The Unreality of U.S. Policy in Syria | Opinion

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad was ostracized from the global community and scowled upon as a man who would do literally anything—starve, shell, bomb, torture and gas—to remain in the presidential palace. The Assad government's war strategy amounted to a no-holes-barred approach, where cities were reduced to rubble in order to push rebel units (many of them extremist in orientation) out of urban neighborhoods. A 2019 study published by the Global Public Policy Institute found that Syrian government forces used chemical weapons hundreds of times during the course of the war.

As horrible as those incidents were, there was an assumption in U.S. foreign policy circles that Assad would eventually have to jet out of town. When Hillary Clinton was secretary of state, she remarked that it was only a matter of time before the dictator would have to pack up his personal belongings and leave the country.

Reality, however, has a funny way of inserting itself into the picture. Unknown to U.S. policymakers at the time was the length to which Assad's external supporters, Russia and Iran, would go to ensure its client in Damascus survived. Heavy Russian bombing, in addition to Iranian ground troops and the deployment of Tehran-sponsored Shiite militia units, have penned in what is left of the anti-Assad opposition to a patch of territory in the northwest. Assad, who many believed would be killed or driven into exile, has won the vicious civil war in his country.

Syria's neighbors long ago sensed that the facts on the ground have changed. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar were all vehement opponents of the Syrian dictator. Now, all have come to terms with the reality staring them in the face: Assad is one of the most reviled human beings on the planet, but he isn't going anywhere. The conclusion: If you can't beat him, you might as well talk with him.

This week, Jordan announced that its largest crossing point with Syria was fully operating. The UAE re-opened its embassy in Damascus nearly three years ago and may be permitting the Syrian government to access money previously out of reach due to U.S. sanctions. Last year, Oman became the first Arab-majority country to reappoint an ambassador to Syria. Saudi Arabia used to be a top proponent of Assad's ouster; now, under the stewardship of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, it is sending officials to Damascus to talk about a possible restoration of ties. Lebanon, in the middle of a banking and fuel crisis, trotted to Syria earlier this month to beg the Assad government to permit Egyptian gas imports through his territory. There is a sense in the wider Middle East, especially among the Gulf states, that Assad can still be coaxed back into the region. And if all else fails, renewed engagement would dilute some of the leverage Iran has acquired over Assad since the beginning of the civil war.

U.S. soldiers patrol
U.S. soldiers patrol in the Syrian village of Jawadiyah, in the northeastern Hasakeh province, near the border with Turkey on Aug. 30, 2021. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Re-thinking isn't exclusive to the Middle East. In Europe, which has partnered with the United States in imposing comprehensive sanctions against the Syrian government for its barbaric behavior during the war, a detente with Assad is percolating in the minds of some policymakers. While France, Germany and the U.K. won't be normalizing relations with Damascus anytime soon, smaller nations like Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Cyprus and Poland are either re-establishing a diplomatic presence or talking up the need to partner with Syria for the purpose of stemming irregular migration flows into Europe.

Back in Washington, however, U.S. policymakers are still resistant about embracing the cold, hard facts on the ground. Senior U.S. officials responsible for the Syria file are warning any country that may attempt to normalize ties with Damascus to think twice and consider the economic consequences that would result. U.S. policy in Syria remains fixed in place, even if it's the definition of delusional: maintain pressure on the Syrian government until Assad genuinely participates in conflict-ending negotiations with his opponents, a process which will ultimately produce fully fair, transparent elections and Assad's eventual ouster. Of course, if Bashar al-Assad wasn't willing to entertain the idea earlier in the war when his regime looked perilously close to extinction, it's inconceivable he would do so when his forces control roughly 70 percent of the country.

To be clear, this is not an argument for full, unconditional U.S. diplomatic normalization with Assad, which would be highly unpopular in Washington, D.C. As a practical matter, such an abrupt change in policy is simply not possible—Bashar al-Assad will forever be considered a war criminal more deserving of a trial in The Hague than even a token amount of U.S. outreach.

Yet the U.S. interacts with a number of unsavory, downright nasty individuals on a daily basis. The Middle East is chock full of them, whether it's Egypt's Abdel Fattah el-Sisi or the royal families that call the shots in the Gulf. U.S. officials do so not because they want to, but because it's necessary at times to defend core U.S. security interests. Bashar al-Assad may be even more merciless than your typical Middle East autocrat, yet the bottom-line principle still stands.

Right now, the Biden administration's Syria policy is in a holding-pattern. Nearly 1,000 U.S. troops are stationed in eastern Syria in near permanent stasis, U.S. sanctions continue to deter reconstruction initiatives and the diplomatic process embraced by Washington is dead on the table. A deep-dive review of the policy is warranted, with the first order of business planting two feet on planet Earth.

Daniel R. DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities and a foreign affairs columnist at Newsweek.

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