In Syria, Arab engagement with Assad may fall short
The Biden administration is taking heat from critics for not doing enough to stop the normalization of Syria President Bashar Al-Assadthe government of Arab countries.
Bipartisan policy letter from Syria, addressed to the US President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinkensigned by around 40 former senior officials and experts, calling for a second look at Syria policy, as Elizabeth Hagedorn reports.
The catalyst for the letter is the accelerating trend toward normalization of the Assad government by Arab states since the February earthquake in Turkey and Syria.
The letter calls on the Biden Administration to oppose normalization in deed and word; greater use of sanctions; use a strategic approach to aid; and expanding entry points and pathways for humanitarian assistance, including outside the control of the Syrian government 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 for Assad, who has been on the road several times, but is now back on the regional circuit and receiving senior Arab delegations in the Damascus.
For Assad, and his Iranian and Russian backers, this is a win of sorts. The Syrian president was happy to rule amid the ruins, and now, after the earthquake, visitors arrive with checks for aid and earlier offers of diplomatic recovery in Arab quarters.
The letter is an understandable expression of frustration and a worthy attempt to start a discussion; less than a workable blueprint. Syria is a tragedy, and its people certainly deserve a retreat and a chance for a better future. But it is difficult to imagine, at this stage, the US coming together to begin a political process to co-opt the so-called ‘Astana group’ of Russia, Turkey and Iran in recent years.
The United States and the West do not seem to be using any tricks to promote UN Security Council resolution 2254, the outdated benchmark resolution on Syria. And devising aid methods that elude the Syrian government and the UN aid system seems like a stretch – especially given the regional trend toward engagement or normalization, and other US priorities in the region.
It is also difficult to imagine a reset in US policy towards Turkey that would force Ankara to change its position on Syria, as the letter suggests. Turkey’s connection between the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which Washington considers a terrorist group, is well-entrenched. The US also wants Turkey to approve Sweden’s bid for NATO membership. Other agenda items in Turkey include Russia, Ukraine, Iraq, whatever Tayyip Erdogan was accepted stays or goes as president — and so on.
The State Department’s message is that Syria policy is unchanged and does not support normalization. There are currently no plans to withdraw the approximately 900 US troops, sanctions are quickly added, and the D-ISIS mission continues.
US Assistant Secretary of State Barbara Leafhowever, he put a new spin on engagement, saying at a recent Al-Monitor event that the message from the US to regional partners is “if you’re going to fight the regime, get something for it.”
At the top of the “get” list is cracking down on Syria’s role in the illegal captagon trade, as Adam Lucente reports.
Moreover, it is difficult to imagine, more than a few hopes to fall down from the Arab aid that Assad is receiving.
Leaf told Al-Monitor that she is skeptical that contact with Assad will drive him out of 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 appears to be expanding as a battleground between the United States and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) Quds Force and its Syrian affiliates. .
After a series of attacks on US bases in Syria last week, US Army Gen. Mark MilleyChairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he told members of Congress on March 28 that the United States should target the Quds Force “hardly” to deter future rocket and drone attacks, as Jared Szuba reports.
Two Iranian-made drones struck a US base in Hasakah province in northeastern Syria last week, killing a contractor and wounding five other Americans, including four US troops, starting an escalatory spiral that led to US strikes that killed eight Iranian-backed fighters in Syria.
Israel has bombed Iranian proxy forces in Syria an estimated six times so far this year.
Neither US policy nor critics’ alternatives are likely to make life better for 17 million Syrians, with more than 4 million in need of aid. The country remains divided and occupied, millions are facing displacement and hardship, and sanctions are putting pressure on the people and not on Assad.
“Syrians in government-held areas receive barely an hour of state electricity each day, spending the rest of their days in complete darkness amid a power crisis that is plaguing the war-torn country, ” wrote our correspondent in Damascus.
“It is hard to imagine that Syria could get any worse,” he writes Josh Rogin in the Washington Post, but it could, including the prospect that the state will fall under the pressure of politics and economic hardship. For that reason, Syria deserves a second and maybe a third look, because Syrians have suffered too much for too long.