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Go to the Russians; let Syria go to hell!

U.S. Policy in Syria: Letting Syrians Go to (Putin’s) Hell

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As a Syrian, I could not hide my anger and disappointment despite my great sympathy for the Ukrainian people and enthusiasm for the historical stance that President Joe Biden took against Russian aggression in Ukraine.  Where were you when those monstrous crimes were committed in Syria?

We can accept the pragmatic point that in foreign policy ethical principles have force only when they correspond to a nation’s strategic interests.  But even on this score the American policy towards Syria is puzzling, since it does not seem to line up with America’s strategic interests.

The problem is not just that American diplomacy has downplayed seven years of Russian war crimes in Syria.  The problem is that the United States contributed to the problem by pursuing cooperation with Russia during that entire time.  Washington never stopped claiming Moscow was an indispensable part of a diplomatic solution to the crisis, even as Russian troops were participating in vast war crimes on the ground.  In this way, the United States ceded de facto management of the Syrian crisis to Russia, and rather than penalizing Moscow for war crimes, Washington allowed Russian war crimes to become a strategic advantage for both Russia and the Syrian regime. 

Thankfully in Ukraine the United States is following the opposite approach by calling Russian war crimes what they are and organizing international opprobrium to make Moscow pay a heavy price.  But for some reason, either by inertia or bureaucratic contempt, even after changing course in Ukraine, and even after some American officials have expressed regret for letting the Russians get away with murder in Syria, the United States is still today pursuing its previous policies of neglect and disregard concerning Russian actions in Syria.

For a decision maker, there will always be a thousand justifications for doing nothing about Syria.  But believing that business as usual with Russia in Syria is serving America’s interests today could ultimately be as big a blow to U.S. credibility and reliability as the American withdrawal from Afghanistan.  Letting Russia continue to have a free hand in Syria will only help further the intrusion and establishment of the Russian and Chinese interests in the region.  And the continuing lack of a positive, comprehensive U.S. diplomatic strategy for the Syrian crisis is yet more evidence of the deteriorating American position in the Middle East. 

Western diplomats have noted that Mr. Putin was surprised by the West’s reaction to his aggression in Ukraine.  Based on Western passivity during his successful adventures in Syria and Chechnya, he quite reasonably assumed the West would be passive again as he invaded Ukraine.  Had the international community, led by the United States, effectively confronted Putin’s massacres of Syrians and destruction of Syrian infrastructure and culture heritage, Putin would have certainly hesitated before launching his attack on Ukraine. 

From 2015 onward, as Putin’s forces, alongside the Syrian and Iranian regimes, were unleashing their devastating assaults against Syria’s civilians and cities, Syrian opposition leaders and Syrian-Americans repeatedly approached U.S. officials asking for a more active U.S. role in stopping the Russian carnage.  But, unfortunately, the invariable response from those U.S. officials was:  “go to the Russians, go to the Russians, go to the Russians.”  Over and over again, this was the empty advice Washington gave to the Syrians, including me. 

The rationale for this passive U.S. attitude was that the United States could not risk getting into a confrontation with Russia.  But the Ukrainian war has shown that the United States can indeed fulfill its basic obligations and values, and even offer decisive support to the Ukrainian side, while avoiding a direct confrontation of this kind with Russia. 

There is no reason not to do the same in Syria.  An active, responsible U.S. policy toward Russian abuses in Syria would have been cheaper and much more effective in mitigating the worst not just of the Syrian tragedy, but the Ukrainian one.  The horrific stories of people fleeing Mariupol, children abducted, famine, and the deprivation of electricity and water all mirror the experience of Aleppo and many other Syrian cities.  As observers worry that the struggling Russian army may unleash weapons of mass destruction in Ukraine, they should remember that when the Russian air force provided cover from 2012 to 2019 for the Syrian regime to conduct 334 chemical weapon attacks against Syrians, the West made Russia pay no price for it, and instead further delegated diplomatic management of the crisis to Moscow.

Recent discussions with U.S. officials yield no indication the U.S. administration plans to shift in Syria to the kind of approach they are following full-bore in Ukraine.  Instead, the U.S. administration is determined to exert the minimum possible effort toward the Syrian crisis–almost a pro forma policy.  For the time being the United States chooses to focus on marginal issues in Syria, allowing American diplomacy to be distracted from the core causes of the Syrian crisis. 

A recent example was the unserious debate at the United Nations over the issue of humanitarian assistance to Syria.  For years, the United States has allowed Russia to turn the UN Security Council into a chamber for tedious bargaining at the expense of the millions of people in liberated Syrian territories who desperately need aid.  While the Russians have bullied the Security Council into channeling more and more UN aid through the Syrian regime’s hands in Damascus, the regime’s forces have continued to use siege, starvation, and forcible displacement tactics to break the civilian population’s willIt is deeply wrong for the Security Council to allow such a regime to have a say on humanitarian aid and border crossings.  Even worse is that the Syrian regime is profiting significantly from the hundreds of millions of dollars of UN aid into Syria, a considerable portion of which finds its way into the deep pockets of the Syrian Oligarchs. 

While the Russians succeed in channeling U.S.-funded UN aid into the Syrian regime’s pockets in Damascus, they appear to be trying to do the same with the UN-sponsored Syrian political process.  Their objective now appears to be to transport the Geneva process into a puppet negotiation to be held in Damascus under the umbrella of the Syrian regime itself.  No wonder Putin thinks he can make a mockery of international processes by holding puppet referendums in Donbas and Luhansk.

The problem is not just that America’s passivity is creating missed opportunities and harming America’s stature. American passivity is creating deep resentment among the many millions of young, desperate, disenfranchised Syrians who feel America has betrayed them.  This will become the perfect climate for more radicalization, violence, and terrorism in the future.

Passivity is also doing terrible damage to America’s ability to generate meaningful alliances in the Middle East.  While the United States is investing hundreds of billions to buy and strengthen new alliances against authoritarian states, U.S. policies toward Syria remain a major gap in this global strategy.  How can the United States build durable alliances against authoritarianism when U.S. diplomacy in Syria is so toothless against aggressive authoritarian states such as Russia, Iran, and Syria and non-state actors like Hezbollah?  And if those players continue to target and encircle the American military and diplomatic footprint in the region, will we have to witness a second withdrawal from Syria, Iraq, or elsewhere like the one seen in Afghanistan?

Amid this risky policy inertia in Syria, some voices in Washington have somehow decided the time is right to propose a total American withdrawal from Syria.  For the Syrians, it is incomprehensible that the United States might find an interest in creating a vacuum in Syria that would empower Iran and Russia even further, especially at exactly the moment those regimes are attacking Ukraine together.  Nor can Syrians fathom how Washington thinks it could continue a coherent policy or exert any meaningful influence in the rest of the Middle East after abandoning Syria.

As in the Ukrainian case, it is high time for American leadership to activate the international alliance again, empower a consistent return to the Geneva political process, pressure Moscow (and its Syrian regime client) to stop waging war on the Syrian population, and impose a steep, irresistible cost if Moscow and the Syrian regime refuse to do so.  At the same time, the United States should invest much more in the deconfliction and stabilization tasks between the different ethnic components in the Western and Eastern Euphrates, opening the road to local common peace and legitimate governance. 

Keeping the current approach of unresolved contradictions, minimal American involvement, and passivity as Iran and Russia infiltrate and gradually win the political ground in Syria will result only in American failure–failure that won’t end at Syria’s borders.  Without a clear and comprehensive American approach, the international community will continue to be forcibly dragged down the Russian path.  Shall we suggest again to the Syrians to go to Putin’s hell?

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