Western powers have come to realize that dislodging Syria’s Bashar al-Assad from his throne is costlier than had been assumed when the peaceful uprising began in 2011. After half a million deaths, the vast majority of which came at the hands of forces loyal to the Assad regime, tens of thousands of authentic photos evidencing industrial-scale torture in Assad’s dungeons, and the displacement of half of the country’s population, an about-face seems to be taking hold in Western policy circles.
Assad’s intransigence throughout the conflict is bearing fruit and Western countries are lowering their expectations—perhaps a change in behavior is good enough for now. Conversation has recently focused on a more-for-more approach, a strategy in which small concessions, incrementally offered on the condition of reciprocity, are intended to lead to a mutually beneficial relationship that bridges the gap between Western objectives in Syria and those pursued by the leadership in Damascus. In December 2021, the U.N.’s Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pedersen, said that he had meetings in several Arab countries as well as with the Americans and Europeans and he thinks that “there is a serious opportunity to discuss the possibility of implementing a step-by-step approach.”
Currently, most countries opposing Assad want him to accept U.N. Resolution 2254, which, among other things, calls for fair elections, a new constitution, and credible, inclusive, and non-sectarian governance. However, Assad has refused to budge as the level of pressure applied on him falls considerably short of what is needed to force him into accepting the terms of Resolution 2254, which will ultimately push him out of power and potentially in prison. Given the agonizing political deadlock, a new approach to resolving the Syrian conflict is indeed warranted. But could a more-for-more policy work with Assad?
Taming a Master of Deception
While Assad’s allies have significant leverage over him, he’s not a mere puppet as often portrayed by those who despise him. He is a master of deception. After the invasion of Iraq in 2003, for example, Assad’s intelligence agencies facilitated the passage of jihadists into the country’s western borderlands. In an attempt to limit U.S. regional ambitions, Assad helped turn the situation into a quagmire for the U.S. and its allies while deceitfully attributing the transit of foreign fighters to the impossibility of controlling such porous borders and drawing an analogy to the difficulty the U.S. faces when attempting to control the flow of migrants from Mexico.
Additionally, during the first year of the civil unrest against his rule, Assad met two of the key demands of protesters: lifting the emergency laws that have been in place since 1963 and abolishing article eight of the constitution, which stipulates that “the leading party in the society and the state is the Baath Party.” In the years that followed, arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings of dissidents grew exponentially with the share of parliamentary seats held by the Ba’ath Party increasing ever since.
In 2013, after two years of extreme repression, the Assad regime, according to all reliable sources, began using chemical weapons to kill its own people. After allegedly handing over his entire stockpile of nerve agents under the auspices of the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, his regime launched chemical attacks repeatedly, crossing the Obama Administration’s “red line” against the use of chemical weapons.
Assad would be hard to tame as his history attests. Therefore, Western policymakers should proceed cautiously with him. And while a more-for-more approach is worth trying, four principles need to be applied while attempting its implementation.
To ensure that policy objectives are met sustainably, and given Assad’s record for deception, his concessions must be verifiable and counter concessions must be easily reversible. For example, lifting the Caesar Act, which is part of U.S. law, in exchange for Assad’s promise of releasing all living detainees is neither verifiable nor easily reversible. A more ideal scenario would involve, as a starting point, being given access to Assad’s prisons. Once the names of all living prisoners are verified, granting them amnesty can be done in exchange for lifting sanctions on financial transactions. These sanctions can be reimposed if Assad chooses to rearrest the released detainees
No Free Lunches
In November 2021, a group of companies from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced an investment of a ten-year loan to build a solar power station near Damascus following the visit of the UAE’s foreign minister to Syria – the first of its kind since the conflict started. Similar steps have been taken that benefit Assad without any discernible concessions in exchange. For example, his regime has also been allowed to host the Arab Energy Conference in 2024. Giving concessions without receiving returns makes the more-for-more approach look like unconditional normalization.
Adopt an All-Hands-on-Deck Approach
Western countries don’t view Syria as important enough to warrant giving meaningful concessions to Assad’s allies in exchange for ending the conflict. However, there exists some low cost, yet effective, policy changes that can increase Western leverage over Damascus. These changes include adopting an internally consistent, active, and coordinated policy. Another policy improvement lies in using existing toolkits, such as sanctions, more efficiently.
Do It with a Grand Strategy in Mind
The key risk in taking the more-for-more approach when dealing with Assad is using it as a steppingstone for a face-saving end to the conflict. A resolution that does not address the root causes – authoritarianism, brutality, sectarianism, inequality, and corruption – is a recipe for perpetual instability.
In neighboring Lebanon, for example, much of today’s sociopolitical fragility is rooted in the country’s Taif Agreement. Though the agreement ended the Civil War in 1990, it did so simply by tweaking the confessionally based power-sharing system and satisfying most of the country’s warlords while doing very little to address more substantive issues. A lasting agreement that improves regional stability and ends human suffering is an agreement between the people or for the people, not the rival warlords who repress them.
The more-for-more can be used for jumpstarting the deadlocked political process. It cannot, however, on its own deliver a lasting and fair solution to the conflict. Assad must go. He must ultimately accept UNSC resolution 2254 and be brought to justice. Any political action that does not keep this in mind in the long term is not only unfair to Syrians and humanity as a whole, but will plant the seeds for the next conflict in the region – once again leaving Syrians and the rest of the world to grapple with the consequences.
Dr. Karam Shaar is the researcher director at the Operations & Policy Center (OPC) in Ghazi Aintab, Turkey and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute. Follow him on Twitter: @Karam__Shaar.