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Event Recap

March 29, 2024

Launching the Syria Strategy Project

By JP Reppeto and Charles Johnson

On March 18, 2024, the Atlantic Council’s Syria Project, the Middle East Institute’s Syria Program, the European Institute of Peace, and Madaniya Civil Society Network launched the Syria Strategy, an intensive process of engagement with subject matter experts and policymakers in the United States, Europe, and the Middle East to develop a holistic strategy to sustainably resolve the Syrian crisis. This process will incorporate Syrian experts, Syrian civil society, and Syrian stakeholders at every step. The launch event coincided with the anniversary of the Syrian uprising and included three panels, featuring Special Envoys for Syria from three governments, notable scholars working on the country, and the Syria Strategy project leadership.

Welcome remarks 

William Wechsler, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center & Middle East Programs, kicked off the event with the opening remarks, noting that Syria does not receive enough attention given the country’s importance to the region and the continued suffering under President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The partnership between the Atlantic Council, Middle East Institute, European Institute of Peace, and Madaniya therefore aims to produce a realistic, implementable strategy for the United States and its allies to address the country’s current crises, explained Wechsler. 

Ayman Asfari, chairman of Madaniya Civil Society Network, then discussed the network’s goals and the continued need for strategic engagement to promote a sustainable solution to Syria’s challenges. Madaniya seeks to harness the vibrant civil society developed during the initial uprising in 2011 by providing a platform for over 200 Syrian civil society organizations to reclaim political agency over the Syrian civic space, noted Asfari. In this way, he said, Syrian civil society is at the forefront of mitigating the impacts of the protracted conflict. The United States and its European partners must work with Syrians to pave the way for principled policy solutions along the lines of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, he added. 

Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs at the US Department of State, concluded the opening remarks with a recorded address. The situation in Syria is deteriorating, as deadly bombardment campaigns continue in the country’s north, human rights abuses continue, and over 155,000 people remain arbitrarily detained or forcibly disappeared, according to Leaf. “With the war in Gaza, [the United States] is committed to ensuring Syria itself does not get pulled into a regional conflict that only increases human suffering,” Leaf said. Furthermore, “despite Russian and regime intransigence,” the United States still supports political solution along the lines of UNSCR 2254 as well as the work of the Constitutional Committee to achieve these goals for Syria. However, the Assistant secretary warned that the Arab League’s decision to normalize relations with Syria threatens any potential progress, as the United States hopes to use normalization as an incentive for credible steps toward protecting human rights and improving humanitarian conditions in the country. The United States remains committed to expanding humanitarian access, ensuring the enduring defeat of ISIS, and promoting accountability for the Assad regime’s human rights abuses. Leaf also emphasized that initiatives like the Syria Strategy Project are essential to these goals, informing the administration’s decision-making and policy direction while searching for a path toward peace. 

Panel one: High-level panel discussion 

The first panel focused on specific governmental approaches to engaging with Bashar al-Assad’s regime in pursuit of political and humanitarian solutions to Syria’s current crises. Elizabeth Hagedorn, State Department correspondent for Al-Monitor, moderated the discussion between Ethan Goldrich, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs with the US Department of State; Brigitte Curmi, Special Envoy for Syria with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs; and Stefan Schneck, Special Envoy for Syria with the German Federal Foreign Office. 

A transactional approach to peace 

Goldrich began the conversation by discussing the status quo in Syria’s political landscape as well as the importance of a unified approach to pressuring the Assad regime to the negotiating table. Currently, the regime is looking to rehabilitate its image and normalize relations with Arab neighbors without engaging in any meaningful reform. Indeed, the Arab League’s decision to normalize with Syria complicates efforts to force concessions from Damascus, he stated. However, he explained that the United States remains committed to working with partners like France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the European Union to hold Assad’s regime accountable while reaching a path toward peace and stability. 

Curmi emphasized that this approach must include concrete steps toward reform in line with UNSCR 2254. She stressed the importance of directing the regime toward meaningful reform to ensure the international community’s ability to solve Syria’s political crisis. Schneck agreed on these points, adding that internal support for the regime is very weak, forcing Assad to rely on untrustworthy partners like Iran and Russia. The international community must be prepared for a sudden change to the status quo and any accompanying opportunity to enable political reform in Syria. 

While a sudden shift in events is always possible given Syria’s volatile history, a slower process toward political reform is much more likely. Goldrich explained that the United States has placed stock in such an approach, designing flexible sanctions and executive orders to accommodate any progress the Syrian government makes in addressing concerns over human rights abuses. Curmi and Schneck likewise noted that French and German opposition to the regime was not purely ideological. A step-for-step approach has been on the table for years, but substantive change will only come about after Syria legitimately alters its behavior, they concluded. Such changes are unfortunately less likely after the recent rapprochement between Syria and the Arab League. 

Roadblocks to reform 

Goldrich also pointed to Russian behavior as a challenge in making progress in Syria. Over the past two years, Russia has prevented the Constitutional Committee, which aims to make progress toward UNSCR 2254, from convening. Therefore, according to Schneck, the issue is not the peace process itself but rather the actors’ unwillingness to enter the negotiations. Curmi said this behavior should not discourage the parties from advocating for greater efforts to connect Syrians in different regions of the country as well as in the diaspora. 

While not a perfect solution, the panelists agreed that pursuing UNSCR 2254 is a better approach to improving the current humanitarian situation in Syria than normalization. Arab states opting to normalize relations have benefited little from the decision, and the situation has encouraged the Syrian government to maintain its strategy of extracting concessions while offering none in return, they added. 

Sanctions and humanitarian aid 

The panelists aligned on the need to maintain sanctions. They acknowledged that their sanctions programs are having negative effects on the people of Syria and reiterated the need for measures targeting only the regime and its enablers. The envoys affirmed that sanctions must avoid hampering humanitarian efforts. However, the delegates stressed that the regime will not likely change its treatment of Syrians without outside pressure. Furthermore, the regime’s frequent complaints about Western sanctions demonstrate that the measures are having an effect, explained the speakers.  

On humanitarian aid, the panelists did diverge slightly in their approaches to the crisis. According to UN estimates, 16.7 million people in Syria require humanitarian aid, due to both the Syrian civil war and the devastating earthquake that hit northwestern Syria in 2023. Goldrich highlighted the more than $1 billion in aid delivered to the region in response to the earthquake, in addition to the $16.8 billion spent by the United States since the onset of the political crisis. He also invoked the Office of Foreign Assets Control’s Syria General License 22, which authorized large amounts of aid to be delivered to liberated and non-regime-controlled areas of Syria, concomitantly bringing American investment to the region. 

Curmi noted a difference between the French and American approaches responding to Goldrich’s last point. France has a fixed annual budget for Syria, and this funding goes toward work in all areas of the country in contrast to the US focus on non-regime areas. Curmi explained that this approach is to ensure Syrians do not suffer unnecessarily for Assad’s actions. Similarly, Schneck affirmed the need to continue early recovery aid to lay the groundwork for sustainable solutions in the region. 

Panel two: 13 years of conflict: A regional and international perspective

The second panel contextualized the Syrian situation amid regional and global developments and explored why the crisis remains relevant today. Mona Yacoubian, Vice President of the Middle East and North Africa Center at the United States Institute of Peace, moderated the discussion between Natasha Hall, Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies; Brian Katulis, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute;and Vali Nasr, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.

“A festering wound”

Hall led off by observing that Syria is routinely neglected by the international community at its own peril. She compared the crisis in the country to a festering wound that can become septic at any time, and stressed negative developments there rarely remain within Syrian borders. President Bashar al-Assad benefits from this chaos by perpetuating the narrative that he is the only one who can solve the problems at hand—problems for which he is also responsible. The regime now utilizes humanitarian aid and refugees as policy levers to negotiate with its neighbors and the West, all while collecting billions of dollars each year through the Captagon trade, according to the panelist. Hall asserted that Assad has created a successful playbook for other authoritarians, who have adopted the model of securing a great power protector and then shattering norms with impunity. The United States remains staunch in its use of aid and sanctions in lieu of a more robust strategy for addressing the regime. The situation remains volatile, but Washington should not miss its current chance to provide preventative care to the wound, she added.

Nasr followed by explaining Iran’s evolving role in the crisis and how the effects of the war in Gaza are reverberating in Syria. He affirmed that Iran continues to play a central role in the country’s set of interrelated conflicts and that Iranian involvement in the wider region also elevates Syria’s importance. Beyond protecting Assad, Tehran understands that Syria is an additional front to pressure the United States and Israel. Iran and Hezbollah have moved to fill the vacuum left by Russia as it focuses on Ukraine, and by gaining a foothold in Latakia they can now project influence into the Mediterranean, according to him. Nasr also highlighted that the risk of an Israeli-Iranian escalation would rise if Tehran’s succeeded in its efforts to dislodge the United States. Syria is also a theater for US-Turkey and US-Russia confrontations; the country is more integrated into global issues than is generally acknowledged. Consequently, Washington requires a strategy for navigating its engagement in Syria and preventing the country from becoming the epicenter of a regional war, he explained.

Katulis then spoke on the evolution of geostrategic threats surrounding Syria. He listed several global impacts that originated from the Syrian conflict: authoritarian leaders mimicking tactics used by the Assad regime; worsening violence against civilians in other conflicts; the weaponization of refugees; rampant use of disinformation; and growing disillusionment with proactive foreign policy among elements of the American left and right. Katulis noted that the current project pushes back on the indifference toward Syria that has settled over some policy circles, as well as the notion that the United States cannot constructively shape the situation any longer. He expressed hope that the project will generate new ideas to turn negative trends in a new direction.

Correcting course and deepening engagement

Hall then gave her thoughts on how policymakers and scholars in Washington can reframe discussions about Syria and develop new solutions. The United States and its partners are currently “treading water” rather than acting proactively and missing opportunities to negotiate with individual actors while the wider conflict is gridlocked. Other neglected areas that could benefit from more engagement include promoting resilience in non-regime areas and mitigating water insecurity in the northeast. Hall concluded by spotlighting regional efforts to advance negotiations on Gaza and predicted that a similarly unified attempt at step-for-step with Syria could bring about progress.

Nasr underscored the need for Washington to identify its interests in Syria and pinpoint why the outcome of the war matters; a pivot toward a new mission could redefine the US footprint there altogether. Meanwhile, if the United States continues to neglect the situation it could very well be pulled back in the future. Katulis suggested a more diplomacy-forward US strategy for the crisis to ameliorate regional frustration at American inaction. Deeper discussions are especially needed with countries bordering Syria. He cited US leadership on the Ukraine conflict as an example of how attentive engagement can build coalitions.

Hall agreed with her co-panelists on the need for more multilateral cooperation on Syria policy, pointing to energy and water as issues where the United States and its partners could do more. Nasr felt that the disproportionate US effort spent countering Iranian influence in Syria is evidence of a disconnect between Washington’s stated aims in countering ISIS and its priorities on the ground. He reiterated that there is a legitimate argument for an American presence in the Middle East but that it must be properly translated into action. Katulis added that as think tank analysts approach Syria with a fresh perspective, even touchy topics regime change or other forms of power transition should be reevaluated.

Panel three: The Syria Strategy: Outlining the way forward

The final panel served as an introduction to the mission and goals of the Syria Strategy Project. Sawsan Abou Zainedin, CEO of Madaniya Civil Society Network, moderated the conversation between Qutaiba Idlbi, Director of the Syria Project at Atlantic Council; Charles Lister, Director of the Syria and Counter-Terrorism Programs at the Middle East Institute; and Marie Forestier, Senior Advisor at the European Institute of Peace.

Building a new strategy

Idlbi recounted how the project arose from Western, regional, and Syrian stakeholders’ frequent inquiries about the US strategy for Syria, and a pervasive sentiment among American policymakers that they had tried everything they could. The Syria Strategy project seeks to form a realistic and implementable strategy to both improve conditions in Syria in the short term and shape a sustainable solution to the crisis in line with UNSCR 2254. He went on to explain how the project will bring together experts, policymakers, and stakeholders to work on a series of subproblems in hopes of producing a workable, holistic proposal by March 2025. Another goal is for the project to function as a sounding board for policymakers to test ideas and offer their own feedback, he explained.

Lister addressed the project’s emphasis on Washington as its intended audience. American buy-in is needed in order to make progress on the Syrian crisis; US involvement galvanizes European support and is a remedy to Arab states’ frustration with their own engagement efforts. There is currently no shortage of ideas on Syria, but the actors proposing them lack unity of purpose, or at least the perception of unity, according to him. Lister also explained that Syrian experts and activists form the core of the Syria Strategy and Washington will be just one of many governments involved in the project. The process is designed to be highly consultative and responsive to feedback, creating a “living” project.

Forestier underscored the need for European involvement as well. The project is necessarily transatlantic, as while US leadership on Syria remains critical, Washington cannot be expected to lead alone. Aligning Europe and the United States increases the chances of success of the wider project and will revitalize Syria policy in European foreign policy circles as well. The European Union (EU) remains a significant donor of humanitarian aid in Syria but has not updated its strategy since 2017, resulting in recent dissent among member states. A common strategy born from a Syrian-owned process could be the common ground needed for the EU to rebuild consensus, she said.

Lister then unpacked the duality of the project’s mission, under which Syrians must own and drive the process but ultimately produce a strategy that external actors will buy into. The project leadership realizes that any plan assembled by the international community but not agreeable to Syrians will be dead on arrival, creating an impetus to engage with de facto authorities throughout the country—including interlocutors from the regime. The leadership also recognizes that resolution will not come quickly and thus envision two timelines for the project: a shorter-term one predicated on improving day-to-day conditions across all of Syria, and a longer-term one producing a sustainable resolution to the crisis. Critical to both is the reestablishment of connectivity among the different parts of Syria, such as by official trade and transit.

Challenges and opportunities

Idlbi contextualized the project’s efforts within wider regional developments, such as Arab states’ normalization efforts with the regime. Diplomatic engagement remains one of the only remaining policy levers for regional states to work with Syria. However, the readmission of Syria to the Arab League is widely considered to be a failure owing to a lack of better behavior by Assad. He reiterated that US involvement on the Syria file is not only crucial to effecting change but also a necessity if Washington wants to avoid being dragged back into Syria on worse terms in the future. The United States spent billions of dollars to stop ISIS, and the investment needed to curb another crisis may well be even more. Working toward a solution to the conflict also requires treating its symptoms as well, such as restoring basic services and returning children to school, according to him.

Forestier differentiated the Syria Strategy from other consultative projects by the extremely wide scope of stakeholders it hopes to engage. Throughout the process, the project leads intend to solicit feedback from all major players in Syria, regional governments, and global powers, ensuring that policy recommendations are vetted by different actors. Lister acknowledged that not all issues lend themselves to consensus, with sanctions expected to be an especially contentious topic. However, the goal remains to take in a range of different perspectives and approach disparate ideas with an open mind.

Regarding the recent anti-normalization bill passed by the US House of Representatives, Idlbi stressed that the most impactful sanctions regime placed on Syria is the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act passed in 2003. Sanctions should comprise just one of many tools to form a strategy for shaping conditions in the country. He also recentered the importance of UN involvement and the project’s engagement with the UN Special Envoy for Syria. Lister then outlined the limitations of Syria’s allies and the opportunities they create to change the status quo. He asserted that while Assad could fall back on Russian and Iranian military support from the outset of the civil war, neither government is willing to bail Syria out of its worsening economic situation; a unified approach by the international community to engaging with Syria could thus leverage Damascus’s predicament to pressure it toward constructive reforms.