (as opposed to justice and accountability, counter-terrorism, and nonproliferation sanctions), and a more proactive policy toward inevitable Arab rapprochement with Damascus, for four limited concessions from the regime and its backers. The first is the release and safe return of surviving Americans missing or forcibly detained in Syria, including journalist and Marine veteran Austin Tice, as well as dual Syrian-American citizens. The second is improved counter-terrorism cooperation with Russia focused on weeding out potential ISIL offshoots. The third is verifiable assurances from the Syrian regime that would allow the repatriation of Syrian refugees in line with international law. And the fourth is unhindered humanitarian aid across Syria.
The deployment of nearly 900 U.S. forces in northeast Syria will remain a military deconfliction challenge moving forward. It will also continue to be a subject of contention in Congress, given the constitutional questions surrounding the U.S. presence in Syria beyond ISIL’s defeat. Moreover, the United States has options available to maintain a campaign to defeat ISIL via basing in Jordan, as well as continued unmanned counter-terrorism operations to target al-Qaeda. Should this or a future administration choose to phase out U.S. deployments in northeast Syria, Washington should gain buy-in from Moscow and Ankara to help ensure the region’s stability. The United States should give the Syrian Democratic Forces a green-light for talks with Damascus aimed at reincorporating the region under its control into the Syrian state while maintaining some degree of autonomy. This would address Syrian Kurdish concerns over threats from Turkey, desire for decentralization, and fears of the return of the Syrian security state. It would also deconflict U.S. counter-terrorism aims from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s revanchist and populist foreign policy and provide a sustainable, if less than ideal, framework for stabilization in the northeast. A phased withdrawal from Syrian territory can be exchanged for a drawdown of certain Iranian assets in the country and for Russian assurances regarding Israel’s security and the security of northeast Syria.
In Idlib, neither the United States, Turkey, the European Union, nor the Syrians living there will accept a surrender to the regime under current circumstances. To avoid the exodus of millions of refugees, Turkey should maintain its military presence and stewardship of northwest Syria’s security and stability, while working with the United States on countering al-Qaeda elements in the neighborhood. This will provide the United States and the Europe Union the opportunity to foster localized governance in the northwest by leveraging UN and international aid.
Syria is in desperate need of humanitarian aid and economic stimulus. The regime and its backers are ill-positioned to deny more aid access across regime-held areas, as well as cross-line aid into the northwest, in exchange for phased concessions on threats to the regime’s power. More inclusive aid and forms of assurances for the safe, voluntary, and legal return of refugees should remain objectives, not necessarily because they will be entirely obtainable, but because these are built into the UN’s existing Syria framework that Russia has agreed to, and these objectives can be reasonably monitored for compliance. Currently, the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria has deemed the country unsafe for the return of refugees. The only way to change this is with a form of “general pardon” and the release of over 140,000 political prisoners held arbitrarily. Ideally, refugee return would also entail protection from formalized dispossession by the Syrian government of land and property for the half of the country that was forcibly displaced. These are the salient, existential demands for the millions of Syrians who hear horror stories about refugees who have returned. The United States should ensure that none of its European or Middle East allies pressure refugees to return until real progress is observed.
Unlike the U.S. military deployment, U.S. and E.U. sanctions on Syria will remain a more relevant tool in the medium and long term. The Caesar Act, signed into law under the Trump administration, received strong bipartisan support in Congress. The Biden administration has demonstrated that it will enforce this law. But sanctions alone cannot work. Instead, sanctions relief should be leveraged in a “distrust-and-verify” manner to pursue other U.S. objectives. They should also be implemented so as to minimize the potential harm to Syrian civilians. At a minimum, the United States and its European allies should establish a joint Syria sanctions mechanism that clears humanitarian and other non-military transactions on a case-by-case basis. From a humanitarian standpoint, this is essential. From a diplomatic standpoint, this will counter the key tenet of Assad’s propaganda: that Syrians’ misery is a product of Western sanctions.
The Assad regime is fundamentally responsible for Syria’s economic destruction. However, supporters of sanctions have to reckon with the question of how long their political and moral objections to Assad justify the collateral damage of even the smartest sanctions. The majority of U.S. sanctions on Syria currently in effect result from designations that preceded the Caesar Act. Washington can and should continue to punish Assad’s regime and his enablers, as well as rebel groups, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. But there should be no illusions that more or more stringent sanctions will bring down the regime. Instead, the Biden administration should at least test whether the prospect of sanctions relief can secure more modest goals.
Despite his Pyrrhic victory, Assad will never be legitimate to most Syrians, and Assad’s Syria will remain a source of instability for the United States and Syria’s neighbors. U.S. policymakers should be clear-eyed about the painful limits of a less interventionist Syria policy. The bottom line though is that Assad does not pose a direct threat to the United States or its allies and partners, and the United States and its allies are more than capable of containing his or Iran’s most destabilizing behavior without continued boots on the ground in northern Syria. After 10 years of carnage and heartbreak, this is not what Syrians—or all those who backed their struggle against the regime — want to admit. But it is what many in Syria and its growing diaspora are silently, painfully accepting. It is time that Washington, for once, meets Syrians where they are.
Adham Sahloul is a foreign policy expert based in Washington, D.C. He has been published by Foreign Affairs, Lawfare, Axios, and The Diplomat, and is an alum of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. In 2020, he founded and led Syrian Americans for Biden, and was a volunteer Middle East policy advisor Biden-Harris and Pete Buttigieg presidential campaigns. Twitter: @AdhamSahloul. The views expressed here are his own.