This March, Syria’s conflict will enter its 11th year, with no end in sight. As this bleak anniversary approaches, Syria’s economy has collapsed; narcotics trafficking has become a leading source of regime revenue. More than 12 million Syrians are food insecure. Domestic security is precarious. Low-level insurgencies have flared up in areas previously retaken by regime forces. The Islamic State group’s cells are active across swaths of eastern Syria. Despite a nominal cease-fire in the northeast, regime and Russian attacks targeting civilians are a near-daily occurrence.
Yet even in the face of this grim assessment, President Bashar al-Assad has notched significant diplomatic wins over the past year. Beginning with overtures from Jordan’s King Abdullah II last July, the normalization of Assad and his regime has quickly gathered steam throughout the region. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have reopened their embassies in Damascus. Senior officials in several Arab states are pressing to reinstate Syria’s membership in the Arab League, including Algeria, which will host an upcoming League summit in March. Syria has already been designated to host a 2024 Arab energy conference.
The United States has extended sanctions relief to permit an Egyptian pipeline to deliver natural gas to Lebanon via Syria, though the project has hit snags. This trend is only likely to accelerate in the coming year. Although the Biden administration insists it opposes normalizing ties with Assad and will keep economic sanctions in place, it has not pushed back forcefully on U.S. regional allies that have reached out to Damascus, even as they undermine the stated objectives of American policy.
Described as a shift from punitive isolation to “step-for-step” diplomacy, Arab regimes have advanced any number of justifications for Assad’s normalization. It is presented as giving Syria an Arab counterweight to Iran; a way to relieve the economic hardship of Syrian civilians; a step toward the return of Syrian refugees; and insurance against a further outpouring of refugees that might threaten the stability of neighboring states. The most frequent refrain, however, is that engagement will create incentives for the Assad regime to accept the reforms necessary to pry open the taps of reconstruction funding from the European Union and move Syria toward the political transition called for in United Nations Security Council Resolution 2254.
If sanctions have failed to change the Assad regime’s behavior, this reasoning goes, perhaps it is time to show the regime what it might gain from cooperation. This possibility is what led the U.N.’s special envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, to endorse normalization under the banner of engagement. “With each passing month,” he commented in December, “I have sensed a wider realization than before that political and economic steps are needed — and that these can really only happen together — step-by-step, step-for-step.”
As a rationale for concessions to Damascus, however, this approach, which rehabilitates Assad diplomatically, is little short of delusional. The idea that the Assad regime will respond to normalization with concessions of its own flies in the face of everything we know about how the Assads have ruled Syria for more than 50 years. Not only has this “step-for-step” engagement already failed to produce even the slightest hint of a shift in regime behavior, it is having the opposite effect.
Seen as evidence that recalcitrance works, “step-for-step” is legitimating and empowering the Assad regime, reinforcing its determination to reject compromises, and pushing a political settlement of Syria’s conflict even further out of reach. Nor are Syrians likely to see the purported economic gains of normalization. Predation and corruption have defined the regime’s management of humanitarian assistance throughout the civil war. Economic openings have invariably been captured by the Assads and their cronies, who monopolize their benefits with utter disregard for the well-being of ordinary citizens. There is no reason to imagine that normalization will produce any other result.
No less troubling, the advocates of normalization are indifferent to its failure. They have shown no interest in making further “steps” contingent on a positive response to earlier overtures. In effect, “step-for-step” has become a framework for unilateral diplomatic disarmament.
Normalization will also have deeply corrosive effects on sanctions, despite U.S. claims to the contrary. The Biden administration has shown less willingness than its predecessor to make use of existing sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. For other states, including regional actors, “step-for-step” is a convenient excuse to disregard sanctions and deepen economic ties to the regime. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are already in discussions with Damascus about how to revitalize trade and investment. Russia’s special envoy for Syria has predicted further easing of sanctions in the coming year.
Critics of sanctions might welcome this possibility, arguing that they have failed to achieve their purpose and cause harm to Syrian civilians, while imposing little hardship on regime elites. In making such claims, however, critics often disregard the many other factors that collectively contribute far more than sanctions to the suffering of the Syrian people.
These include the regime’s massive destruction of Syria’s infrastructure over the past decade; mass population displacement; the collapse of the Lebanese economy; the impact of the regime’s corruption and predation on Syria’s economic recovery; and the refusal of its major international patrons, including China and Russia, to provide meaningful support for either humanitarian aid or economic reconstruction. Consider Syria’s bread crisis, which sanctions have nothing to do with. It is the largely result of Russia’s refusal to sell wheat to Syria as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, of arson fires that destroyed large areas of cropland in the summer of 2020 — many of which seem to have been caused by regime forces — and of subsequent drought across Syria’s eastern provinces.
Moreover, critiques of sanctions ignore the damage that their easing, even implicitly, will do — not only to the victims of regime violence and a source of leverage that critics often underestimate, but to international law and the global norms that represent the most viable mechanisms for holding the Assad regime accountable for its crimes and abuses. This is a regime that has overseen mass murder, the systematic use of chemical weapons against civilians, torture, arbitrary and illegal detentions, and the forced displacement of millions of Syrian civilians.
Simply put, the efficacy of sanctions cannot be measured solely by whether they coerce the regime into changing its behavior. Equally if not more important is their value in signaling the repudiation of, and the denial of legitimacy to, a regime that is responsible for crimes against humanity and egregious violations of international law. In recent years, this aspect of sanctions has become increasingly important as legal proceedings against Assad regime officials implicated in torture have moved forward in a number of countries, including Germany, France, Spain, and the Netherlands.
If “step-for-step” diplomacy becomes accepted as a framework for normalizing the Assad regime, the eventual outcome will be the erasure of its responsibility for the destruction of Syria and all that has accompanied it. Russia, alongside the regime, is hard at work to ensure precisely this outcome. The U.S. and its European allies should not be complicit, directly or indirectly, in such efforts. The U.S. should do more than affirm its commitment to keeping sanctions on Assad’s brutal regime. It needs to put them to use, stating publicly that it will take steps to enforce sanctions against any party that violates them and following through promptly when violations occur. It must also make clear that there is only one pathway for sanctions relief: demonstrable, irreversible progress toward the meaningful political transition in Syria that is called for in U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254. To do otherwise sends a terrible signal about American indifference to the crimes of the Assad regime, and further weakens the possibilities for preventing other dictators from following in his footsteps.
By Steven Heydemann
Nonresident Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy