Throughout the last few years, many Arab states have taken steps towards normalizing relations with Syria. The United Arab Emirates reopened its embassy there in 2018 and important regional U.S. partners like Egypt and Jordan are trading with Damascus again. Meanwhile, the Biden administration adopted a wait-and-see policy, neither pushing nor blocking these contacts. Indeed, now that the forces for democratization lost the Syrian civil war (started in 2011) to Bashar al-Assad and his authoritarian regime, it appears sensible to the United States and other Western states to re-establish relations with Syria and end the sanctions that are hurting the Syrian people without much hope of turning the country into a liberal democracy. As Adam Lammon reports, “economic conditions have become so dire—83 percent of Syrians are living below the poverty line; 60 percent risk going hungry due to soaring food prices; and fuel for heating, cooking, and transportation is scarce—that U.S. policy is indisputably killing Syrians.”
Yet, some in the rear guard still seem to believe that more of the sanctions could decide al-Assad to throw in the towel and turn Syria into a democracy. Realistically, the West can now do little to oust al-Assad short of direct military action, and even this is far from sure to transform Syria into a working democratic state — one remembers the Afghan debacle. Instead of sanctions as usual, a sounder policy of restoring normal relations with Syria could further four major interests at little cost.
First, normalizing relations with Damascus would decrease Iran’s sway over Syria and the Middle East at large. In the same way that the 2003 Iraq War allowed Iran to increase its influence in Baghdad and beyond, the Syrian civil war weakened the Syrian state and, combined with Western sanctions, pushed it to rely on Iran for finance and military support. Iran is now relatively free to move troops and weapons throughout Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. Iranian militias operate actively on Syrian territory and are often bombed by the wary Israelis.
If the United States and other major Western states re-establish economic links with Syria, Damascus would become less dependent on Tehran for its finances and, ultimately, its military survival. Having relieved the international pressure on Damascus’s shoulders, Western states could then encourage the Syrians to limit their relations with Iran to the bare minimum. Specifically, the United States can use its residual presence in the al-Tanf region and Kurdistan as bargaining chips to extract concessions. This move would reduce the Iranian clout throughout the Middle East, increase Israel’s security, and decrease the risk for inadvertent escalation between Jerusalem and Tehran. It could also weaken Iran’s hand in the nuclear conundrum and push it towards accommodation.
Second, working with Damascus would loosen Russia’s grip over Syria. Because Western states and chiefly the United States have no relations with Syria and put it under extensive sanctions, Syria’s patron by default is Russia. The Syrians have little choice other than to follow Moscow’s will. The goal here is not to get Russia out of Syria; Russian presence in Syria is well-entrenched and will remain so for the foreseeable future. Also, al-Assad will keep relying on Russian weapons to rebuild its military.
Nevertheless, by reopening relations with Syria, the West will provide Damascus with leverage and bargaining power in its dealings with Russia. Because the Syrians would become able to play the Western countries against Russia, it would allow them to maneuver and, sometimes, say no to the Russians. Syria would remain under Russian influence but have more breathing space to avoid turning into a mere satellite.
Third, the West needs a functioning Syrian state to counterbalance Turkey’s expansionism. Syria long had rocky relations with its northern neighbor; it has claims over the Turkish province of Hatay and a history of supporting Kurdish independentists across the border. The Turks probably also worry about the increased Iranian and Russian military presence on their southern borders and want their slice of the Syrian cake. When the Syrian government’s authority collapsed in the civil war, the Turks took the occasion to occupy Syrian lands and strike the Syrian Kurds. Ankara now exerts control over pieces of northern Syria and is actively Turkifying them.
On one side, the West has little interest in letting Turkey expand in all directions and overthrow the balance of power in the region. However, it also needs to keep Turkey on its side, so it does not align with China or Russia. One way to stop Turkish expansionism while avoiding a collision with Ankara is by repairing the relations with Syria. By letting Syria’s economy come back to a normal footing and the Syrian state rebuild itself, Damascus could acquire the staying power to resist Turkish ambitions and, over the long run, get the Turks out of its territory.
Finally, normalizing Syria’s economic situation would help limit the exodus of refugees. Indeed, the cruel civil war combined with economic collapse pushed scores of refugees on the roads. Over one million of them headed towards Europe. This afflux generated tensions within and among European states and fueled political cleavages between pro and anti-refugees. In that tense atmosphere, European states have had less energy to focus on the challenge from Russia. By loosening the sanctions on Syria and letting the country’s economy run normally, fewer people would be tempted to emigrate; this would alleviate political tensions in Western Europe, which would be freer to tackle the challenge of defending Eastern Europe against a resurgent Russia.
The United States and other Western states had good intentions when they tried to push Syria towards liberal democracy. But now that this endeavor failed, sanctioning Syria and isolating the regime harms the Syrian people for no apparent gain. Meanwhile, this isolation opens the door for outside powers to gain footholds on Syrian territory and leaves Damascus reliant on Iran and Russia for survival. Although a policy of overture and de-sanctioning towards Damascus may not bear all its fruits immediately, it would help a great deal to rebalance Middle Eastern politics by giving Syria, one of the most important regional states, the means to maintain its independence and sovereignty against ambitious neighbors and faraway great powers.