American sanctions on Syria are having a destructive impact on the lives of ordinary Syrians, who have been forced to experience nine years of horrific civil war.
The Syrian civil war is slowly but surely winding down. Over the past nine years, the internationalized conflict has attracted a multitude of external actors, all seeking to advance their interests by exploiting Syria’s instability. And yet, today, in 2021, the war is practically over. Bashar al-Assad has managed to defy all odds and keep himself in power with the help of his external backers. The regime has regained control over most of Syria’s territory and the only rebel enclave that remains is Idlib province; a region that is dominated by Turkish forces and Salafists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Islamic State has lost its significant territorial holdings in Syria, while the SDF is cooperating ever more closely with the regime after Donald Trump’s decision to abandon his Kurdish allies and pull US forces out of Northern Syria in late 2019.
This is the situation as it currently stands and the picture painted is one of an Assad victory – a pyrrhic victory – but a victory nonetheless. Syria’s infrastructure has been decimated, while the war has displaced millions of its citizens, many of whom have no homes to go back to. It is time for the United States to recognize the fact that President Bashar al-Assad is not going anywhere for the foreseeable future. US policy on Syria must be comprehensively reevaluated and take the changed reality on the ground into consideration.
As far back as 2011, the US, along with European leaders, has been calling for Assad to relinquish his position. These attempts at pressurizing Assad to step down only strengthened and intensified in the succeeding years as the regime’s forces gradually lost control over more and more territory, until they only controlled 25% of the country.
However, Assad managed to turn the situation around and recovered completely with the help of his Russian and Iranian backers, and today he controls the majority of Syria’s territory. And yet despite this complete turnaround in the situation on the ground, US demands for Syria have hardly changed. When Assad was at his weakest, the US called for his removal, and now, when Assad is occupying his strongest position since 2011, the US is still calling for his removal. This makes little sense from a strategic point of view and demonstrates an apparent unawareness of the actual state of affairs in the country on the part of the State Department’s Syria team. In international politics, good foreign policy should be malleable and fluid, meaning that it should be relatively simple to adapt in response to unforeseen changes in the international geopolitical situation.
Nevertheless, the ability to periodically reassess and recalibrate short and long-term foreign policy objectives is a hallmark of experienced diplomatic operators. Now, that is not to accuse the US Administration or the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs of incompetence, but the current state of affairs begs the question: why does the US Administration’s current Syria policy correspond so poorly to the reality on the ground?
The US’ “Assad must go” rhetoric wouldn’t be so concerning if it was limited to soundbites at White House press briefings and UN Security Council debates, but such rhetoric translates into sanctions against those affiliated with the Syrian regime. Since 2011, the US has adopted a range of sanctions against the Syrian regime, including the 2019 Caesar Act. The purpose of these sanctions is to make life as difficult as possible for the Syrian regime in economic terms, and they seek to punish any companies or individuals doing business with the Syrian government. Such economic pressure made sense during the initial years of the civil war when it was looking like Assad was on the verge of being overthrown by various armed factions.
However, Assad survived after receiving economic and military aid from his allies and is now in the process of regaining control over the rest of his country. And yet, the US continues to impose new sanctions on Syria despite the civil war being practically over.
Moreover, these sanctions are accompanied by a set of unrealistic demands such as “holding war criminals accountable”. The Syrian leadership knows that if it were to agree to such demands, the international community would (under US pressure) accuse many of the regime’s key figures of war crimes. To the regime, not agreeing to such conditions is a matter of survival. Thus, sanctions won’t achieve the removal of the Assad regime, and they also won’t hurt the Syrian elite in any significant way.
As is often the case when sanctions are applied against authoritarian regimes, the elite often find ways to evade sanctions, while taking on only moderate economic losses. On the other hand, it is regular citizens who bear the brunt of the destructive consequences that sanctions have on a country. According to U.S. Special Representative to Syria James Jeffery, US sanctions have had a direct impact on the collapse of the Syrian pound. In addition to this, sanctions have contributed to an almost 100% increase in food prices, while also punishing any companies that want to take part in the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure.
American sanctions on Syria are having a destructive impact on the lives of ordinary Syrians, who have been forced to experience nine years of horrific civil war. Instead of making constructive policy decisions that would aid in improving the lives of ordinary citizens, the US administration continues to apply economic pressure to a regime that has no choice but to stay and fight for its survival. Such policy runs the risk of further alienating ordinary citizens in a country where the US enjoys very little popular support with any of the factions that are still left standing. The remains of the FSA have united with radical Salafists from Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, while the SDF will not soon forget Trump’s betrayal of Rojava in 2019.
In this context, American attempts to impede the reconstruction of Syria with sanctions seem to be a suboptimal strategy for achieving foreign policy goals in the region. It is time to accept that the Assad government is here to stay. It's time to work with Russia to stabilize and rebuild Syria from the ground up. Otherwise, if this is not done, it is very possible that the US will become a pariah state in the eyes of the Syrian people and will lose any remaining influence in Syria to other powers.
Igor Aunapu is a Policy Analyst at the Russian Public Affairs Committee (Ru-PAC). His areas of expertise include the Middle East, international security, and Russia-U.S. relations.