It Might be Time to Normalize Relations with Syria
With the Syrian civil war nearing its 12th year, Syrian families find their hopes for peace dwindling as the world turns toward Ukraine. For the West, the war in Ukraine is a message that it will do whatever it takes to protect the rights of people to decide their own fate. For Syrians, the war in Ukraine is a reminder that the West could have done more but didn’t.
The humanitarian needs of the Syrian people are enormous. Over 5 million are refugees and some 7 million are internally displaced. They watched as the world rapidly mobilized for Ukraine, leaving them behind at their most vulnerable. Now, the United States must normalize relations with Syria in accordance with UN Resolution 2254 to give a voice to the Syrian people to decide their own fate.
Resolution 2254 calls on the UN to convene the parties to the conflict to negotiate a ceasefire. Within 18 months of the negotiated ceasefire, a non-sectarian transition government would hold an election under UN supervision to decide the next president of Syria. This resolution is the only effective and internationally supported method to end the humanitarian crisis in Syria.
Historically, the United States has played a vital role in the Middle East. Yet in Syria, the United States chose to exacerbate the conflict rather than advance peace through its role as the backer of the regime’s main opposition, the Syrian Defense Forces. A clear end to the civil war cannot be achieved without a U.S. agreement.
Current U.S. policy towards Syria includes a variety of sanctions and diplomatic rebukes, with President Biden going so far as to say that the United States would ‘never’ normalize relations with the Assad regime. Although relations with the government are non-existent, the United States has provided more than $14 billion over the years in humanitarian assistance to the Syrian people. Threatening the effectiveness of that assistance is a 2020 UN Security Council resolution that limits the cross-border delivery of aid to just one border crossing. With 80% of Syrians living below the poverty line, reducing the impact of humanitarian aid will mean leaving Syrians to die.
Normalizing relations with Syria will improve the effectiveness of humanitarian aid delivery. The Assad regime is hesitant to allow ‘unfriendly’ states entry into Syria. Normalizing relations would alter the relationship between the United States and Syria, enabling the regime to allow for aid to cross through multiple entry points unhindered. The sheer number of internally displaced persons requires multiple entry points for an effective U.S. response.
Normalizing relations with Syria will enhance regional counterterrorism efforts. While ISIS is greatly diminished, recent attacks in Syria suggest that the group is back on the rise. Normalizing relations with Syria must include resuming intelligence sharing to improve existing counterterrorism efforts in order to thwart an ISIS resurgence.
Normalizing relations with Syria will also protect our allies in the region. As a result of U.S. sanctions, the Assad regime started an illicit drug trade of fenethylline across its borders. Regional allies like Israel, Turkey, and Jordan are bearing the consequences. Normalizing relations with the Assad regime will enable the regime to earn revenues through legal trade and end its drug trade that threatens our allies.
Normalization relations will not be a free pass for Assad. It would be contingent on the Assad regime’s support of UN Resolution 2254. Assad is free to run in the election following the creation of a transition government, but he would face a referendum on his handling of the civil war. Assad must understand that his actions have consequences if he wants to enjoy the benefits of normal relations with the United States.
The Syrian people continue to suffer every day that the United States ignores them. Nearly 12 years have passed, and aside from humanitarian relief, America’s response to the crisis has been to implement sanctions that make everyday life difficult for Syrians. Banning certain goods from entering Syria only makes it harder for Syrians to afford the luxury of deciding their own fate. In the face of conflict and death, it is time for the United States to help the Syrian people – and renew its commitment to prosperity and peace.