The earthquake ought to loosen US policy on Syria

Assad isn’t going away, and millions of people are suffering. It’s time for a new strategy.

Lifeless bodies pulled from ruins, roads and bridges ripped apart, entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble — these are the classic earthquake images. The latest come from Turkey and Syria, which were devastated by a fierce quake on Monday. Turkey, with a thriving economy, a well-organized state, and rich Western friends, is well equipped to rush relief to victims. In Syria the situation is quite the opposite.

Syria has been under crushing economic sanctions for more than a decade. War has destroyed its cities and forced millions from their homes. Foreign forces occupy its most productive land. The economy has collapsed. Cholera is spreading. Hunger looms. Yet any person or group that sends relief aid to the Syrian government risks punishment for sanctions-busting.

Sanctions are a centerpiece of Washington’s 11-year campaign to depose Syrian President Bashar Assad. It has been clear for some time that this campaign has failed. For better or worse, Assad has won the war. Western governments should have accepted this reality and begun easing sanctions even before the earthquake. Now the argument is even more powerful. Huge numbers of Syrians, already in desperate straits before the quake, have just lost everything. Their suffering, as well as strategic good sense, argues for changing our policy toward Syria.

As a first step, President Biden could ease enforcement of some sanctions so that relief organizations can send help to Syria without fear of prosecution. A next step might be to send aid to earthquake victims who live in regions of Syria that the government controls. Biden is unlikely to do that. After more than a decade of multi-faceted war against Assad, we are hardly ready to help people living under his rule. Instead, we punish them for the crime of having a government they did not choose and cannot replace. Some aid reaches these Syrians through the United Nations and other agencies to which the United States contributes, but none may come directly from the United States.

Three months ago, the United Nations sent an envoy to assess conditions in Syria. She found that 90 percent of the population has fallen into poverty.

“In the current dramatic and still-deteriorating humanitarian situation as 12 million Syrians grapple with food insecurity, I urge the immediate lifting of all unilateral sanctions that severely harm human rights and prevent any efforts for early recovery, rebuilding, and reconstruction,” her report concluded. “No reference to good objectives of unilateral sanctions justifies the violation of fundamental human rights.”

In 2011, when the “Arab Spring” was shaking many autocratic regimes, Assad seemed vulnerable. President Barack Obama pronounced his death sentence: “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” Assad did not agree. That set off a civil war in which hundreds of thousands died. In that war, US-sponsored militias captured about 30 percent of Syrian territory. They still hold that territory — which happens to be where most of Syria’s wheat is grown and where most of its oil reserves are located.

Seeking to tighten the noose, the United States imposed sanctions not only on Syria, but on any person or company that does business there. The concept was straightforward: Make Syrians suffer so Assad would fall. It was half a success. Syrians were driven to suffer, but Assad did not fall. Few now expect that he will.

Throwing in the towel on our depose-Assad campaign would be painful. It would mean accepting a failure, which feels somehow un-American. Besides, although re-establishing normal ties to Syria might save many lives, it would imply recognizing a leader who many consider an odious war criminal. Depending on your point of view, that would be either surrender to a tyrant or an adroit maneuver to deal with the reality of Assad’s survival.

Several Arab countries that were once part of the anti-Assad coalition have accepted that reality. Algeria, Jordan, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates have begun repairing long-severed relations with his government. This year Syria is likely to be re-admitted to the Arab League, from which it was suspended in 2011. Arab leaders have changed their policy to fit changed circumstances in Syria. Western countries should do the same. The earthquake makes this an ideal moment.

Biden has the power to act because many US sanctions on Syria were imposed by executive order and could be altered the same way. He could encourage aid groups to send relief supplies to Assad’s government, which, according to the State Department, is already legal. Steps like these, however, would be quite a climb-down.

In 2018, the US special representative for Syria, James Jeffrey, said it was “our business to make life as miserable as possible for that flopping cadaver of a regime.” The next year Dana Stroul, who is now the Pentagon’s chief Middle East policymaker, asserted that “absent behavioral changes by the Assad regime, we should hold the line on preventing reconstruction aid and technical expertise from going back into Syria.” The recent earthquake has not shaken that policy. Hours after it struck, State Department spokesman Ned Price was asked if it might lead to changes in US policy toward Syria. “It would be quite ironic if not even counterproductive,” he replied, “for us to reach out to a government that has brutalized its people over the course of a dozen years now.”

Foreign policy, like all policy, should adapt to changing reality. In Syria today, reality means two things: Assad isn’t going anywhere, and millions are suffering after a horrific natural disaster. Western countries should accept that reality and act accordingly.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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