The United States Still Needs a Syria Strategy
Leaving the refugee crisis unresolved while legitimizing the brutal Assad regime will only do further harm to U.S. interests in the Middle East.
Last week, U.S. President Donald Trump made a shock decision to not only withdraw U.S. troops from northeastern Syria but also greenlight a Turkish military offensive against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). As the main U.S. military partner in the fight against the Islamic State in Syria, the SDF—a multiethnic but largely Syrian Kurdish militia—lost more than 11,000 of its fighters over almost five years of combat. This colossal strategic blunder has already led to the near-complete withdrawal of U.S. troops, apparent war crimes by Turkish-backed forces, and a deal between the SDF and Russia to allow Bashar al-Assad’s regime back into Syria’s northeast.
With no military or civilian presence on the ground and chaos engulfing northeast Syria, the United States now finds itself unable to safeguard its interests or protect against an Islamic State revival there. Indeed, a renewed and rejuvenated Islamic State now appears to be an all but certain outcome of recent events. High-value prisoners, for instance, have escaped as SDF prisons have come under Turkish attack. Likewise, Syria will remain a center of geopolitical competition among regional rivals and global powers that could easily spiral out of control. Israel and Iran have long squared off in Syria, and now Turkey, the Assad government, and Russia find themselves staring each other down in the northeast.
But as the congressionally chartered Syria Study Group noted, U.S. policy toward Syria has much broader challenges to address: the millions of Syrian refugees who remain unlikely to return home anytime soon and an Assad regime that’s committed massive crimes against humanity but continues to consolidate its grip on power over much of Syria. It is these two challenges that U.S. policy must now address under even more dire circumstances. But without a concerted attempt to address them, these outstanding issues will bedevil the United States, its allies, and its regional partners moving forward.
Since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, more than 5.6 million Syrians have fled their homes and their country. Some 3.6 million Syrians now reside in Turkey, more than 900,000 in Lebanon, and roughly 650,000 in Jordan. Those numbers only count refugees who have registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the U.N.’s refugee agency, and amounts to roughly a quarter of Syria’s total prewar population. With Assad’s stranglehold over much of Syria now ensured for the foreseeable future, it’s clear that these refugees are unlikely to return home anytime soon—mainly because of Assad’s consolidation of power.
Indeed, the Assad regime’s brutality toward those still under its rule remains a constant. Even as the country’s civil war has waned, arrests by Syrian security forces have increased. The government has locked up some 128,000 Syrians in what the New York Times called “a sprawling system of secret prisons,” and its track record when it comes to reconciliation and de-escalation should be cause for grave concern. Agreements negotiated with Russian help in places such as Daraa, Homs, and eastern Ghouta effectively appear to be instruments of surrender that enable further abuses.
Making matters worse, nativist anti-refugee sentiment has swelled in neighboring Lebanon, while Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently put forward a scheme to push as many as a million refugees back into Syria—a project he will try to implement now that U.S. troops are leaving the country’s northeast. That project to resettle a significant proportion of Syrian Arab refugees—what SDF leaders characterized as ethnic cleansing of their largely Kurdish region—now appears to be on hold due to the deal struck by the SDF to let the Assad regime return to the northeast.
Facilitating the return of refugees to an Assad-ruled Syria ought to be a nonstarter, both morally and under international law. But without a new government in Damascus, Syria’s refugees risk becoming another of the region’s seemingly permanent displaced populations. To avert this unacceptable outcome, the United States and other interested nations—especially U.S. allies in Europe—should focus their time and energy on finding an enduring solution that resettles these refugees outside Syria. These efforts should focus on resettling these refugees where they currently reside and helping current host countries better integrate them into their economies and societies.
Beyond coordinating international efforts, there are two ways the United States can help with this process. First, it can provide financial and other humanitarian assistance to those nations absorbing large numbers of Syrian refugees. This aid will be most important to countries such as Jordan and Lebanon that host large Syrian refugee populations alongside refugees from earlier regional conflicts, and the United States and its allies should experiment with new assistance models to help them cope with Syrian refugees. Second, the United States should accept its own fair share of Syrian refugees to demonstrate its own willingness to shoulder the burdens involved. This move appears highly unlikely anytime soon given Trump’s dramatic reduction of the U.S. intake of refugees and virulent anti-refugee rhetoric. But should Trump leave office in the near future, it could prove more politically feasible.
Dealing with an Assad regime that retains effective control over much of Syria will prove an extremely difficult question for U.S. foreign policy moving forward. The Assad government remains a pariah state that starves, gases, and executes those under its rule and ought to be treated as such. Nations that profess adherence to democracy and human rights cannot allow themselves to be party to the rehabilitation of a regime with a heinous record of crimes against humanity. Nonetheless, Assad is unlikely to depart anytime soon—and the United States needs a policy to cope with this unfortunate reality.
Above all, the United States should work to reinforce the Assad regime’s international pariah status. That starts with forging agreement among fellow democracies—especially France, Germany, and the United Kingdom—not to bring Assad or his government in from the cold. A mutual and public commitment not to receive regime officials in any capacity, send out diplomatic feelers to Damascus, or participate in Assad-led reconstruction efforts would represent a good first step toward coordination on this front.
For its part, the U.S. Congress should pass the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. This legislation would impose economic sanctions on foreign individuals providing “significant” support to the Assad regime and its military partners, as well as those who knowingly provide engineering, military aviation, and oil production assistance to the Assad government. The United States should encourage its allies—especially the European Union—to adopt similarly stringent sanctions against the Assad regime, in no small part to show that it remains a pariah despite its continued grip on power.
Similarly, neither the United States nor its allies in Europe and Asia should foot the bill for reconstruction in Syria. With between $250 billion and $400 billion in estimated reconstruction costs, it’s clear that the Assad regime cannot pay to rebuild the parts of Syria it holds without external help. But there’s no reason the United States or other democracies should provide a government with a criminal record any funding whatsoever. Assad and his allies in Moscow and Tehran should be forced to bear the financial burdens of rebuilding the society they did so much to help destroy.
Nations such as Jordan and Iraq that border Syria should be given a pass if they decide to reestablish ties with the Assad regime. These U.S. regional partners simply do not have much of a choice of whether or not to deal with whoever remains in power in Damascus.
But Washington’s Persian Gulf partners are a different story. It would be too much to expect authoritarian governments like Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates to treat the Assad government as a pariah in the same way democratic governments like the United States would. Indeed, these partners may wish to reestablish diplomatic ties with Assad as the UAE and Bahrain have already done. Nonetheless, the United States should make every diplomatic effort to dissuade wealthy Gulf partners from contributing financially to Assad’s rebuilding efforts. They may wish to restore relations with Damascus, but they do not have to become the regime’s reconstruction bank.
Finally, the United States should take every opportunity to embarrass Assad’s government and its international backers in the court of global public opinion. An attempt to establish a war crimes tribunal for Syria, for instance, would undoubtedly be blocked by Russia. But it could give Moscow a black eye by forcing it to defend Assad’s appalling conduct.
Trump’s decision to stand aside as Turkish-backed forces go on the offensive against U.S. partners in the fight against the Islamic State will go down as one of the greatest moral and strategic blunders in U.S. foreign-policy history. But as much as Trump and other political leaders want to end supposedly endless wars, the United States will still require a policy to address the lingering and still-deadly fallout from Syria’s civil war.
The United States has no interest in seeing Syrian refugees become another permanently stateless population in the Middle East, nor are U.S. interests served by the rehabilitation of a regime as murderous and inhumane as that of Bashar al-Assad. Responsible policymakers cannot allow terrorist threats to recover and regroup—and draw the United States back into Syria in the same way they drew the United States back into Iraq in 2014.
U.S. exhaustion with the Middle East in general—and Syria’s seemingly insoluble civil war in particular—may make any investment of time and resources in the country appear unwarranted. But attention to Syria and its challenges today reduces the risk that the United States will be required to devote time and energy to them in the future.