More than 100 days have now passed since President Joe Biden entered the White House and so far, all key aspects of US policy in Syria have remained almost precisely the same as they were in President Trump’s final year in office. Although much of Washington DC’s policy attention is focused on exploring negotiations with Iran, the Biden administration remains cognizant of the dangers inherent in an unstable Syria ruled by Bashar al-Assad, the 21st century’s biggest war criminal and his notoriously corrupt regime.
Although Assad now controls approximately 63% of Syrian territory, that extends to only 57% of the in-country population and only a mere 38% of Syrians when refugees and the diaspora are included. All polling of Syrian refugees in recent years has unanimously shown that there remains no interest in returning to Syria while Assad remains in power. Worse still, other recent polling has demonstrated that a majority of Syrians living in regime-held Damascus would prefer to flee the country than live under Assad’s failing rule. As the regime puts the final steps into place for its upcoming presidential election, the only question in people’s minds is whether Assad will be allocated an 80, 90 or 98% victory. As if we needed any more evidence of the wholly fraudulent nature of Syrian elections, one of Assad’s two final round “competitors” has spoken on the record about how Syria has “no democracy” and that “all the elections are rigged.”
US policy on Syria remains predicated on the judgement that Assad’s extraordinarily brutal suppression of his own population over the past decade makes him unfit to lead and unable to stabilize his country. Indeed, Assad remains the most potent root cause of Syria’s now 10-year-old crisis and his position in Damascus’s Presidential Palace will continue to fuel violence and instability for years to come. For that reason, US policy remains aligned with the international standard – United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for a nationwide ceasefire and political negotiations, leading to a new constitution, a new form of governance and eventually, internationally-observed free and fair elections. UNSCR 2254 also seeks
For this to work, the US will need the support of a united coalition of like minded allies. Rising indications of a regional interest in economic and diplomatic re-engagement with Damascus are a source of significant concern across the US government. The Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which mandates the imposition of sanctions on any actor engaged in financially supporting Assad’s regime is a fully-fledged piece of US law and will not end anytime soon.
Putting aside Syria’s upcoming “sham” election, the immediate US policy priority is to re-secure a UN mandate to provide urgently needed cross-border humanitarian aid across northern Syria. At a UN vote scheduled for July, Russia intends to veto all cross-border aid, which would leave as many as five million civilians without aid overnight. Only a concerted effort by the US and its allies will prevent such an eventuality, which would catalyze the worst humanitarian crisis the Middle East will have seen in decades and fuel violence and extremism yet again.
In eastern Syria, hundreds of American troops also remain deployed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces as part of the ongoing campaign against ISIS – a terrorist organization that is displaying worrying signs of recovery.
While an ISIS resurgence is being kept largely contained in SDF areas, ISIS is methodically resurging in the regime-held Badiya, where Syrian, Russian forces and Iran-linked forces have proven incapable. Should ISIS’s recovery in regime areas continue, a spillover across the Euphrates will inevitably destabilize territories administered by the SDF. More broadly, the international community has a duty to resolve the enormous challenge presented by the tens of thousands of former ISIS members and residents now languishing in internment camps. Our current policy of leaving it largely alone risks engendering the next – and larger – generation of extremists in the heart of the Middle East.
As recent media reporting has indicated, the Middle East looks set to witness a series of regional détentes emerge in the coming weeks. De-intensifying regional rivalries and working towards a less divided region can only be assessed to be a good thing, but Syria is a different matter.
Instability emanating from Syrian territory has destabilized Middle Eastern and global security in profound ways since 2011 and that will continue unabated while Assad remains in control. Iran has achieved unprecedented regional gains by taking advantage of opportunities presented by Syria’s crisis and those gains are irreversible and run counter to the interests of the US and its regional allies. Syria’s economy was not destroyed by foreign sanctions but by Assad’s ruthless pursuit of power, and no economic recovery will emerge with Assad’s corrupt regime still in place.
ISIS, al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups have thrived amidst Syria’s chaos, exploiting all the root causes of the crisis that not only remain in place today, but are now worse. And foreign interventions, whether by Turkey, Israel, Russia or the US, all exist because of Assad’s insistence on remaining in power, not despite it.
Though Syria may not be in the midst of the crippling conflict of years passed, it remains a gaping and destabilizing wound in the heart of an already delicate region. No evidence exists that would suggest that Syria will witness a return to meaningful stability while Assad remains in power and therefore, US policy will continue to work towards a resolution aligned with UNSCR 2254. There is no doubt that Syria presents no good or easy policy options, but working towards long-term stability and the pursuit of accountability for the countless crimes committed since 2011 must remain the principal driving our decisions.
This article was edited by The Syrian Observer. The Syrian Observer has not verified the content of this story. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.