How the US can amend its path in Syria
Syria’s crisis is merely entering a new and more complex phase — one which if unchallenged, promises another round of debilitating instability.
“Going forward, we do have points of leverage to effectuate some positive changes… there has to be some kind of political transition.” The Trump administration has ensured that “what diplomatic process exists, the US is absent… I can’t guarantee success, but I can guarantee that a Joe Biden administration would at least show up.” Any move towards normalising ties with Syria’s regime is “virtually impossible.” The unprecedently strong Caesar Act is a “very important tool” in limiting the regime’s ability to commit violence and pressuring it to change its behaviour. A continued deployment of US special forces in eastern Syria to combat Daesh and “support local actors… [has] worked very effectively… [and] is smart, strong and sustainable.” These recent quotes from senior members of the Biden campaign provide a window into the prevailing thinking on Syria policy amongst those likely to hold senior positions in America’s incoming administration.
When a Biden administration begins to settle into its offices in just a few months, Syria’s crisis will have reached a dreadful milestone, marking a decade in March 2021. Though many of President Biden’s senior team presided over US policy throughout Syria’s most deadly years of 2011-2016, it is clear that the tragedy befallen on Syria and its extraordinary global ramifications are a source of sincere regret. Moreover, after four years of the Trump administration, there is a newfound determination to correct today’s trajectory and work determinedly towards the core objectives of defeating Daesh and pursuing a negotiated Syrian settlement.
The Trump administration’s disdain for diplomacy and alliances will see an immediate course correction, with a President Biden seeking to re-engage allies, reinforce multilateral alliances, revitalise diplomacy, and restore America’s place on the international stage. Nowhere is this course correction more needed than on the Syria file, where the drivers of conflict and instability have increased in scope and scale. Rather than being over, Syria’s crisis is merely entering a new and more complex phase — one which if unchallenged, promises another round of debilitating instability sure to affect the region and quite possibly further afield.
After nine years, over 500,000 Syrians are dead and 12.5 million displaced. Years of regime carpet bombing has left over 50 per cent of the country’s basic infrastructure destroyed and the regime’s international pariah status guarantees no window for meaningful reconstruction assistance. More than 90 per cent of Syrians now live under the poverty line, while huge inflation — sparked by Lebanon’s financial collapse — has thrown Syria into an economic crisis, with severe fuel and wheat shortages. Domestic economic strife is engendering unprecedented levels of anger and public criticism of the regime from its own support base, while more and more of the business elite are being publicly shaken down to fill the regime’s bank accounts. On the security side, a Daesh resurgence is well underway; southern Syria’s “reconciliation” is fraying at seams amid over 400 insurgent attacks in 12 months; and local and geopolitical conflicts remain ‘hot’.
A Biden administration knows that an unconditional re-engagement with Assad’s regime will only serve to exacerbate the drivers of conflict and instability in Syria. With the Caesar Act now federal law, the US government will continue to oppose and indeed block attempts by foreign actors to work with Assad. Instead, a Biden administration should launch a diplomacy-first approach that treats the Syria crisis holistically and seeks to re-energise multilateral diplomacy in order to pursue a negotiated settlement that would allow for an eventual responsible withdrawal of American troops. Like most Americans, a Biden administration will be keen to end so-called “forever wars,” but it has also made clear that in its eyes, Syria is different. President Biden is well-known for his support for what he calls “Counterterrorism Plus” – an approach to countering terrorist groups using small numbers of special forces working closely with local partners. That “by-with-and-through” strategy has worked well in Syria and with Daesh resurging, there is no reason to end it yet.
Going forward, the US should refocus onto a comprehensive Syria-wide strategy that prioritises five complementary and inter-dependent policy lines: (1) defeating Daesh and preserving and protecting the Syrian Democratic Forces; (2) guaranteeing consistent and unimpeded humanitarian access to all of those in need; (3) maintaining targeted sanctions as a vital non-military tool to limit regime crimes; (4) diplomatically support a continued ceasefire in Idlib, home to Syria’s greatest humanitarian crisis; and (5) galvanising diplomacy, bilaterally with Russia and multilaterally through the UN in pursuit of a negotiated settlement. In order to do so, the US will need a diplomatic coalition united by a determination to see Syria open a new chapter, in which peace, justice, and accountability are what defines the future.
Charles Lister is Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute in the US. —Asharq Al Awsat
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