Last week, the US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield announced that the United States would send more than $800 million in new humanitarian assistance to Syria. Regarding the 11-year conflict, Thomas-Greenfield acknowledged the suffering of Syrians and said, “People are starving. … This is a core value for the United States to support people in need. … The United States maintains our unshakable commitment to the Syrian people.” Unfortunately, outside of its deep pockets, the United States does not practice what it preaches.
Injecting more money into Syria may treat a symptom but fails to address the sources of Syrian suffering. The more humanitarian option for the United States would be to recognize that the US campaign in Syria was unsuccessful in changing the tide of the civil war and to do the following: pull US troops out of Syria, abandon maximum pressure sanctions, and allow Syria to rebuild. However, all of these options are complicated and require the United States to look inward.
HOW TO HELP SYRIANS
The US troop presence has frozen the Syrian conflict, prolonging the war and suffering of Syrians. It is unlikely for Syria to emerge from this conflict without President Bashar al Assad at the helm. Still, the United States keeps 900 troops in the territory east of the Euphrates and along Syria’s border. Since the United States eliminated ISIS’ territorial caliphate years ago, the US troop presence achieved little more than the denial of territory.
Syrians will not see an end to the war until the US accepts the realities on the ground and facilitates a peace process between the regime and opposition groups, including regional partners like Russia, Iran, and Turkey.
The country will not see an end to the war until the United States accepts the realities on the ground and facilitates a peace process between the regime and opposition groups, including regional partners like Russia, Iran, and Turkey. The United States should not stay in eastern Syria indefinitely as it does not serve US interests and puts US servicemembers unnecessarily at risk. US interests in the Middle East should remain limited and constrained to preventing anti-US terrorist threats and preventing long-term disruptions to oil by promoting stability and regional cooperation. Helping the Kurds reach an agreement with the regime for security is more compassionate than staying for a decade or more without a resolution or clear end goal.
The second option available to the United States is to end its maximum pressure sanctions. These sanctions, which have been in place since the war broke out in 2011, have failed. Yet, the United States refuses to reverse course. The strategy of maximum pressure, which the US has also employed in Iran, entails implementing sanctions so heavily that the pressure would force the targeted regime to crack, cave, and concede to US demands. The purpose of sanctions in Syria was to weaken Assad, pressure him to step down, and attain concessions from the regime for humanitarian rights and aid, none of which have been achieved. Instead, the Assad regime has remained stable due to help from both Iran and Russia, and as a result, has not changed its behavior. Thus, this sanctions campaign is neither achievable nor productive. However, by refusing to waiver from any of these sanctions, the United States has halted any Syrian progress toward rehabilitation or reintegration. One example of such a consequence is the Caesar Act, which blocks any country willing to help Syria rebuild. These sanctions force the country to remain in a perpetual broken state, unable to access potential investors or regional partners.
PRIORITIZING REBUILDING SYRIA
Normalcy is unattainable for Syrians if the country remains an international pariah. Syria is not without potential partners either. In March 2021, Emirati Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed criticized the Caesar Act, which he said makes reengaging with Assad “very difficult, not only for [the UAE] as a nation, but also for the private sector.” The United States may not want to work with Assad, nor does it have to. However, it should not block other countries’ willingness to help if the alternative is a Syria trapped in a perpetual limbo, unable to reintegrate and recover. Any willing regional partners would be subjected to harsh sanctions through the Caesar Act if they tried to aid or invest in Syria outside of the US-held territory in the northeast. This false narrative of moral superiority is not worth the price the Syrian people are paying.
Aid is vital, and Syria requires anywhere from $250 billion to $400 billion to reconstruct everything the country lost. However, the way the United States uses aid is flawed. Instead of punishing Assad, the United States would not have to spend $800 million in assistance if its foreign policy aims were to help Syrians rebuild. The United States rhetorically flaunts its deep empathy and compassion for the Syrian people, yet its maximum pressure sanctions campaign and troop presence contribute heavily to their burden. After 11 years, Syria has suffered enough at the hands of its leader’s stubbornness and that of the United States. The Syrian people need America’s money, but they need concrete action too.
Natalie Armbruster is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities.