Those who do not regularly follow the vagaries of Syria policy can be forgiven for not knowing how exactly to react to President Joe Biden’s first airstrike as commander in chief – a strike in Northeast Syria’s Deir Ezzor Province against Iranian-backed proxy militias in retaliation for a February 15 rocket attack on US forces in Irbil, Iraq. Sadly, Syria continues to exist as an “anything goes” geographic space where global and regional actors attempt to settle their conflicts on Syrian soil. For the sake of the Syrian people and regional security, that must change.
As the Syrian conflict enters its tenth year, there are no easy answers. I arrived in Aleppo when I was 23 years old for a language program. Now, I am 34 and still actively working on this conflict – almost one third of my life. Many of the conflict’s dynamics and the policies of major state actors toward Syria have remained stagnant for the better part of this decade. Now, a third US administration takes the reins to reckon with the conflict in Syria. But one thing that has remained constant across administrations is the lack of a stand-alone US policy for Syria.
What do I mean by that? As evidenced by the latest airstrike, Syria is either too unimportant to warrant a stand-alone policy or too important and enmeshed with surrounding countries to be afforded a policy focused on Syria alone. In either case, considerations for how to deal with Syria and end the conflict have become secondary to whatever other policies or strategies the US government is pursuing within the region. In the case of this latest strike, it was too politically sensitive to conduct airstrikes on Iranian-backed Iraqi proxy militias inside Iraq itself, but fine to retaliate on those same proxy networks in Syria. The implications of striking Syrian territory on specific US policy objectives in Syria were less of a factor.
We need a stand-alone policy for Syria because Syria’s problems are unique to that country and its own internal socio political dynamics.
The flaw of this “Syria second” strategy is that it has deprioritized how catastrophic the conflict in Syria has been for the Syrian people and the region, as well as its global ramifications. A shattered Syria with a devastating war prosecuted by an authoritarian leader willing to burn the country to the ground rather than allow reform has resulted in the displacement of half of Syria’s population. The refugee crisis alone has had ripple effects on Syria’s neighbors, not to mention the rise of ultra-nationalist politics in Europe ignited by the refugee crisis.
We need a stand-alone policy for Syria because Syria’s problems are unique to that country and its own internal socio political dynamics. If policy considerations toward Syria continue to be predicated on how to mollify or support our other relationships in the region, we will be unable to muster enough political and diplomatic will to build a proactive policy that actually addresses the root causes of Syria’s conflict head on. While a stand-alone policy cannot ignore the intervention of numerous regional and global actors into the conflict, only a policy dedicated first and foremost to ending the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria will successfully prevent the country from being a surrogate battleground for the many conflicts in the region. So long as the US itself uses Syria as that surrogate battleground, it has little authority to expect other countries to refrain from doing the same. The US has, arguably, substantive reasons to be present in Syria – for example, US force protection in Northeast Syria allows INGOs to operate, providing necessary humanitarian assistance. However, those reasons should be tied to a Syria specific policy with tangible goals and objectives.
Since US policy toward Syria involves just about every other country in the region, Syria is clearly an important space to engage in, if for no other reason than its strategic position vis a vis so many other policies of importance to the US. From this perspective, finding a solution to the Syrian conflict and being actively engaged seems key to resolving other challenges to US foreign policy in the region. With that in mind, I would argue that it is very much in the US national interest to proactively work toward ending the conflict in a way that aligns with our moral and ethical values as a country. As long as the US continues to use Syria as a launching point for other strategic objectives in the region, this administration will find that Syria continues to be a conflict with no ready solution or end date.
Sasha Ghosh-Siminoff is the Executive Director and co-founder of People Demand Change Inc, a socially responsible aid and development startup focusing on several core issues including monitoring and evaluation of humanitarian aid and development programing; supporting the capacity of nascent civil society and local governance institutions; and providing long-term culturally aware solutions in the MENA region, including work in Syria.
The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the views of any specific organization or entity.