President Joe Biden’s first foreign policy address at the State Department on February 4 was heavy on platitudes and light on substantive positions, especially for a region that has always been an important focus of previous US administrations for decades.
Like its two predecessors—the Donald Trump and Barack Obama administration—the Biden administration has kept expectations low regarding its Syria policy. Veterans of the Obama administration are back at the White House and Foggy Bottom, with little indication that their remit involves significant changes in position, with one major exception: the stated desire to rekindle the Iran nuclear agreement from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018. For those who have waited for a decade—in vain—for US leadership to rein in some of the most incendiary forces in the region, it is another potential catastrophe.
This is the time to exact concessions from Iran, which needs the financial benefits of a full nuclear deal, and from Russia, which needs reconstruction money.
Since starting their popular uprising a decade ago, Syrians have watched, helplessly, as Iran’s military might propped up the ruthless Bashar al-Assad regime. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) took over many ground operations to brutally crush the rebellion as numerous Syrian soldiers defected to form the Free Syrian Army. As Iranian-backed militias went from strength to strength in Syria, set loose over large areas of the country under the strategic leadership IRGC Quds Force Commander Qasem Soleimani—until his assassination by the US in January 2020—they also gained strength in neighboring countries buckling under their unmatched power. Iranian officials have even boasted they count several Arab capitals as their own—Sanaa, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut.
In this desolate political landscape, the US only seems to see the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), currently the least lethal of the many groups operating in the Middle East, as a reason to maintain a small foothold in a devastated Syria. It continues to ignore the massive repercussions that millions of refugees have on the region and European shores as they multiply exponentially. The US continues to look the other way as Iran’s unopposed imperialism becomes entrenched throughout the region, leaving a trail of destruction in several countries. And it continues to imagine that Russian power could eventually achieve a fragile stability, allowing the US and its allies to remain mere spectators to the changing dynamics in the region.
Militant group Hezbollah now reigns supreme as a regime in and of itself in Lebanon, tying its fate to that of the Assad regime and leading the country to implosion. While it had been gradually encroaching on power over the years, Iran’s unchecked ascendancy in the region has allowed Hezbollah to spread its wings and become more assertive, openly threatening all other political forces in the country and continuing to carry out assassinations of critics, most recently with the murder of journalist Lockman Slim in Beirut.
While Iran-backed militias rule by terror from Lebanon to well beyond the east of Syria and Iraq, Russia has established itself as the unavoidable kingmaker from its military bases in Syria, micromanaging Syrian defense and political affairs and leaving Assad free to repress the population.
Still, Russia can neither find a way out of the Syrian quagmire nor coax the European Union (EU) into funding even a partial reconstruction of the areas its air force has decimated. Russian President Vladimir Putin acts like a winner, but his victory depends on his ability to cash in on his Syrian investment since Russia’s armed intervention began in 2015. His Foreign Minister, Sergey Lavrov, has even been dispatched to the Gulf to rally support from US allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, which have stated that it is time to welcome Syria—under its current regime—back into the fold of Arab nations.
The US says it is looking to change the behavior of the Assad regime and its helpers, but it has gone out of its way to avoid enabling that change. The US’s only actions have been a sanctions regimen through the Caesar Act and token support to the political process mandated by United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254. The farcical constitutional committee it has mandated, with no mechanism to enforce the achievement of its stated goals, has allowed Assad yet another opportunity to drag his feet as he prepares for his fourth regime-style election to maintain a pretense of normalcy over patches of Syria, while the population collapses under the crushing weight of economic downfall.
As long as the US and EU make no new approaches, the situation will continue to worsen for the Syrian people, for the refugees, and for the increasingly volatile neighborhood. With this status quo, refugees are unwilling to return; humanitarian aid only serves the regime; millions of Syrians are barely surviving in Idlib province; and Syrians in regime areas are collapsing under hyperinflation and continued repression. Not only are circumstances not improving, they are worsening by the day.
It is imperative for the Biden administration, in coordination with the EU, to turn a new page in its dealings with the Assad regime’s backers and the greater Syrian conflict. The mantra that the regime and its supporters only react to credible threats has never been more accurate.
President Biden recently declared that “America is back” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken has told NATO allies the US wanted to build back its partnerships and revitalize the alliance. Considering the repercussions the Syrian conflict has had on them all, Syria is a good place to start.
The US and EU must take the opportunity of new negotiations on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to condition any agreement with the Islamic Republic on a withdrawal of all the militias it supports from Syria and Lebanon. The two countries should be considered inseparable in this respect.
Syrian public opinion is scathing of the constitutional committee and of the formal opposition’s well-publicized squabbles, but, recently, ideas of a military council to enable a transition from Assad have gained more positive traction in the Syrian rumor mill. The US and EU should withdraw support for the Russian-managed constitutional committee process until Russia pressures Assad and his forces into the release of all detainees, as required by UNSCR 2254. They must also impose unhindered humanitarian aid access to all Syrians, making Putin pay a high cost for vetoing cross-border humanitarian aid.
The US and EU hold strong political and financial cards vis-à-vis Russia—cards they have been unwilling to use in the Syrian context or any other. Yet, Putin is desperate to find a resolution to his Assad problem so that reconstruction funds can make their way to Syria and alleviate the current financial burden on the regime’s supporters. Unless Putin forces Assad’s hand and contains the regime’s numerous militias sowing terror around the country, he knows he bears the burden alone.
The time for making moral arguments about the need to contain the Syrian catastrophe has come and gone long ago. But the time for making deals and putting credible pressure on Assad’s allies is now. The regime is bursting at the seams—about to implode as only its most violent elements manage to maintain their hold on power and as only its most ruthless cronies manage to siphon all incoming aid for their benefit, keeping the spoils of war beyond Putin’s reach.
Without decisive steps, the US will find itself dealing with much greater issues as problems continue to grow in magnitude. The region may be the first to pay the price, but the outcomes cannot be contained within imaginary borders. Neither the US nor its regional allies can escape unscathed. After ten years of catastrophic international indecision and inaction, Syria is now the epicenter of the greatest crimes against humanity in modern history, and the global community’s collective failure. It is high time to snap out of the fantasy that US interests are untouched by this conflict and that what happens in Syria stays in Syria.
Rime Allaf is a writer and Syria specialist. She is on the advisory council of the Middle East Institute’s Syria Program, and a board member of Syrian organization The Day After. Follow her on Twitter: @rallaf.
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