Syria has just marked a decade of conflict. Ten years after Syrians took to the streets in the protest waves that gripped the Arab world in 2011, what began as an optimistic, peaceful public call for reform and change has given way to much pessimism and violence. The Syrian conflict is the result of the actions of several actors, both domestic and international, which has made it one of the most complex ongoing crises in the world. But bringing the conflict to a close is in the hands of just a few actors: the United States, Russia and the regime of Bashar al-Assad. As things stand at the time of writing, none of these actors appears to be willing to draw this conflict to a close. If this stance continues, it will hurt not only the Syrian people but also the United States’ own interests in the region, particularly in Iraq. Still, the opportunity for the United States to push for peace in Syria is not yet completely lost.
The United States is the main international actor that can influence the direction of the conflict in Syria. But Washington does not seem to have a Syria strategy. The new administration under President Joe Biden has not yet appointed a senior envoy to Syria, nor has it formulated an approach to the Syrian conflict which diverges significantly from that of the previous administration of Donald Trump. Both administrations so far look to be in favour of addressing the Syrian conflict through the wider prism of the Iran file. One point of distinction, though, is that the current US administration is highlighting the need for integrating Iran’s regional role in the Middle East into negotiations with Iran, to run parallel to negotiations around the nuclear deal. However, Syria is not likely to be the priority in these regional negotiations. The main countries at stake here are Iraq and Yemen.
The US position leaves the space open for Russia to continue to play the role of broker in the Syrian conflict. Russia entered the conflict to use Syria as a platform from which to assert itself vis-à-vis the United States in particular and the West in general at little cost. With the US administration of Barack Obama having largely taken the course of inaction in Syria (with the main exception of leading the fight against ISIS), Russia took advantage to widen its influence in Syria. Trump’s administration continued down the path of prioritising the military defeat of ISIS over a broader resolution to the Syrian conflict due to the US’s national security interests. Consequently, the only entry point to a resolution of the Syrian conflict today is bilateral engagement between the United States and Russia.
Russia itself will not seek such engagement. It will likely hold onto Assad and continue to try to persuade the international community to normalise relations with his regime on the basis that Assad won the war and that his regime is the only entity able to stabilise Syria. Such normalisation would allow reconstruction funding to flow into Syria, and Russia has already positioned itself—through influence over Syrian public institutions as well as contracts signed between Russian companies and the Syrian state—to profit from such funding.
Bashar al-Assad will also not seek to negotiate any peace deal that would mean the end of his rule. Syria’s sovereignty is deeply compromised because of the involvement of Russia, Iran, Turkey and the United States, and the Syrian economy is devastated. Assad’s circle of power has shrunk significantly, with figures previously seen as pillars of the regime—like his cousin Rami Makhlouf—having fallen out of favour with Bashar al-Assad himself. Citizens in areas under regime control are complaining about shortages in basic goods and services. In spite of all these challenges, Assad is preparing himself to run—uncontested as usual—in the next presidential election. Although Assad’s control in Syria has been weakened compared with early 2011, he remains convenient for Russia. If anything, a weakened regime in Syria provides Russia with greater paths for influence within Syria.
The above summary of the situation in Syria shows that if the United States pursues further disengagement in Syria, it would be handing Russia greater gains. It would also be prolonging the misery of the Syrian people. Refugees in the diaspora will not be able to return while Assad is in power. And the more time passes without the Syrian conflict being brought to a close, the longer the suffering of the Syrian people inside the country will continue, not only at the hands of the Assad regime and its allies—which continue to brutally oppress Syrians—but also due to the increasing economic devastation in the country.
US disengagement in Syria will also negatively affect the United States’ own priorities in the region. The US has invested significantly in trying to stabilise Iraq. The Assad regime has a legacy of having allowed jihadists to cross from Syria into Iraq post-2003 to conduct terrorist operations there, and of having facilitated the movement of jihadists in Syria after 2011 when the latter’s operations were targeting Syrian opposition factions. Both these actions by Assad contributed to the rise of ISIS in 2014. Stabilisation in Iraq is therefore at risk for as long as the Assad regime is in power.
With the peace process led by the United Nations not having yielded tangible results and with the role of European countries as well as the EU focused on countering ISIS and supporting limited humanitarian and non-humanitarian initiatives in Syria, and with Russia and the Assad regime playing the waiting game and counting on Assad’s reintegration into the international community, it is only the United States that can make the first move towards peace in Syria. It is early days for the Biden administration but the Syrian conflict is far from over, and despite the complications, the opportunity for peace remains on the table if American political will is exerted.