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Putin’s War Killed Syria Diplomacy

It’s time for a new way forward.

By , a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute.
A Syrian woman walks with a boy past a banner showing Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in Idlib province, Syria, on June 1, 2018.
A Syrian woman walks with a boy past a banner showing Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in Idlib province, Syria, on June 1, 2018.
A Syrian woman walks with a boy past a banner showing Russian President Vladimir Putin shaking hands with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at the Abu al-Zuhur checkpoint in Idlib province, Syria, on June 1, 2018. GEORGE OURFALIAN/AFP/Getty Images

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting collapse of U.S. and European diplomatic relations with Moscow mean Syria diplomacy is now all but dead. Small signs that diplomacy may have been poised for renewed investment in early 2022 now feel like a distant memory.

The international community thus finds itself in a distinctly new strategic environment, where long-standing multilateral institutions and mechanisms traditionally relied on to mediate and de-escalate are more or less impotent. The United Nations Security Council had little value before the invasion of Ukraine, but it is now worthless.

To make matters worse, Russia’s war on Ukraine looks set to trigger a humanitarian crisis in Syria that will far surpass anything witnessed over the past 11 years. While the world focuses on the escalating suffering in Ukraine, Syria’s collapse into even deeper misery risks being ignored, catalyzing another wave of destabilizing effects across the Middle East, Europe, and beyond.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the resulting collapse of U.S. and European diplomatic relations with Moscow mean Syria diplomacy is now all but dead. Small signs that diplomacy may have been poised for renewed investment in early 2022 now feel like a distant memory.

The international community thus finds itself in a distinctly new strategic environment, where long-standing multilateral institutions and mechanisms traditionally relied on to mediate and de-escalate are more or less impotent. The United Nations Security Council had little value before the invasion of Ukraine, but it is now worthless.

To make matters worse, Russia’s war on Ukraine looks set to trigger a humanitarian crisis in Syria that will far surpass anything witnessed over the past 11 years. While the world focuses on the escalating suffering in Ukraine, Syria’s collapse into even deeper misery risks being ignored, catalyzing another wave of destabilizing effects across the Middle East, Europe, and beyond.

To adapt to this new environment, the international community must consider a comprehensive change in approach toward Syria, prioritizing the freezing of existing conflict lines and a more strategic use of aid, stabilization, and targeted rebuilding in areas free of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s rule. This “freeze and build” strategy—which is laid out in more detail in a new policy paper—would be a bold departure from the norms and principles guiding the current international response to Syria’s crisis. But unprecedented times require substantial adaptations.

Assad’s regime currently controls approximately two-thirds of Syria, but that sizable region remains highly unstable, riven by criminality, warlordism, localized protest, and latent insurgency, all of which is fueled and sustained by acute economic collapse. The remaining third of Syria is controlled variously by Syrian opposition and Islamist forces in the northwest and by the Syrian Democratic Forces in the northeast.

Although low-level clashes continue across lines of control in the north, de facto cease-fires have remained in place for at least two years. The United States and its allies, Turkey included, have a clear interest not just in sustaining that freeze but in more openly guaranteeing that Syria use existing troop deployments in the northwest (Turkey) and northeast (United States and allies).

Beyond its fatal impact on Syria’s political process, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine looks likely to pose a fatal threat to the United Nations’ mechanism that allows cross-border aid delivery to nearly 4 million civilians in northwestern Syria. That arrangement is up for a vote at the U.N. Security Council in July, and Russia looks almost certain to veto it. That would almost instantly result in a 75 to 80 percent deficit in food needed to feed 2.4 million civilians who are entirely dependent on food aid. That risks triggering major hostilities and a massive refugee exodus.

Beyond cross-border aid, Syria also now faces a famine because of a crushing blow to its wheat supply, which is considered the most vital food product to feed the population. As a result of successive droughts, Syria’s domestic wheat crop was expected to be less than a quarter of its average in 2022, but indispensable supplies from Russia are now almost certainly impossible. Even the World Food Program’s efforts to supply wheat to Syria have now been made virtually obsolete, as their primary source was Ukraine, which has ended all exports.

Having committed virtually every possible war crime and crime against humanity, Assad has survived—with substantial Russian help. But he stands atop the ruins of a state. His regime and its brutal security apparatus serve as a potent deterrent to any meaningful refugee return. With the conflict in Ukraine set to exacerbate Syria’s already destructive economic and humanitarian challenges, and with Russia both distracted by Ukraine and considered an international pariah, Assad looks set to become acutely vulnerable.

The time for reactive, short-term policy, where problems are treated with bandages, must now be replaced by something constructive that seeks to stabilize areas of Syria and enhance the international community’s collective diplomatic leverage.

For starters, the United States and its allies should maintain existing troop deployments to counter the Islamic State, keep punitive sanctions on Assad’s regime, sustain and amplify accountability efforts through multilateral mechanisms and universal jurisdiction in Europe, and diplomatically deter efforts by governments in the region—such as those of the United Arab Emirates and Jordan—to normalize Assad and let him back into the international community’s good graces.

By embracing a policy of strategic patience, the United States and its allies should also seek to create new realities in northwestern and northeastern Syria that would exist in parallel with—and stand in stark contrast to—the life offered by Assad’s regime.

By consolidating the control of territory by non-Assad entities across northern Syria and investing aid, stabilization, and targeted reconstruction funds into local communities, Washington and like-minded allies have an opportunity to foster a greater sense of stability and recovery in strategically vital regions of Syria.

To put it in blunt terms: The international community must do away with a strategy of supplying tents, blankets, and food baskets and shift to one that constructs semipermanent housing for displaced peoples and provides investment opportunities for small businesses and agriculture as well as sustainable resources like solar power. This aid would be delivered by a coalition of allied government aid agencies, with a central role assumed by the U.S. Agency for International Development in northeastern Syria and likely by Turkey’s Disaster and Emergency Management Presidency in the northwest.

In seeking to establish such a reality, a “freeze and build” policy would serve to strengthen collective international resolve and increase collective international leverage aimed at pursuing an eventual diplomatic settlement, whenever conditions to do so become more amenable.

Making a “freeze and build” policy work will require bold decisions and determined diplomacy, particularly with Turkey. Assuming the U.N. cross-border mechanism is on its way out, any strategic aid and stabilization effort would require close coordination with Turkey. Despite long-standing challenges to bilateral ties with Ankara, Ukraine has offered a clear but potentially slim window in which to work swiftly and determinedly to exploit the current strains in Turkey’s relationship with Russia. This would attempt to bring it closer to the United States’ Syria policy orbit.

The West also has an opportunity to take advantage of the large and well-resourced Syrian exiled business community in the Middle East, Europe, and the United States, much of which has long wanted to invest substantial sums of money into areas not controlled by Assad. To make such a commercial assistance effort possible, the United States and Europe will need to offer sanctions waivers covering all of northern Syria—another bold move but something diplomats have long discussed and debated.

Today, the international community faces two choices when it comes to Syria policy. One option would be comparatively easy: to sustain the status quo. At best, this approach equates to “kicking the can down the road,” but at worst, it would be a policy that guarantees a gradual degradation in leverage and a probable death knell for any meaningful future resolution. Alternatively, the world can acknowledge that Syria’s diplomatic process is currently paralyzed and that to maintain and possibly enhance the international community’s collective leverage for whenever it comes back to life, the West needs to freeze conflict lines and get strategic about aid.

Although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may provide a catalyst for this policy shift, in truth, it represents a strategic adaptation that has long been necessary. Providing Band-Aids to the many symptoms of Syria’s crisis has never been a sustainable solution, least of all today.

Charles Lister is a senior fellow and director of the Syria and Counterterrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. Twitter: @Charles_Lister

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