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The Biden-Putin Summit Can Kick-Start a Deal on Syria

Only Washington has the carrots and sticks to steer the conflict towards resolution.

By , the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House.
Protest against Russia in Idlib, Syria
A man holds a banner on a partly collapsed building during a protest against Russian involvement in the Syrian war in Idlib, Syria, on Sept. 30, 2020. Izzeddin Idilbi/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

Next week’s summit between U.S. President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva is the optimal setting for Washington to begin to broker a deal on Syria. Russia has been craving U.S. recognition of its rise in geopolitical status, partly gained through its intervention in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Biden’s initiation of the summit is a nod to Russia’s ego, which can pave the way for future U.S.-Russian engagement on Syria beyond the ministerial-level talks that have been taking place behind closed doors. Only Washington can steer the Syrian conflict towards resolution—if it steps up bilateral talks with Moscow.

U.S.-Russian relations are strained on several fronts—including Ukraine, human rights, and allegations of meddling in the 2016 and 2020 U.S. presidential elections. Yet despite taking opposing sides in the Syrian conflict, there is potential for a U.S.-Russian compromise. To achieve it, the United States must pursue a carrot-and-stick approach capitalizing on Russia’s weaknesses, as well as on those Russian wants that do not hurt the U.S. national interest.

Russia has never taken the United Nations-led Syria peace process seriously because there has not been significant political or military pressure on Russia to compel it to compromise. Moscow keeps stalling at the Geneva talks and pursues a similar line in its closed-door meetings on Syria with Washington. The Kremlin’s goal is to push the international community to eventually accept Assad as the de-facto winner in the Syrian conflict and normalize relations with his regime. Western diplomatic disengagement from Syria over the past decade helped Russia feel emboldened in its approach, as have recent signs of the reopening of European and Arab embassies in Damascus and the reelection of Assad as Syrian president in contravention of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for free and fair elections under U.N. supervision.

The Biden administration can change this status quo. As I argued in my witness statement at a U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs hearing on Syria in April, neither the United Nation nor the European Union has the political clout to influence Russia’s actions in Syria. Russia will likely accept sacrificing Assad’s presidency, but only in return for maintaining a degree of influence for itself in Syria. Once Washington and Moscow agree on the components of this compromise, the U.N.-led peace process must be reformulated to become the mechanism for implementation of the U.S.-Russian-brokered peace deal.

What Russia is likely to accept in return—besides recognition of its geopolitical status—is continuation of its political and military sway in Syria.

Any such deal must be based on supporting the formation of a legitimate political, military, and economic alternative to the Assad regime. This entails Russia accepting the formation of a transitional government in Syria composed of elements of the current regime—but from outside the Assad family—and elements of various opposition groups and civil society. In other words, the outcome of the U.S.-Russian deal would be implementation of UNSCR 2254.

What Russia is likely to accept in return—besides international recognition of its enhanced geopolitical status—is continuation of its political and military sway in Syria. Russia already has a naval base in the Syrian port city of Tartus that it is keen to keep. Having this presence on the Mediterranean is not a direct threat to U.S. interests. Russia’s relationship with the Syrian military and the Syrian state long predates the ongoing conflict, and the continuation of this relationship, even in its current patronage form, also does not pose a significant challenge to U.S. foreign policy.

Striking a deal does not mean pandering to Russia’s wishes. There are two leverage tools Washington can use to pressure Moscow to accept the deal. Russia is eager for international reconstruction funds to flow into Syria because it has set itself up as the broker in this scenario, with Russian companies earmarked for profiting from this income. The United States and the EU are correct in adhering to the position that economic sanctions will not be lifted before political transition happens in Syria, and Washington must maintain that stance until Moscow acquiesces to the terms of UNSCR 2254. Russia has also been using Syria as a testing ground for its weapons, as international human-rights organizations have documented and condemned. The United States can stir this file to hold Russia accountable for its actions in Syria, including attacks on civilian targets and medical facilities.

The Biden administration must not waste the opportunity that next Wednesday’s U.S.-Russian summit presents on Syria. While the focus of various U.S. government departments working on Syria is on the delivery of cross-border aid, fighting the Islamic State, and planning an eventual exit for U.S. troops, all these problems are products of the ongoing conflict, and solving them requires a comprehensive strategy to end it. The more time passes, the more Russia will court other countries to normalize their relations with Assad, and the more Syria will become a tool for increasing Russia’s influence in the region and beyond. The Biden administration has the means to stop this scenario from happening. To do so, it needs to develop the political will to engage Russia and reach a deal on Syria now.

Lina Khatib is the director of the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House. Twitter: @LinaKhatibUK