The Imperative to Maintain Focus in Syria | Opinion

With most observers of U.S. Middle East policy focused on the new presidential administration's dubious contemplation of a return to the failed 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, they run the risk of losing focus on the imperative for continued pressure on Iran's partner to the west: the murderous Assad regime in Syria.

As various media outlets and world leaders have highlighted of late, Syria has now entered its 11th year of internal conflict, marking one of the most protracted and gruesome conflicts in history. Over half a million Syrians have been lost to the conflict, born out of the 2011 "Arab Spring" uprising across the region. Humanitarian suffering continues at unprecedented levels and despotic Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has demonstrated no real commitment to following through on an internationally mandated political resolution to the conflict.

One need not be carefully studied in the microcosm of geopolitical strife that is the Syrian conflict—which involves the competing interests of no less than six states (the Syrian regime, Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and Israel)—to recognize that the Assad regime and its primary patrons, Russia and Iran, have only acted to further inflame this decade-old conflict, perpetuate human suffering, and to destabilize the region.

Consequently, neither the regime, Iran, or Russia can lay claim to advancing actual political resolution – theirs is a strategy of geopolitical attrition. These nefarious actors cannot be both agitators of the conflict and guarantors of political resolution, both the "arsonist and the firefighter," in this decade-old conflict. To assume as much would be naïve – especially in light of the efficacy of the United States-led strategy to economically and diplomatically isolate the regime.

Further evincing Russia's aversion to political resolution, Russia has only bolstered Assad's brutal oppression of the Syrian people. More than 500,000 Syrians lost their lives to the war and to the regime's detention, torture and murder while Russia helped Assad's multi-year offensive into Idlib governorate in northwest Syria. Even worse, Russia stymied humanitarian access to critical border crossings into Syria from both Turkey and Iraq via its United Nations Security Council vetoes.

In July, Russia and China blocked renewal of United Nations Security Council resolution 2504, leaving only one humanitarian access border crossing from Turkey into Syria. Russia rationalized its vote on the pretense of Syrian sovereignty, ignoring the human suffering such politicking would in fact precipitate as the regime's offensive into Idlib continued.

Similarly, Russia and the Assad regime are presenting this spring's Syrian presidential elections as satisfying the requirements for "free and fair elections" in compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which outlined a political resolution to the conflict. The world should not be duped. The Assad regime has flouted Resolution 2254's political conditions, and without active international supervision Syria's election is sure to be another farcical landslide for Assad.

Where does this leave the United States and other members of the international community? Their efforts, as outlined in the Report on the United States Strategy for Syria that the Executive Branch submitted to Congress in March 2019, to isolate the Assad regime from the international economy and from the benefit of diplomatic ties to regional and global powers (including the Arab League, which continues to keep Assad on the sidelines of its own fora) must continue.

To do otherwise would undermine the tremendous efforts that the United States and our partners have made at forcing the ultimate quandary for Assad: continue to wage war against his own people, or submit to the will of their vote under an internationally certified free and fair election.

Assad and Putin
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hold a meeting in Damascus on January 7, 2020. Alexey Druzhinin / SPUTNIK / AFP/Getty

In December 2019, as part of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress passed with overwhelming bipartisan support the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. President Donald Trump signed it into law days later. The act, named for a Syrian defector who provided photographic evidence of thousands of atrocities at the hands of the Assad regime, provided sanctions designations authority against the Assad regime and its affiliates. As of January 2020, the United States had designated 114 Assad regime affiliates and supporters for sanctions under this authority.

This was no small undertaking, and it has resulted in tremendous deterrence to Assad regime supporters throughout the world. Caesar Act designations, and the accompanying diplomatic isolation of the Assad regime, leave the despot but two states to which to turn: Iran and Russia, themselves subject to U.S. sanctions. Those who suggest that the Caesar Act harms the people of Syria as opposed to isolating its tyrannical leader willfully ignore the act's carefully tailored humanitarian exceptions to the Syrian people, as well as Assad's own innumerable atrocities against them.

American military involvement in Syria has focused on successful efforts to defeat the ISIS caliphate—notwithstanding limited Article II airstrikes against regime interests following its chemical weapons use, and in response to Iranian proxy attacks against U.S. interests in the region—while the non-military economic and diplomatic power of the United States and our allies has left Assad nowhere to turn but the most dubious of patrons in Iran and Russia. At the poker table of geopolitics, Assad is sitting with a low pair down and very few chips with which to bluff.

To ascribe credit where it is due, in an address to the Security Council on March 29, 2021, Secretary of State Tony Blinken highlighted the degradation of the humanitarian situation in northwest Syria prompted by the closure of border crossings and demanded renewed humanitarian access. Blinken also emphasized compliance with Resolution 2254 as the only viable long-term solution to the conflict.

It would be a mistake to conclude that the United States has no interest in Syria after the defeat of the ISIS physical caliphate in 2019. On the contrary; as its mission against an ISIS resurgence winds down, the United States has every interest in leveraging the isolation of the Assad regime toward a real, actual political resolution to the conflict—and to give political voice to the people of Syria, who have suffered for far too long.

If the United States and our allies were to walk away from effective economic and diplomatic pressure against the regime, the balance would tip in Assad's favor.

Historians look back at the 100 million-plus deaths at the hands of communism in the 20th century and ask rhetorically, "what more could the West have done?" After military conflicts, large and small, focused on containing and defeating communism, it was ultimately non-military and soft power that brought about the demise of Eastern Bloc communism, along with its gulags, totalitarianism and despots—at least as we knew them in that century.

As the Biden administration arranges its priorities in the Middle East, it should not lose sight of the need to carry forward political resolution in Syria. The 2019 whole-of-government, bipartisan United States strategy for Syria is already in place alongside the Caesar Act, and both effectuating their desired ends. Now is no time to stray from this approach.

Will history judge that this generation, and this administration, had the fortitude to arrive at a political resolution in Syria and to pursue accountability for the barbarity of Assad? It seems that most U.S. policymakers are maintaining that tack. To lose sight of its importance, to appease those who wish to excuse Assad or to welcome Russia and Iran's enablement of the Syrian regime would be callous at best. History would judge such moves as a missed opportunity to reach political resolution.

Peter Metzger is a former Special Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs and Deputy Senior Director for Middle Eastern and North African Affairs on the National Security Council at the White House.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.