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As U.S. President Joe Biden and his team focus on the Iran nuclear file, the war in Syria remains a festering wound at the heart of the Middle East. Although the current administration has made no dramatic departures from the approach of previous administrations, its decision to deprioritize the conflict comes at a particularly bad time. Opportunities to find a solution to the Syria crisis are now emerging—and the United States should devote the diplomatic energy necessary to seize them. The keys to success after years of failure include not just high-level engagement but a realistic assessment of what can be achieved in any deal.
The risks in keeping Syria on the back burner are significant. The conflict is already a strategic train wreck: a victory by President Bashar al-Assad’s regime would send a message to autocrats across the globe that mass murder is a viable tactic for retaining power and signal the regional ascendance of Assad’s Russian and Iranian enablers. It has also spawned geopolitical threats, from the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), to the deployment of Iranian precision missiles that target Israel, to the massive refugee flows that threaten to destabilize neighboring states and Europe. And for Syrians themselves, the decade-long civil war has resulted in horrendous casualties, displaced half the population from their homes, and left most citizens destitute. If left unaddressed, these dynamics will threaten to destabilize the Middle East for years to come.
Syria’s war has also drawn in the U.S., Israeli, and Turkish militaries, and the risk of clashes between them and Iranian, Russian, and Syrian forces remains very real. Washington views the Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) enclave in northeastern Syria as an important ally against ISIS, but Ankara views the Kurdish group as a terrorist threat. Two recent provocations—Assad’s violation in July of a 2017 cease-fire in the southwest that had been negotiated between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin and an attack by Iranian-backed fighters in October against U.S. forces at their al-Tanf base in southern Syria—came without noticeable American response and could encourage Assad or the Iranians to escalate in areas patrolled by Turkish or U.S. troops.
Senior Biden administration officials have signaled repeatedly that they are not interested in a major effort to resolve the Syrian conflict. As the situation shifts and a possible compromise takes shape, they should reevaluate that decision. Although U.S. attention concerning Iran is dominated by the crucial nuclear program negotiations rather than Tehran’s regional actions, as soon as the administration has more clarity on where things stand on those talks, it should engage seriously on Syria. The dangers of ignoring the conflict, and the potential benefits of reaching a deal, are too significant to let an opportunity pass.
The United States must lead any revitalized diplomatic effort to reach a resolution to the Syrian conflict. Although any deal should be consistent with the UN’s formal role, only Washington can coordinate the many members of the anti-Assad alliance. And the only viable interlocutor for the United States in these negotiations is Russia. Those who have tried cutting deals directly with Assad since 2011 have been consistently disappointed, and Iran typically rejects discussions on its actions in nearby states with countries outside the region. Moscow does not have total control over Assad and must vie for influence with Iran, but it remains the senior partner in the Russia-Syria-Iran alliance. Moscow also has more limited ambitions than Damascus or Tehran, making it more amenable to a negotiated resolution to the conflict.
The Biden administration should pursue a step-by-step de-escalation by both sides. This would resemble the strategy adopted by the previous two U.S. administrations, but the specific issues to prioritize would depend on the Biden administration’s preferences and those of its partners and the other side. High on the list would likely be political concessions by Damascus ensuring the safe return of refugees, including internationally monitored resettlement; similar security and monitoring provisions to reintegrate opposition forces and the SDF; security guarantees for Turkey’s southern border; and a permanent removal from Syrian territory of Iran’s strategic weapons, particularly its precision missiles. (Total Iranian withdrawal is not realistic.)
In return, Russia would likely press for the U.S., Israeli, and Turkish militaries to withdraw from Syria. Moscow would also likely demand U.S. counterterrorism cooperation in Syria against ISIS, which Assad appears incapable of defeating, along with sanctions relief and the return of refugees from Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon to their home towns and cities. Russia may hope, perhaps unrealistically, that these steps would unlock foreign investment in Syria—thus freeing Moscow from trying to prop up the country’s collapsing economy. Finally, a new UN Security Council resolution would have to officially seal any deal and establish oversight of each side’s commitments. The end result would be Syria’s return as a “normal” nation and full member of the Arab League.
Russian hopes for an outright Assad victory have abated.
Moscow may be more amenable to a deal along these lines than the Biden administration appreciates. History suggests that the United States, along with its partners, can apply pressure that affects Russia’s strategic calculus in Syria. To advance the UN effort, the Trump and Obama administrations, along with EU and Arab states, placed the Assad regime under economic and diplomatic pressure. The Trump administration eventually cobbled together military pressure to complement economic and diplomatic action: it launched airstrikes that halted Assad’s lethal chemical weapons attacks, maintained U.S. troops in northeast and southern Syria, and supported Israeli and Turkish military interventions in the country. By late 2018, those steps had resulted in the stalemate that holds today.
The Trump administration then pushed the Russians for a compromise solution based generally on a stand-down of international pressure, particularly sanctions, and accepting Assad in return for concessions on geostrategic issues. These included, as noted, the removal of Iranian strategic weapons, cooperation with the UN political process to reconcile with opposition forces and refugees, and an end to chemical weapons programs.
This proposal was sufficiently appealing for Putin to invite U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to Sochi in May 2019 to review it. Putin ultimately opted not to make the deal at that time. Most likely he believed he could win an outright military victory that would not only achieve his basic goals in Syria but also establish Moscow as a major regional player. He was certainly encouraged in that view by Trump’s repeated attempts to withdraw American forces from the country. Moscow continuously tried to divide the anti-Assad alliance, pressing the Turks, Israelis, and U.S. Kurdish allies to make separate deals with Assad. Arab states’ outreach to Damascus also encouraged the Russians.
Today, however, Russian hopes for an outright Assad victory have abated. Faced with the Syrian regime’s intransigence, the Turks, Israelis, and Kurds are maintaining their military postures in Syria. Some Arab states’ outreach to Assad is troubling but thus far has not resulted in Assad’s reintegration into the Arab League. The Biden administration has now confirmed most of the elements of the prior strategy: maintaining the U.S. troop presence and, with some modifications, the sanctions regime; warning all parties not to challenge the various cease-fires with Turkish, opposition, and Kurdish forces; backing Israeli air action against Iran; collaborating with the SDF against ISIS and, indirectly, Damascus; holding Assad’s regime accountable through diplomatic efforts and information gathering in support of UN investigations and European judicial processes against Syrian officials; and endorsing the UN political effort.
In light of this situation, Moscow’s options are limited. It knows that Assad has not won the conflict and has no obvious options to do so. U.S.- and Turkish-backed groups hold almost 30 percent of Syrian territory, including most of the country’s oil reserves and much of its arable land. The half of the population that remain refugees or internally displaced people still fear a return to Assad’s rule, and Israeli airpower has restricted Iran’s missile deployments. Although the risks and costs to Moscow are limited, they are not insignificant. These include a further deterioration of Assad’s wobbly economy, internal regime friction, and inadvertent escalation with superior Israeli, U.S., or Turkish forces. In fact, until the end of the Trump administration, senior Russian officials floated possible deals with the United States that could have brought an end to the conflict.
Moreover, Washington’s regional allies are now more aligned. The Abraham Accords have deepened Israel’s ties with the Arab Gulf states, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has significantly toned down his spats with other U.S. partners in the region, and Qatar’s rift with the Gulf Cooperation Council has been mended. Leaders from the most important regional states are urging the United States to take on a more prominent role. Even an unsuccessful effort to achieve a breakthrough on Syria would reinforce regional support for Washington’s fallback position, maintaining a stalemate that denies Iran and Russia a strategic victory.
To be sure, a major diplomatic initiative on Syria is a lot for the administration to bite off. But doing so is less risky than allowing the conflict—and all its attendant humanitarian tragedy and security risks—to drag on indefinitely. Although an agreement will not be perfect, bringing an end to Syria’s war will dramatically strengthen Washington’s value as a security partner in the Middle East and beyond.
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