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In Syria, Arab engagement with Assad may fall short

The Biden administration’s realism on Syria frustrates critics, as the country becomes the site of Israeli attacks and US-Iran clashes.
UAE President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed welcoming his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad in Abu Dhabi March 19, 2023.

The Biden administration is getting some heat from critics for not doing enough to stop normalization of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s government by Arab countries.

A bipartisan Syria policy letter, addressed to US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, signed by approximately 40 former senior officials and experts, calls for a second look at Syria policy, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports.

The catalyst for the letter has been the accelerated trend toward normalization of the Assad government by Arab states since the earthquake in Turkey and Syria in February.

The letter calls on the Biden administration to oppose normalization in both deed and word; make more expansive use of sanctions; employ a strategic approach to aid; and expand entry points and paths for humanitarian assistance, including outside of both Syrian government control and the UN system. 

Syria is an open wound in US Middle East policy. Since the Syrian uprising in 2011, and the subsequent civil war, nothing has worked to dislodge Assad, who has been on the ropes several times, but is now back on the regional circuit and receiving senior Arab delegations in Damascus.

For Assad, and his Iranian and Russian backers, this is a kind of victory lap. The Syrian president has been content to rule amid the ruins, and now, following the earthquake, visitors come bearing checks for assistance and more imminent offers of a diplomatic reprieve in Arab quarters. 

The letter is an understandable expression of frustration and a worthy attempt to kick up a discussion; less so a workable blueprint. Syria is a tragedy, and its people definitely deserve a reprieve and a chance at a better future. But it is hard to envision, at this stage, the US rallying to jump-start a political process coopted in recent years by the so-called Astana group of Russia, Turkey, and Iran.

The United States and the West don’t seem to be using any chits to advance UN Security Council Resolution 2254, the long-outdated benchmark resolution on Syria. And devising methods of assistance that bypass the Syrian government and the UN aid system seems a stretch — especially given the regional trend toward engagement or normalization, and other US priorities in the region. 

It's also hard to imagine a reset in US policy toward Turkey that would compel Ankara to shift stances on Syria, as the letter suggests. Turkey’s linking of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which it and Washington consider a terrorist group, is well entrenched. The United States also wants Turkey to approve Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Other agenda items in Turkey include Russia, Ukraine, Iraq, whether Recep Tayyip Erdogan stays or goes as president — and so on. 

The State Department’s message is that Syria policy is unchanged and it does not support normalization. There are presently no plans to withdraw the approximately 900 US troops there, sanctions get added at a brisk pace and the D-ISIS mission continues. 

US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leaf, however, put a new twist on engagement, saying at a recent Al-Monitor event that the US message to regional partners is that “if you’re going to engage with the regime, get something for that.” 

At the top of the "get" list is cracking down on Syria’s role in the illegal trade of captagon, as Adam Lucente reports

Beyond that, it is hard to envision the get, beyond some hoped-for trickle-down from the Arab assistance Assad is getting.  

Leaf told Al-Monitor she is skeptical that engaging with Assad will peel him away from Iran, an argument used by some Arab states to justify normalization. 

It’s also hard to argue this week that Syria is on the administration’s back burner, as it seems to be expanding as a battlefield between the United States and the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps' (IRGC) Quds Force and its affiliates in Syria. 

After a spate of attacks on US bases in Syria last week, US Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told members of Congress March 28 that the United States should target the Quds Force “harshly” to deter future rocket and drone attacks, as Jared Szuba reports.

Two Iranian-made drones hit a US base in northeast Syria’s Hasakah province last week, killing a contractor and wounding five other Americans, including four US troops, setting off an escalatory spiral leading to US strikes that killed eight Iran-backed fighters in Syria

Israel has also bombed Iranian proxy forces in Syria an estimated six times so far this year. 

Neither US policy nor the critics’ alternatives are likely to make life better for 17 million Syrians, with over 4 million in dire need of assistance. The country remains divided and occupied, millions face displacement and hardships, and sanctions pummel the people and not Assad. 

“Syrians in government-held areas barely get one hour of state electricity daily, spending the rest of their days in complete darkness amid a crippling power crisis plaguing the war-torn country,” writes our correspondent in Damascus.

“It is hard to imagine that Syria could get worse,” writes Josh Rogin in The Washington Post, but it could, including the prospect of state collapse under the weight of political oppression and economic hardship. For that reason, Syria, deserves a second and maybe third look, as Syrians have suffered too much for too long.

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