The crisis in Idlib had its fleeting moment on the Democratic presidential debate stage three weeks ago. As the race narrows into a contest between Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders and Americans’ chief national security concern shifts to COVID-19, this might have been all the attention Syria — or foreign policy in general — gets this election cycle. But how a candidate approaches Syria policy reflects what sort of commander-in-chief they might be. As of mid-March, a million people in opposition-held northwest Syria have fled a Syrian, Russian, and Iranian offensive. This is the largest displacement in the largest-scale humanitarian crisis in a generation, but perhaps its continued framing as a humanitarian tragedy has only added to the misfortune. The past nine years of conflict in Syria have done incalculable damage to the international liberal order and to U.S. interests. President Barack Obama sought to contain the Syrian conflict, and President Donald Trump has eyed the exit. Shades of remorse over actions not taken earlier on in the Syrian conflict have been expressed openly and in private by Obama-era national security figures ranging from Hillary Clinton and John Kerry to former NSC staff. When it comes to proposing a strategy for Syria’s future, most Democrats today will outline some version of the following: The U.S. must stop the bleeding, lead international diplomacy and support the Syria peace process objectives of UN Security Council Resolution 2254, and take in more Syrian refugees. But few have any idea how to achieve these objectives, and fewer still can articulate them to an evolving Democratic base weary of U.S. involvement in the Middle East. Syria and its global spillover have the potential to occupy the next few presidents, and Democrats vying for the White House ought to fully grasp the gravity of the situation and commit to its resolution. Proposals to reclaim Congress’s authority over declarations of war may provide a framework for a long-overdue debate about foreign policy, but by themselves will not offer any answers. Before considering policy options, Democrats should start by communicating in earnest with the American people about the moral and strategic stakes in Syria.
Laying out the moral stakes
Democrats ought to build a moral firewall around Syria policy, establishing a framework for understanding the Syrian conflict and debating policy options. This begins by laying out the moral stakes.
First, objectively speaking, what is happening in Syria today is unmatched in terms of its severity and scope. It therefore requires a proportionate political response. The humanitarian situations in Yemen and Libya, among others, are abysmal and have broad strategic implications, but Syria is the largest manmade humanitarian disaster since World War II. More than half a million people have been killed. Nearly 12 million people have been displaced, half of whom have fled the country as refugees. No conflict in history has had its mass atrocities as extensively documented by the media and human rights monitors. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have passed through the Assad regime’s notorious prison network. The scale of the suffering, displacement, and mass atrocities being perpetrated — and its spillover effects — is unlike any other conflict in the world today. Many of the region’s actors, from Saudi Arabia and Iran to Turkey, Jordan, and Israel, as well as non-state actors such as Hezbollah, are embroiled in the conflict to some degree. How aware and engaged a member of Congress is about Syria ought to be the litmus test for how serious he or she is about long-term peace and security in the region.
Second, what began in Syria in 2011 was a democratic movement against the authoritarian Assad regime and one of a series of Arab democratic uprisings. The values of the Syrian cause align with those of both the center-left and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. For instance, Sen. Sanders has laid out a global democratic vision to counter authoritarianism. Former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, when asked about the situation in Idlib on the debate stage three weeks ago, responded with a call for solidarity and support for self-determination. In other words, regardless of how the situation in Syria has devolved, Democrats should not find it difficult to make a political case for supporting the struggle of its people on values alone. Importantly, an American majority already exists for U.S. engagement to solve crises such as Syria. The 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs annual survey of Americans’ views on foreign policy found that, in addition to there being strong majorities of Americans across party lines who still support an active U.S. role in global affairs, 82 percent of those surveyed support the promotion of democracy and human rights, and 83 percent support the provision of humanitarian aid.
Third, Syria is the U.S.’s fight. As a superpower and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, the U.S. is co-responsible for global peace and security. Among the other P5 countries, China and Russia have enabled Bashar al-Assad, while France and the UK follow the U.S.’s lead. The U.S. has unmatched tools at its disposal, including the use of military force as a last resort. Many have argued that the events in Syria — the mass atrocities, Syrian and Russian airstrikes against civilians, and hundreds of cases of use of chemical weapons, for starters — have met the threshold that led the U.S. and NATO to act in the Balkans in the 1990s. The just-war theory and Responsibility to Protect (R2P) arguments in Syria abound, but there is, at minimum, a “you break it, you buy it” argument supported by some who are against military intervention: The U.S., for its involvement in the Syrian conflict through its failed, paltry political and material support for anti-government parties to the conflict, is directly or indirectly responsible for bringing about the conflict’s resolution. Therefore, all levers of statecraft — economic, diplomatic, and military — must be considered to bring about a sustainable peace in Syria.
Because Assad and his backers have opted for an all-out victory rather than a political settlement, diplomacy in Syria has failed for the past nine years. Calling for diplomacy in Syria will not magically change the facts on the ground. An important step is to consider whether Americans would support a significant change to the status quo to make diplomacy work. The 2017 Chicago Council survey found that 76 percent of Democrats, and 67 percent of Americans overall, support the use of U.S. troops to deal with humanitarian crises, while 73 percent of Democrats, and 73 percent of Americans overall, support the use of U.S. troops to prevent a government from using chemical or biological weapons. In the Syrian context, then, there has been a gulf between Americans’ foreign policy views and political leadership.
The need for a whole-of-country strategy
Making a moral case for a more robust Syria policy includes adopting a whole-of-country strategy to talking about the crisis, elevating Syrian voices, and countering disinformation. An example of Syria policy being made piecemeal rather than through a whole-of-country approach is the drastically different political interest in the events in northwest and northeast Syria. In northwest Syria, we see the result of mass displacement and siege warfare by Assad and his allies waged against civilians living under armed opposition control. In Syria’s northeast, the U.S. invested blood and treasure to lead the counter-ISIS coalition. Trump has claimed victory and has threatened to withdraw U.S. forces. Viewing Syria policy exclusively through a counterterrorism lens has placed allies on a collision course and strengthened the hand of Assad, Russia, and Iran. Moreover, the rise of ISIS and other jihadist groups, including Iranian-backed proxies, is a byproduct of the Syrian conflict, and not the other way around. When the Obama administration decided to shelve a whole-of-country strategy in favor of a counter-ISIS military operation, the issue of advancing the Syrian peace process became secondary. As Syrian American policy experts Jomana Qaddour and Ibrahim al-Assil put it, the U.S. needs “skin in the game” to build leverage against Assad and his backers, using the tools, aid, and partnerships at the U.S.’s disposal across northern Syria to establish the guardrails for diplomacy.
Another example of the piecemeal way in which Syria policy is being addressed is how the refugee crisis is discussed by many Democrats. President Trump has undermined the U.S.’s moral standing in Syria by gutting the refugee resettlement program. But Democratic-aligned officials, legislators, and advocates are practicing a form of negligence when advocating for the rights of Syrian refugees without addressing the ongoing violence and lack of progress toward a diplomatic settlement. It is often the case that the Syrian refugee issue is incorporated into anti-Trump messaging while the reasons for their displacement and suffering are ignored wholesale.
Syrian voices can advise on how to elevate human rights, facilitate humanitarian aid, and bring about an end to the bloodshed. These voices are often neglected in U.S. political debates around Syria, particularly when the U.S. has either threatened or carried out retaliations against the Syrian government’s proven use of chemical weapons. Far too often, Syrians are being talked over. Many Western activists and elected officials have encouraged sloganeering-as-policy such as “Hands Off Syria,” blaming the West for actions taken, rather than those not taken — a framing that ignores the disproportionately large role of other world actors, such as Russia and Iran, which have intervened and supported the Assad regime’s mass killing of civilians. Detractors of a more robust Syria policy would have Americans believe that Syria is another Iraq, Afghanistan, or Libya, rather than its own case; the complexity of the Syrian conflict facilitates continued reception to such framing. But these narratives deny Syrians their agency and ignore the sacrifices of those who protested the Assad regime’s rule in 2011. Hardly ever are civil society actors — local councils, journalists, and activists who resisted both Assad and jihadist elements among the opposition groups — depicted by the left as anything but pawns in a U.S. regime change plot.
Another example pertains to broader Syria policy and the levers available to wield leverage in diplomatic talks. Sanctions such as those imposed by the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, recently signed into law, target Syrian government figures and assets that have aided and abetted war crimes and crimes against humanity. The bill includes exceptions for humanitarian aid and conditions for lifting sanctions tied to civilian protection and accountability for war crimes. Despite attempts at a more nuanced sanctions policy from voices in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, many so-called “grassroots” anti-war groups have opposed the Caesar bill. This is despite Syrian and international humanitarian organizations advocating for sanctions as a non-military tool to achieve progress on diplomatic talks. Progressive Democratic policymakers and activists can benefit from those with on-the-ground experience and expertise by creating fora that welcome these voices. Syrian and Syrian American humanitarian and democracy advocates have been widely involved in pressuring lawmakers, informing scholarship at think tanks, and supporting aid and development, but it is in the Democratic grassroots where Syrian perspectives are rarely solicited.
Disinformation has also done much to undermine Syrian voices in Democratic-aligned spaces. Russian propaganda smearing Syrian humanitarian workers and muddying the waters around chemical weapons investigations in Syria has been weaponized by elements within the Democratic Party. Most prominent among these voices is Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who visited Assad in 2016 following the siege and destruction of east Aleppo under the pretenses of peace and diplomacy. Today, Gabbard uses her presidential campaign platform on the progressive left to whitewash the Assad regime’s war crimes and has parroted the regime’s claims that its war is against terrorists like al-Qaeda and ISIS. Progressives serious about a morally sound foreign policy ought to make swift examples out of individuals such as Gabbard and others riding the coattails of the progressive movement. These arguments, which exploit Americans’ war-weariness and distrust of national security officials following the Iraq War, only hurt Syrian civilians and misrepresent facts critical to U.S. national security interests. Disinformation around the perpetration of mass atrocities in Syria has also dampened calls for justice and accountability, which are among the few non-military tools to deter malign actors.
Democrats must reclaim moral standing
Syrians expect the Democratic Party, and particularly its burgeoning progressive wing, to own the moral leadership on this crisis. The Republican Party has attempted to claim the moral high-ground on Syria, through optics, support for sanctions and Trump’s retaliations against chemical attacks in 2017 and 2018, and bold rhetoric against the Assad regime. One example is how Iran hawks in the GOP scored a moral victory when Democrats condemned Trump’s targeted killing of Qassem Soleimani as a move that would spark ”World War III” — an outcome that never materialized — while ignoring the war that Soleimani and the tens of thousands of Iran-backed proxies waged against millions of innocent Syrians. Given that a Republican government is currently in power and the conflict is ongoing, Syrians, including Syrian Americans, have targeted more humanitarian advocacy efforts toward the GOP, the dissonance between its rhetoric on Syria and its harsh policy toward refugees notwithstanding. Democrats need to understand an important point though: For many in the Middle East, Donald Trump may have closed the U.S.’s doors to refugees, but Barack Obama began to draw in its curtains at a time when U.S. leadership was desperately needed to prevent mass atrocities. A Democratic administration will need to reclaim the party’s and the U.S.’s moral standing.
But as the International Rescue Committee’s David Miliband put it recently, making the case for engagement in Syria on moral grounds is not enough when Americans are war-weary and concerned with other national security priorities. Democrats can no longer feed into the narrative that U.S. national interests have been immune to the events in Syria. Most of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates have articulated themes and values that could facilitate a strategic reassessment of America’s policy on Syria. One place to start — and this should be chief among the next U.S. president’s priorities — is by restoring the U.S.’s global credibility through its commitment to multilateralism, diplomacy, and international law and norms.
The effects of an American withdrawal from the region
The clearest test case of the effects of America’s withdrawal from the Middle East on its alliances is U.S.-Turkey relations. Syria is the seed of atrophy in the NATO alliance. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s behavior resembles the international relations equivalent of a cry for help. Turkey's isolation in Syria prompted its drift toward a tenuous marriage of convenience with Russia. The Turkish response to a regime offensive in Idlib, now paused by yet another cease-fire, demonstrates that Turkey cannot rely on Russia to secure its interests in the long run. But it has not been able to rely on the U.S. either. Erdogan has enforced his declared red-line in Idlib to prevent an all-out regime victory and an influx of a further 3 million refugees on top of the 4 million Syrians that Turkey already hosts. Out of desperation, Erdogan is weaponizing the Syrian refugee crisis — temporarily opening the borders to allow refugees to travel onward to Europe to force support from Western partners. Turkey’s Operation Spring Shield ably wiped out a number of regime targets, including Syrian air defense batteries once used by Obama-era officials as an excuse for not taking military action that would save lives. It doesn’t seem hard to imagine how Turkish capabilities, backed by NATO, Five Eyes, and regional partners, could be used to produce meaningful civilian protection measures in northern Syria and bring Assad and his backers to the negotiation table.
Syria should be understood by Democrats as one example of how U.S. leadership, or the lack thereof, encourages unilateral behavior and dangerous violations of international norms by its own allies. When Trump threatened to withdraw all troops from northeast Syria, most Democrats called on Turkey to avoid attacking U.S.-backed, largely Syrian Kurdish forces that Turkey views as aligned with a domestic terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). Democrats, for the most part, have not spent the past several years criticizing the Trump and Obama administrations for letting Turkey fend for itself in Syria, including against U.S.-backed proxies it considers an existential threat. This has not been lost on Turkey, and thus the next Democratic president will need to work to rebuild trust with Ankara, among other regional partners worried about a continuation of the Obama-era posture toward the region.
Similarly, Syria policy has also affected democracy and security in Europe, and a Democratic Party that believes in the unity and security of Europe should be concerned with conflicts on Europe’s frontier. At every juncture of the Syrian conflict, it has taken crises at Europe’s borders to jolt Brussels into action. These actions have included the amoral and, under international law, unacceptable 2016 refugee deal with Turkey, under which the EU provided billions of euros to Ankara in exchange for ending the migrant flow to Europe. It also includes action taken by Greece today denying refugees the right to seek asylum. More broadly, the refugee crisis as well as the security vacuum that jihadist groups in Syria have taken advantage of has been weaponized by right-wing groups and Russian disinformation campaigns across Europe — not dissimilar to how the refugee crisis was leveraged by Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
It is only by adopting and advocating for a moral and strategic framework for Syria policy that the Democratic Party will be in a position to address a critically important crisis that affects the stability of both the Middle East and Europe. Making Syrian voices central to this and adopting a whole-of-country strategy will enable a Democratic administration to more credibly and ably assess policy options and communicate them to the American people.
Adham Sahloul was a Middle East policy advisor to Pete Buttigieg’s 2020 presidential campaign. His analyses have been published by the Center for Global Policy, The Diplomat, Lawfare, and Axios. He holds a master’s in international security from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. You can follow him on Twitter @AdhamSahloul. The views expressed in this article are his own.
Photo by DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP via Getty Images