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How to prevent Syria’s collapse

A new report from the Quincy Institute argues that current U.S. policy toward Syria is inflicting suffering on civilians and providing openings for bad actors like ISIS to reemerge.

Analysis | Middle East

U.S. policy toward Syria deepens the suffering of ordinary Syrians while increasing the potential for a clash between Iran and Israel in Syria and possibly beyond. The U.S. cannot dislodge President Bashar al–Assad, but its policy will increase his reliance on Russia and Iran, whose influence in Syria the U.S. seeks to roll back.

As I have detailed in an extensive new report for the Quincy Institute, if kept in place unaltered, extensive U.S. sanctions on Syria, as well as on states and humanitarian groups seeking to assist its population, will tip the country toward collapse. Assad will still preside over a large swath of Syrian territory, but the rest of the country will be divided among local warlords or foreign countries heedless of the pain inflicted on Syrians under their control. This space will provide new and expanded opportunities to predators, such as ISIS, while radiating violence outside Syrian borders and setting in motion successive waves of migration Syria’s neighbors are ill-equipped to manage.

None of this serves any conceivable U.S. interest.

America's true interests in Syria now are best addressed through pragmatic diplomatic contact with Damascus and its allies. While this strategy has not heretofore been given serious consideration, this new paper argues that a reverse course of this kind is best calculated to preserve U.S. interest in avoiding the chaotic ramifications of state failure and alleviating the suffering engendered by the severe sanctions that underpin the U.S. policy of “maximum pressure.”

Whether a sanctions policy can be judged successful hinges on its objective. If sanctions are intended to produce regime change, then in the case of Syria the policy is failing and unlikely ever to succeed. If the objective is to crush Syrian society and turn Syria into a country only barely ruled by a government in Damascus unalterably convinced that surrender entails annihilation, it might well succeed.

But success will come at the cost of regional stability and the awful fate of Syrians pulverized by sanctions against a government they are currently unable to influence. Assad will remain, and the U.S. will be under pressure to contain the centrifugal forces that societal collapse will unleash across the region. 

Setting strategy aside, current policy is also problematic from an ethical perspective. The administration asserts that sanctions are necessary to “hold Assad accountable” for his crimes; sanctions backers outside of government say that the point of sanctions is to make it clear that the plight of Syria is entirely due to Assad and his supporters.

As such, the sanctions that are now submerging ordinary Syrians in oceanic grief transforms human suffering into a mere “device of communication.” The result as I note in the report is that the “wrongdoer remains untouched and an innocent person is gratuitously harmed.” This approach manages to forfeit both justice for Assad and mercy for the Syrian people.

Thus, if regime change remains the main U.S. objective, and creating a “quagmire” for Russia persists as a collateral aim, the U.S. will have succeeded in leaving all parties worse off. This is not generally held to be the standard for a successful foreign policy. Actually, it is worse than that. The policy reduces the United States to the rank of spoiler, traditionally the status of its weak and cynical adversaries. If leadership is important, this is not it.

This assessment dictates the need for an alternative policy approach grounded in two interrelated objectives:

First: Avoid a failed state in Syria. If the Syrian state were to fail, migration and internal displacement would grow exponentially, and repatriation would come to a halt. Apart from the humanitarian consequences for the affected population, neighboring countries would bear the brunt of the refugee surge. Although the U.S. seeks to prevent the resurgence of ISIS in Syria, the anarchic conditions accompanying state failure would turn parts of Syria into a game preserve for militants.

Second: Avoid escalation between Israel and Iran. Neither Iran nor Israel is looking for a war. But in the tit-for-tat of attack and counterattack, perceptions of the stakes involved could change rapidly, especially in a situation wherein there are no rules of the road or mutually acknowledged red lines. It is essential to stanch this dynamic before it gets out of control.

The problem, of course, is that this will require the cooperation of the Syrian government and especially Russia. Without it, Washington won’t get essential concessions from Damascus, including facilitation of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, Syrian constraints on Iranian or Iranian proxy movements in Syrian territory and release of arbitrary detainees, including American citizens, and agreement on International Red Cross access to detention facilities.

To secure these objectives, the U.S. will have to make its own concessions.  The administration would have to suspend certain sanctions, open a channel to the regime, and collaborate with Russia as well as Arab partners.

After nine years of brutal warfare, responsible statecraft demands that the United States abandon a policy that is disconnected from realities on the ground and its own strategic interest. 

Girl in a Syrian refugee camp, June 2014 (Photo: Melih Cevdet Teksen / Shutterstock.com)
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