Editor’s Note: David W. Lesch is the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. His most recent books are: “Syria: A Modern History” and “The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
The decade-long Syrian civil war has been inestimably difficult for all Syrians. I have had many friends on both sides of the conflict who have died or have been displaced.
As many know, I frequently met with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad between 2004 and 2009 first to write a biography on him and then as something of an unofficial liaison between the United States and Syria at a time when bilateral relations were strained. I met a number of high-level Syrian officials, and I established a relationship with the Syrian president.
After a brutal civil war, which still simmers in a few parts of the country, some of these same people have been de facto or de jure labeled in the West as war criminals — first and foremost among them is Assad. There is an extensive web of international sanctions, most notably the Caesar Act passed by the US Congress, and UN resolutions arrayed against the Syrian government. How could the Biden administration assent to open a dialogue with a government so universally isolated, if not loathed, in the West?
This is a very hard question to answer. Believe me, I get it. I, myself, have a hard time advocating for any sort of dialogue with those who have so much blood on their hands; however, this has been a deadly and destructive civil war where there are many people in Syria on all sides with blood on their hands.
But I tend to gravitate toward a more realist foreign policy in this instance. Not that moralist and realist foreign policies are mutually exclusive. It’s always more palatable politically and psychologically if a particular foreign policy is accompanied by a moral imperative. But they are often separated by necessity and circumstance, which can be better digested if one is convinced there is a larger good at stake. In my opinion, a carefully negotiated and constructed US-Syrian dialogue can be mutually beneficial. As an American citizen, I think to myself: How can the United States benefit from this? What do the Syrians have to offer?
The United States does not need Syria nearly as much as the reverse. The dilapidated and dying Syrian economy desperately needs humanitarian and reconstruction aid as well as long-term foreign investment to begin the arduous task of trying to rebuild the country. Bottom line: Syria needs sanctions relief, and because of the stiff Treasury Department penalties imposed on any entities who violate the Caesar Act, the US is in a unique position to make it happen.
For the United States, stability is important in Syria — not only because of the immense suffering that has unfolded since the start of Syria’s war and the understandable revulsion, and sense of heartbreak, that Americans feel when confronted with it, but also because Syria borders US allies (Israel, Jordan, and Turkey) as well as countries who are seemingly at a tipping point toward state failure (Lebanon and Iraq). Any more destabilizing spillover from Syria could be the last straw.
In addition, as one of Syria’s main allies in the civil war along with Russia, Iran’s footprint in the country is extensive — including through its dutiful client, Hezbollah. Almost since the beginning of the conflict, Hezbollah’s enhanced presence in the country alone has been, and continues to be, seen as a constant threat to Israel; it is, therefore, the kindling that could potentially light the fire to a regional war. Reducing the Iranian presence is in the interest of the US and its allies.
So, there is the potential for some kind of compromise that could be a win-win for both countries. While it may be true that the US is unlikely to lift its sanctions wholesale, just as it’s unlikely Syria would expel Iran from its country, something like a limitation on Hezbollah’s presence in exchange for phased sanctions reduction on things like reconstruction supplies sounds broadly feasible and would at least make marginal improvements to a terrible situation.
The Biden administration has yet to set its Syria policy, something that would seem likely to happen in the coming months as it continues to evaluate the situation and as the still-new administration’s foreign policies on a host of global issues begin to coalesce.
There are those in the administration who are committed to keeping up the pressure on Assad until he falls from power — they certainly do not want to reward him with sanctions relief for being, in their eyes, a war criminal. And there are those who believe in this more-realist approach, that there are some possible quid pro quos, if for no other reason than to deliver more humanitarian assistance to a long-suffering population.
Having essentially won the war and recently garnering another seven-year term in office, Assad appears to be firmly entrenched in power for the foreseeable future; therefore, accountability and transitional justice are not coming anytime soon. In addition, some of Washington’s Arab friends of late have reportedly sought to reestablish relations with Damascus, recognizing strategic reality in the region the US may come to recognize as well.
I cannot emphasize this enough: The Biden administration’s Syria policy could go in one direction or the other, and once it is established, barring some crisis event, it will be immensely difficult to change it again for at least the next four years. Small gestures now by Syria could have a disproportionate salutary effect in the long term.
What can happen, what gesture can Syria make, to get a dialogue started?
It is widely believed in Western government and media circles that the Syrian government has held American journalist Austin Tice, who went missing in Syria in August 2012.
At present, many believe he is still alive, and there is no solid reason to think otherwise. Though the Syrian government has never publicly acknowledged that it is holding Tice, President Donald Trump made a direct plea in the form of a letter sent to President Assad in March 2020 asking for Syrian government assistance in returning Mr. Tice — without success.
It is my view that any progress on US-Syrian relations will NOT move forward without Syrian acknowledgment of and cooperation in providing reliable information on Austin Tice. Once this is done, the door is ajar for more dialogue, and the Biden administration’s Syria policy could very well veer in this direction, even if the stated US goal may remain for Assad to leave power and for a transitional government to take charge.
President Assad: NOW is the time to do what you can to meet the Biden administration in any middle ground that can be found, including by disclosing any possible information on Austin Tice’s whereabouts. It’s the right thing to do, and now is the right moment.