Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Is Here to Stay

Syria’s Bashar al-Assad Is Here to Stay

A new U.S. policy that sees Syria readmitted into the regional fold is not intended to “reward” Bashar al-Assad for his barbarous behavior over the last decade, but for the United States to pick winners and losers in the Middle East.

Syria’s Kurds are of a similar mind. Rojava views the Assad regime as a necessary and reliable bulwark against Sunni extremism and Turkish aggression. Despite their current partnership with the United States, the Kurds know that Washington is a fair-weather friend; Successive U.S. attempts to withdraw from Iraq and Syria, and Trump’s passivity in response to Baghdad and Tehran’s seizure of the Kurdish-administered city of Kirkuk in 2017 are telling. The Kurds, therefore, will continue cooperating with the Assad regime: supplying Damascus with oil, relying on its army as a safeguard against Turkey, and negotiating with Assad over their autonomy in the northeast. They should be encouraged to do so. 

Turkey also stands to benefit from such an arrangement. Incited by fears of Kurdish separatism and new refugee outflows spilling into Turkey, Ankara’s armed adventure into northern Syria has left Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on the losing side of Russian and Assad regime escalation in Idlib—a jihadist-riddled, humanitarian disaster in waiting—and with few options to quell the Kurdish insurgency that his occupation has created. Turkey is now stuck defending a safe zone that is home to five million displaced Syrians and has requested that the United States support its efforts to hold Assad at bay. In future negotiations with Assad and Russia, Turkey’s military presence and U.S. aid for the Kurds are crucial leverage that the United States can use to promote de-escalation and advance sustainable political outcomes. This will not be easy, but progress can be kickstarted by first acknowledging Assad’s victory in the Syrian conflict—a reality that has been evident for some time. Next, the United States and its allies should allow Assad to reclaim control of his prewar territory and permit reconstruction aid to flow in exchange for modest, though impactful, political concessions.

ADMITTEDLY, THIS will not be a painless policy shift. Negotiations with Assad—a vicious dictator who has conducted “surrender or starve” siege warfare to suppress opposition areas, exploited and violated agreed-upon ceasefires, disappeared and tortured perceived enemies of the state, and weaponized terrorists against demands for his removal—are certain to provoke domestic denouncements that Biden is so appetent to exit yet another Middle Eastern conflict that he is willing to “legitimize” the regime and let it off the hook for its crimes. Fortunately, if Afghanistan is any guide, this caviling is unlikely to deter the forty-sixth president. In a speech on August 16 following the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul, Biden remarked that

I will not repeat the mistake […] of staying and fighting indefinitely in a conflict that is not in the national interest of the United States, of doubling down on a civil war in a foreign country […] I know my decision will be criticized. But I would rather take all that criticism than pass this decision on to another president of the United States […] Because it’s the right one, it’s the right decision for our people.

It’s reassuring that Biden can remain resolute under pressure, but unlike in Afghanistan—where a bipartisan majority favored withdrawal—Americans are more ambivalent about departing Syria, and there is broad bipartisan agreement among policymakers that sanctions remain an effective tool in coercing Assad’s capitulation. Regardless, Biden can make a convincing case for a new U.S. strategy by explicitly proving that the current one is not serving U.S. interests. For while former Trump administration officials speak glowingly of economically isolating Syria to “deny [its] benefactors the spoils of war” and turning the conflict into a “quagmire” like the Soviet experience in Afghanistan, the truth is that U.S. policy has not held Assad accountable, changed his behavior, or resolved the conflict—but it has made Syrians suffer.

Indeed, U.S. economic warfare has delivered the Syrian economy a one-two punch: sanctions have sent the Syrian lira into free fall while the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act has denied its economy badly-needed reconstruction assistance and foreign investment. Economic conditions have become so dire—83 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line; 60 percent risk going hungry due to soaring food prices; and fuel for heating, cooking, and transportation is scarce—that U.S. policy is indisputably killing Syrians.

Meanwhile, the Assad regime continues to fund its war and survival. For example, the regime rakes in billions of dollars selling drugs to young users in the Gulf and Europe and pays off regional warlords and regime elites with the proceeds. Similarly, the regime has filled its coffers by bureaucratizing extortion, charging Syrians new, onerous fees and taxes on routine administrative procedures; targeting formerly opposition-held areas with “systematized” looting, where everything down to the copper wiring is stolen, and arson; and arresting and seizing the assets of those deemed “disloyal” due to where they live or as punishment for avoiding military conscription. Since the regime “channels its limited resources into combat,” researchers Elizabeth Tsurkov and Suhail al-Ghazi concluded in 2020 in a dismaying assessment of Syrian living conditions, its “war machine does not appear to be significantly affected.” To be sure, Assad’s defiance was on full display just last summer and fall: As the regime intensified its bombardment of Idlib, Syria’s final opposition stronghold, Assad issued a series of decrees raising the salaries and pensions of Syrian civil servants and military members by 50 percent while simultaneously reducing subsidies for bread, gasoline, and diesel fuel—staple commodities that Syrians rely on for food, cooking, and heating. It’s clear what Damascus’ priorities are.

FOR BETTER or worse, signals emanating from both Washington and Middle Eastern capitals suggest that a policy shift is not dependent on Biden—it is already in the works. “Bashar has longevity… the regime is there to stay,” Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein told CNN’s Fareed Zakaria last July, becoming the latest Middle Eastern leader to acknowledge that regional momentum is building towards normalization. In truth, Abdullah has done more than that; After speaking directly with Assad in October, the Jordanian king quietly presented a plan to Biden, Russian president Vladimir Putin, and Arab leaders to link regional normalization to a political solution that sees all foreign forces exit Syria.

The region’s other powerbrokers are also doing more than talking. Tunisia began the regional rapprochement by reopening its embassy in Damascus in 2015, and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Jordan followed suit three years later. In October 2020, Oman became the first country to restore its ambassador to Syria, and the two countries quickly publicized their goal of increased trade. Then, last fall, Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Muhammad bin Zayed spoke with Assad on the phone before the Emirati foreign minister traveled to Damascus. Likewise, in an inversion of how Syria and Jordan once helped Iraq’s Saddam Hussein skirt international oil sanctions, Jordan and Egypt have agreed to supply Lebanon with electricity and natural gas through Syria—a plan the Biden administration has endorsed despite it paying Assad transit fees—while Baghdad is also conferring with Damascus about importing Egyptian natural gas. The Arab League, too, which suspended Syria in 2011 over its vicious crackdown on protestors, is weighing whether to reinstate Damascus’ membership as a means to reduce “foreign meddling” and return Syria “to the Arab region”—in spite of Qatari and Saudi Arabian reluctance. However, in light of Riyadh’s decision to have its intelligence chief meet twice with his Syrian counterpart in Damascus and then Cairo last year, it appears that the Saudis are interested in détente with Damascus and were hitherto only toeing the Trump administration’s line of keeping Assad isolated. It’s striking how badly that endeavor has failed.

Insisting on isolating Syria is a fool’s errand—not just because of the region’s political environment, but also due to the Biden administration’s very own Middle East policy priorities. For months, the Biden administration has been negotiating with Tehran over a proposed roadmap where both countries would resume compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in exchange for Iranian sanctions relief. Thus, as an intended result of U.S. policy, Iran is set to reap an economic windfall of more than $90 billion. Even if the bulk of those funds are spent revitalizing the Iranian economy—which Iranian president Ebrahim Raisi has made the centerpiece of his agenda—and tackling challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic to dire water shortages, it would stretch credulity to believe that additional rials will not soon trickle down into Assad’s pockets. Of course, the certainty that Iran, as Assad’s primary patron, will bestow even more money on Assad due to U.S. policy is not a reason for the Biden administration to change its Iran policy. Unlike Syria, which is a country of marginal strategic importance for the United States, the consequences of an Iranian nuclear weapon remain the paramount national security concern for U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Moreover, Tehran’s largesse has not resulted in Damascus being comfortable with Iranian domination of Syria. Damascus has not forgotten the years following the 1980s Iran-Iraq War when Syria—as the senior partner in the relationship—provided aid to Iran in its existential war against Saddam. Since then, Syria military affairs expert Kamal Alam has noted, Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and modern Syria’s founding father, “never allowed Tehran to dictate terms to Damascus” and the two countries often worked at odds in Iraq and Lebanon despite mutual ties forged in ideological resistance to Western imperialism.