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Society max: helping Syrians survive Assad and coronavirus

Families are eating less and less — if they can even find food to put on the table. Desperate parents are cutting short their children’s schooling to send them out to earn. As the state hollows out further, the government, which has long targeted its own people, using chemical weapons and destroying medical infrastructure, continues to detain thousands of prisoners.

And now, coronavirus looms large, threatening a medical and economic catastrophe which could push the country even deeper into the abyss.

The situation in Syria continues to worsen — an observation made innumerable times over the past decade. But the ongoing suffering of its people, and its impact on Western interests, should still spark intense reflection. Now that the conflict has moved on to a new stage, can the U.S. and Europeans make any difference?

They can — and should. By adopting a “society max” strategy focused on strengthening Syrian societal resilience and a longer-term transformational agenda, external actors can still positively advance their interests in Syria. The Assad regime remains the problem. Assad cannot be the answer. But Western actors need to shape a constructive agenda — moving away from a counter-productive U.S.-led maximum pressure campaign focused on bringing the regime to its knees — that accounts for the reality that a transition is not on the cards. If not, the plight of Syrians and associated damage to Western interests will only worsen further.

As it stands, Bashar al-Assad has effectively won the military battle. He now faces a new struggle to cement his hold on power, and the United States and some European governments are betting that he will not be able to win the peace. The regime’s problems are largely due to its own corrupt mismanagement, but Western actors are also intent on using their remaining tools of influence to ensure this bet comes off. The U.S. has opened a new front in the shape of an intense economic pressure campaign, devised from a fierce determination to deny Russia and Iran an enduring victory in Syria. This campaign aims to ensure that the regime cannot preside over any recovery and remains isolated, while raising the costs for Assad’s backers. Its stated goal is “behavior change,” but it seems clear that the aim is still regime collapse.

Since the onset of the U.S. campaign, however, some European officials have grown increasingly wary that the U.S. strategy to push the Syrian regime to collapse will not advance their interests. Assad bears responsibility for the country’s societal freefall, but the fear is that the U.S. approach seeks to accelerate domestic collapse with a disregard for the collateral damage.

The immediate danger relates to worsening conditions on the ground. These emerge first and foremost from the regime’s sustained campaign of brutality, corruption, and mismanagement, as well as deteriorating economic conditions in neighboring Lebanon. But, as demonstrated by last winter’s fuel crisis, U.S.-led pressure —which will intensify as the provisions of the Caesar Act kick in — risks compounding destructive regime policies.

This approach is also highly unlikely to deliver the desired long-term gain represented by a stabilizing transition away from Assad, and the associated dilution of Iranian and Russian influence. After nearly a decade of conflict, Russia clearly has no intention of bending to Western pressure. The past decade should also make it clear that the regime will not fold under strengthened forms of economic pressure and associated political instability. The regime is in fact likely to reinforce its brutal control as it defends the organs of state needed to maintain power. Rather than leading to sharpened domestic discontent that could eventually pierce the regime’s armor, the further hollowing out of the state will only impede societal resilience against the regime.

Ultimately, this strategy will not deliver transition. Instead it will deepen Syrian suffering and widen space for Iran and extremists to gain more influence — and none of this even begins to account for the potentially devastating impact of coronavirus.

Europeans should now advocate for a change of direction in Washington. They should make the case that accelerating the Assad-led trajectory towards state collapse in a bid to see the regime ousted and his backers bruised will not deliver a positive outcome for U.S. interests.

To be sure, Assad is not the answer to Syria’s problems, but strengthening Syrian societal capabilities represents a smarter approach to addressing core U.S. priorities. Western governments need to now be asking themselves how they can best harness the human capital that has developed over the past nine years. As implored by one Syrian opposition figure: “we need to stay mobilized to fight for the middle ground.” A European official also makes the case: “The only way to keep alive Syrian political ambitions of avoiding a return to the 2011 status quo is to support the Syrian civil society that has grown over the course of the conflict. You have plenty of actors who are independent and not controlled by state and security institutions, whether it be business associations, trade unions, or service deliverers.”

With or without U.S. support, European governments should shift their central focus to proactively protecting and bolstering, rather than further squeezing, those societal forces that are still standing. It is Syrian society which will ultimately best resist the regime and contest Iranian and extremist influence. It is also best placed to eventually rebuild Syria in a way that meets the needs of the Syrian people, from feeding the hungry in the immediate moment, to establishing some semblance of stability, to even laying the groundwork for possible political change.

Crucially, this strategy will mean not just moral support, but also carefully directing increased resources to Syrians on the ground, including in government-controlled Syria where most of them live. This should include permitting stepped-up international development assistance that moves beyond purely humanitarian aid, as well as a more efficient implementation of Western sanction waivers, which are currently not working despite what the U.S. and European governments say. The specter of coronavirus should inject particular urgency into these imperatives.

The space on the ground may be shrinking and this approach will clearly depend on the implementation of clear principles which carefully work around the regime. It should also not involve wider reconstruction support. But it is not good enough to say that nothing beneficial can be done in government-controlled Syria so long as Assad is not ousted. Syrians themselves are the first to warn of the malign hand of the regime but many also call on outsiders to find careful openings to do more on the ground.

Ultimately, a “society max” strategy should now seek to strengthen those forces in Syria still holding on under the heel of the regime. Focusing Western efforts on helping these individuals and remnants of independent civil life survive is vital for the future of Syria, entirely in the interest of Europe and the U.S., and a better bet than a counter-productive maximum pressure campaign.

This article is based on a new ECFR report, Society Max: How Europe can help Syrians survive Assad and Coronavirus.