Washington Couldn’t Beat Assad, So It Will Punish His People

The bombs continue to fall over Syria to the consternation of all concerned. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad warns of a conflict on Syrian soil that will embroil Israel, Iran, and Russia. “Things,” he says, “could spin out of control.”

The escalating violence between Iran and Israel in recent days is clear evidence of a new post-“Assad must go” phase in Syria’s ongoing misery.

One might have thought that after losing the war for regime change in Syria, Washington would undertake a soul-searching review of the spurious assumptions and myriad other problems that produced the ongoing debacle. One might have thought they would at least try to work out a post-war policy for Syria that puts right the incredible damage done to that country and its long-suffering citizens.

Instead, the U.S. is doubling down on its failed campaign against Assad, mobilizing an international coalition to deny him and, more importantly, the Syrian people the tools to rebuild. The weapons in this battle are not F-15s or mortars but aid for reconstruction, international finance for the rehabilitation of Syria’s public and private infrastructure, and a crushing sanctions regime meant to sabotage the ability of Assad’s Syria and its decimated private sector to emerge from the ashes. To top it off, there’s been a feeble if expensive effort to create, with the support of Washington’s “friends of Syria,” something different in the eastern parts of the country currently outside the regime’s control.

This mean-spirited policy, which was in effect announced when President Trump said in March that he’d put “a hold” on $200 million in Syria recovery funding, is grounded in the same assumptions that have animated us since Assad was declared persona non grata. And it is no more likely to succeed than our attempts at regime change.  

Nevertheless, in today’s world nothing succeeds like failure. The Trump administration is spearheading a consensus among the U.S. and its allies in favor of continuing the war and regime change by other means—that is, opposing the return of refugees from camps in Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, and obstructing the ability of the regime, its supporters, and Syrians in general to dig themselves out of the rubble.

“Reconstruction and international support for its implementation would be a peace dividend, a very powerful one, but only once a credible and inclusive political transition is firmly underway,” explained EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini at an April 5 press conference.

No matter that U.S. allies in the region, notably Lebanon, where one of four residents is Syrian, as well as Jordan, are groaning under the massive burden of accommodating refugees. These nations are anxious, as the guns across the border fall relatively silent, to repatriate the Syrians they’ve taken in.  

Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik Hariri, in his remarks at Brussels, warned that continuing opposition to repatriation will create a permanent and destabilizing Syrian diaspora in Lebanon, not unlike Palestinians who have been living there in limbo since 1948. “Lebanon has become one big refugee camp,” Hariri complained.

This week Lebanon’s president Michael Aoun requested help from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE to secure the return of Syrian refugees to their country, “to stop their [sufferings] on the one hand, and, on the other, to end the repercussions of this displacement on Lebanon socially, economically, educationally, and in terms of security.”  

Turkey, too, is encouraging the return of a vanguard of 3.5 million refugees to areas along the border now under its control. “We will solve the Afrin issue, the Idlib issue, and we want that our refugee brothers and sisters return to their country,” explained President Recep Tayyip Erdogan earlier this year.

The message from Brussels was not encouraging. Humanitarian assistance will be forthcoming, but it will likely be inadequate so long as the U.S. and its European friends play spoilsports. As Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson declared, “If we are to get on with reconstruction of Syria, there must be a transition away from the Assad regime.”

The U.S. is a large donor of humanitarian assistance to Syrians both inside and outside their country, in areas under regime and opposition control. Most people forget or do not know that the U.S. has been conducting airstrikes in Syria for years. As of September of 2017, for example, the U.S. had dropped 32,801 bombs on Syria, compared to 30,743 in 2016, adding to the destruction of Syrian infrastructure since the civil war broke out in 2011.

Such humanitarian goodwill provides daily bread to IDPs (internally displaced people) in Aleppo and the Zaartari Camp in Jordan, but excludes support for the reconstruction of Syria’s electrical grid, rebuilding public facilities, and the import of agricultural equipment to support economic revival. U.S. policy aims at ensuring that millions of Syrians do not starve, but refuses support for efforts to enable them to feed themselves. How this “leverage” translates into Assad’s ouster is a puzzle. For guidance, one need only look at the Gaza Strip, where hapless residents have been on a U.S.-supported “diet” since Hamas took over more than a decade ago.

There is an unusual degree of unanimity in Washington across what is usually a yawning political divide in support of these ill-fated policies. The debacle of recent U.S. policy in Syria has always been a bipartisan affair. Puffing up our chests opposite Assad has become one of the few issues where political consensus reigns. Few indeed want to place themselves on the wrong side of the angels by acknowledging Assad’s staying power. Far fewer are prepared to suggest that a recognition of this reality must be the basis for a new look in U.S. policy.

Instead, Washington applauds passage of the “No Assistance for Assad Act,” which is Congress’s version of putting “a hold” on recovery funds for the Syrian people. In remarks before the bill’s passage, Congressman Ed Royce explained:

Representatives of Syria, Iran, and Russia have spread out across the international community trying to gin up reconstruction money. They will not find it here!

It would be unconscionable for U.S. government funds to be used for stabilization or reconstruction in areas under control of the illegitimate Assad regime and its proxies. We are not going to support the building of infrastructure that will benefit Hezbollah, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, or foreign militias recruited and paid by the Iranian regime.

If—or when—the day comes that the government of Syria is no longer led by Bashar al-Assad and his proxies, then the U.S. can once again look at the prospect for assistance. We do have an interest in seeing a stable and secure—and not hostile—Syria one day.

But until then, I ask that members join with us to ensure no U.S. funding makes it into the hands of Assad and his proxies.

There are, however, other “Friends of Syria”—notably Russia, China, Iran, most of Syria’s neighbors, and scores of smaller nations—that have a different take on the merits of reconstruction and the economic and development opportunities it will provide.

According to Wajih Bizri, president of Lebanon’s International Chamber of Commerce, the Lebanese are forming partnerships with Syrian counterparts in tourism and commercial projects. “Anyone who is interested in going to Syria cannot wait until someone comes and tells him that everything is absolutely 100 percent okay in Syria,” Bizri says. “It will be too late then.”

Efforts are well underway in Lebanon’s Tripoli port, only 28 kilometers from the Syrian border, to expand its capacity to accommodate the expected increase in imports for Syria. Chinese companies figure prominently in that effort.

“I think it’s about time to focus all efforts on the development and reconstruction of Syria, and I think China will play a bigger role in this process by providing more aid to the Syrian people and the Syrian government,” noted Qi Qianjin, China’s ambassador to Syria, in February.

Russia itself has acknowledged the “colossal” task of financing Syria’s reconstruction, estimated at $250 billion. Without Western participation, rehabilitation will be slower and more costly, but the train has left the station. It can be slowed, at great humanitarian cost, but it cannot be stopped.

Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.                 

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