Rearranging American Priorities in Syria

On July 17, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad took his oath of office in front of parliament after winning the presidential election with 95 percent of the popular vote. This was his fourth such occasion since he came to power in 2000 following his father Hafez’s death and a quick change in the country’s constitution that allowed him to inherit the title. Back then, Bashar’s accession was seen by many Syrians, Arabs, and the international community as a positive step that brought a young president—he was 34—to power in a pivotal Middle Eastern country. Indeed, hopes were high that the British-trained doctor would bring change after three decades of brutal rule, violations of human rights, torture, and economic difficulties.

But Bashar dashed all hopes and expectations for change in the last 21 years. His fourth oath of office speech repeated many of the same platitudes he used in the first three, as if he has not learned anything about ruling a modern society in the twenty-first century. To be sure, the only explanation is that the Syrian president is a narcissist who can no longer learn from past mistakes or changing circumstances. In that, Assad is no different from former US President Donald Trump, except for the presence of an American system of strong institutions that were able to withstand the latter’s narcissistic behavior and steer the country away from authoritarianism.

A Minimalist New American Policy

There is no doubt today that Afghanistan is President Biden’s priority. His decision to withdraw from that country by early September was not an easy one as news reports tell of spectacular advances by the Taliban toward the capital Kabul. The US Department of Defense has already withdrawn some 90 percent of American forces, including from Bagram Air Base that was the center of military action for two decades. President Biden’s attention is also consumed with what to do with the American presence in Iraq. He and Iraq’s Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi are now busy arranging for ending the American combat mission in Iraq. Both of these policy initiatives are a reflection of the Biden Administration’s desire to leave the Middle East where American troops have been actively involved for decades.

It is thus not strange to note that President Biden is reluctant to get personally involved in Syria’s conflict. Instead, he has entrusted the issue to Secretary of State Antony Blinken who started to shift the focus of American involvement in the country to humanitarian matters. To be sure, Blinken’s intention is to distance the United States from playing any role in Syria’s political transition or in the implementation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254 of 2015. In this regard, Blinken took two very important steps.

First, he resurrected the Syria international group that met on the sidelines of a ministerial meeting in Rome of the Global Coalition Against Daesh (the Islamic State). The meeting emphasized the humanitarian issue in Syria instead of delving into what the United States sees as a fruitless discussion of implementing Resolution 2254. Second, the United States worked diligently at the UN Security Council to issue Resolution 2585 that secured humanitarian assistance to northern Syria via the Bab al-Hawa crossing from Turkey. That resolution was reached despite Russia’s threat to exercise its veto power and after behind-closed-doors US-Russian negotiations.

On the other hand, Blinken has refrained from proposing any future diplomatic steps that the United States would undertake to secure a true implementation of Resolution 2254. What Washington is expected to do is to repeat the same rhetoric that former President Barack Obama used in 2011 about Assad’s losing his legitimacy; and that is despite the hundreds of thousands of casualties in ten years of war and millions of internally displaced people and refugees in surrounding countries and around the world.

But what may be a positive American position is the Biden Administration’s continued rejection of helping in the reconstruction of Syria, at least because of the lack of a process for political transition there. In this, the United States is joined by the European Union that has also declared its refusal to help in reconstruction. But what remains to be answered is a fundamental question: if the Assad regime had no qualms about bombing its people with conventional and unconventional weapons and destroying the country, will it really care about rebuilding Syria? So long as Assad does not appear to care about the prospects for reconstruction, the US and European positions will remain ineffectual and unproductive.

Assad Counts on His Rehabilitation

Over the last few years, Assad has bet that he would be rehabilitated because of changes on the ground where he controls some 80 percent of the country. Such a possibility was helped by what Jordan’s King Abdullah II made clear during his latest visit to Washington; that it may be time to accept the reality of Assad remaining president of Syria. Abdullah made his position clear despite American warnings about normalizing relations with the Syrian president. There are others in the Arab world, such as Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, that are eager to change their positions vis-à-vis Assad.

It is not surprising that this eagerness comes as many Arab countries have made clear their opposition to the Arab Spring revolutions and are working to reverse them. Saudi intelligence chief Khalid Humaidan secretly visited Syria and the director of Syria’s national security office Ali al-Mamluk went to Cairo to meet with his Egyptian counterparts. In other words, many in the Arab world have decided that Bashar al-Assad is one of them after they were reluctant to accept him and his regime because of the massacres he committed against his own people.

It is thus not surprising to see that the United States appears reluctant to have a defined policy on Syria. On the one hand, it cannot just abandon its calls for a political transition in Damascus away from authoritarian rule. On the other, it sees that accepting Assad as a legitimate president flies in the face of developments in Syria since 2011. In the meantime, Washington is likely to continue to help improve the humanitarian conditions of millions of Syrians who for decades have borne the brunt of war and authoritarian rule.