Follow us on social


Ending sanctions on Syria is meant to help the Syrian people, not Assad

A recent Washington Post column claimed I 'forcefully argued against increasing pressure on Assad,' which is a complete misreading of what I wrote.

Analysis | Middle East

Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin wrote on Thursday that his Syrian American contacts were concerned that I am part of the Biden campaign’s Middle East advisory team, seemingly because of a Foreign Affairs essay by Joshua Landis and me entitled, “The Pointless Cruelty of Syria Sanctions,” which Rogin mischaracterized as advocating for reducing U.S. pressure on the Assad government.

Since Rogin pretty clearly had not closely read the piece, given that it did not simply propose relieving pressure on Bashar al-Assad, let me review the bidding.

The argument laid out in considerable detail in the Foreign Affairs piece — and in a prior Quincy Institute paper, “Course Correction: Preventing State Collapse in Syria,” that I wrote — was that the United States should relieve the pressure on ordinary Syrians, rather than the Assad government, which in fact is not under a lot of pressure.

The Assad government is ultimately responsible for the violence that engulfed Syria, but it has effective allies, diplomatic cover in the U.N. Security Council, and faces a fragmented and ineffectual opposition. Having lost a large percentage of the Alawite population, faced down a large U.S. arm-and-train program designed to push him out, and an assortment of Jihadists challenges, it seems unlikely that Assad will cave owing to sanctions.

The Syrian people are another story. Without massive assistance, increased resources and a coordinated reconstruction effort, their ongoing decimation will gain momentum. U.S. sanctions, which threaten non-U.S. governments and NGOs with severe, even disabling punishment should they offer to help, are now a principal impediment to the survival of Syria. As Landis and I observed in Foreign Affairs, in these situations those with guns eat first. As comprehensive as sanctions might be, the Assad government will get what it needs to survive and the population will get whatever is left.

Rogin’s concerned Syrian contacts apparently wish to relitigate the civil war. They themselves have no capacity to do so, but they believe that the United States can be mobilized to take another stab at toppling Assad rule. This gambit failed the first time around, when the opposition sought to enlist the United States as a combatant on its side in the civil war. As we know, neither Presidents Obama nor Trump was willing to go all in, although the United States under Obama made a major effort to boost the armed opposition through an assistance program that Trump ended in 2017. This time around, the hope is that Washington’s typical readiness to impose grinding sanctions on other countries can be manipulated to destroy the Syrian state. Thus far, this stratagem is working, but only in the White House and on Capitol Hill.

In the meantime, the Syrian people are sick, hungry, deprived of basic services and stripped of the possibility of renewed stability for their families and communities. It is they who are being punished, not those who rule the country. The pity of it all, of course, is that the victims of sanctions are precisely those with no capacity whatsoever to change the course of Syrian foreign and domestic policy.

State collapse, apart from signifying an awful humanitarian catastrophe, would open space in Syria for ISIL and encourage further encroachment of third countries who perceive an interest in bedding down in Syria. This is emphatically not in the U.S. interest, a dimension of this issue that doesn’t seem to interest Rogin. The only way to secure U.S. interest and diminish the suffering of ordinary Syrians — that is, to act both strategically and ethically — is to take our knee off the neck of the Syrian people through sanctions relief and the gradual restoration of Syrian oil revenue to the state via a phased, hardnosed arrangement with the Syrian government. Yes, this would leave Assad in the presidency for the moment and would require delaying his accountability for human rights abuses. But Syrian people must come first.

Syrian refugees wait to get food from the International Mission Red Cross (Photo: Pan Media /
Analysis | Middle East
Report: Iran says it won’t strike Israel if US gets Gaza ceasefire
Iranian President Rouhani and President-elect Joe Biden (shutterstock)

Report: Iran says it won’t strike Israel if US gets Gaza ceasefire


Iran has told the United States that it will attack Israel directly unless the Biden administration secures a ceasefire in Gaza, according to an Arab diplomatic source who spoke with Jadeh Iran.

The ultimatum follows an Israeli attack on an Iranian diplomatic facility in Damascus last week. The source told Jadeh Iran that a ceasefire could also lead to progress on other aspects of the U.S.-Iran relationship. This comes following mediation by Oman between the U.S. and Iran.

keep readingShow less
Congress needs answers before sending more aid to Ukraine

President Joe Biden is seen with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson as he departs from the Friends of Ireland ceremony on the House steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 2024. (Photo by Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto)

Congress needs answers before sending more aid to Ukraine

Washington Politics

Many are seeing the current impasse over the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine as the ultimate manifestation of congressional dysfunction. Following several attempts, the Senate in February passed a $95 billion bill that includes most of the Biden administration’s previous requests, minus border funding. That bill sits in limbo in the House, with Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who, while signaling he wants a vote on it, has so far been unwilling to bring it to the floor.

Last month House Democrats introduced an arcane “motion to discharge” petition, which could allow supporters to bring the bill to a vote if 218 members agree. While 191 have signed the petition, the odds of finding another 27 appear daunting, given the number of progressive Democrats who oppose military assistance for Israel, and opposition by Republicans to bypassing the Speaker.

keep readingShow less
Is Israel's plan to draw the US into a war with Iran?

An anti-Israel banner with pictures of the Minister of Defence of Israel, Yoav Gallant, Chief of the General Staff of Israel, Herzi Halevi, Commander of Israel's Navy, David Saar Salama, The Deputy Chief of General Staff, Amir Baram and Commander of the Israeli Air Force, Tomer Bar is seen following a suspected Israeli strike on Iran's consulate, adjacent to the main Iranian embassy building in Damascus, in a street in Tehran, Iran, April 2, 2024. Majid Asgaripour/WANA (West Asia News Agency) via REUTERS

Is Israel's plan to draw the US into a war with Iran?

Middle East

The latest Israeli heightening of violence in an already violent region presents the Biden administration with one of its biggest challenges yet in keeping the United States out of a new Middle East war.

Israel’s bombing of an Iranian diplomatic compound in Damascus, killing a senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps and several other Iranian officials in addition to at least four Syrian citizens, was a marked escalation. Besides being as much an act of aggression in Syria as many previous Israeli aerial attacks, hitting the embassy compound constituted a direct attack on Iran.

keep readingShow less

Israel-Gaza Crisis