President Joe Biden takes office facing multiple crises: The pandemic, recession, and a sizeable minority of Americans believing he is not entitled to be president. Given these daunting challenges, there may be some sentiment in the new administration to “finish” with Syria; to end America’s connection to an internal conflict approaching its tenth year. Indeed, there are calls for a Biden administration Syria policy centering on “engagement” with the Assad regime; engagement leading to diplomatic relations and American participation in Syrian economic reconstruction under the regime’s auspices.
Advocates of engagement should, however, first answer a question: Would engagement really finish or reduce the involvement of the US, its allies, and its partners in the Syrian crisis? Put differently, would that crisis subside or end thanks to a process begun with engagement? Could Syria, under the Assad regime, successfully manage political and economic reconstruction, making Syria something other than a threat to regional and international peace; reconstruction that produces internal stability and political legitimacy, making it hard for extremists to thrive? Can a ruined country that has partially emptied itself onto its neighbors and into Western Europe be stabilized and rebuilt by Bashar al-Assad?
If advocates of engagement can say “Yes” to these questions, the view here is that they reside in the same parallel universe as those who believe Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election. Indeed, Joe Biden himself now suffers a legitimacy problem; many Republicans think he occupies the White House illegally, a belief promoted by his predecessor. But Biden’s legitimacy challenge can, with decent governance and the American judicial system, be gradually overcome. Can Assad’s legitimacy deficit be reversed?
“Legitimacy” involves nearly all citizens of a given country agreeing that the system governing them is worth supporting and defending, even if leaders sometimes make mistakes. Given the history of the American system it is not difficult to imagine the full restoration of political legitimacy. Yet one needs a very credulous imagination to envision such an outcome in Syria with Assad family rule in place.
Even Syrians who still support Assad because they fear (or cannot see) alternatives have no illusions about the regime’s brutality, incompetence, and corruption. And what of those who have opposed the regime? Labeled “terrorists” from the beginning by their rulers, they have been subjected to nonstop terror including mass civilian homicide, illegal detention (featuring torture, rape, starvation, and murder), and sieges aimed at denying food and medical care. Are the millions of victims of the regime expected to endow legitimacy on it and submit if Washington chooses now to deem Assad worthy of engagement? Or would ongoing state terror be acceptable to engagement’s advocates?
The international community has mandated full political transition as the pathway to political legitimacy and peace in Syria. This mandate is found in the Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria and in UN Security Council Resolution 2254. True: Russia has reneged on its commitment to Syrian political transition. True: Assad knows that yielding or sharing power starts his journey to The Hague, where he would be tried for crimes against humanity. But should the rest of the world, led by the US, abandon this mandate in the hope that Syria can be stabilized and rebuilt under Assad?
Persistent reports indicate Assad’s political base is restive. While the regime falsely claims that US sanctions on its kingpins cause economic hardship for all, that base clearly sees the regime’s avarice and indifference as shortages take hold and Covid-19 spreads. Indeed, is there anyone inside Syria who has ever credited the Assad regime with good governance and effective economic management? Are there any Syrians beyond the regime who would not welcome an inclusive national unity alternative to a self-centered family and entourage; an alternative elevating citizenship over sect and ethnicity, pursuing reconciliation with transitional justice, and extending the protection of the state to all Syrians?
The Biden administration would only further destabilize Syria by engaging with and sustaining a failing regime lacking in legitimacy. To facilitate the regime’s longevity is to extend Syria’s status as a fractured state; a Syria in which terrorists – Al Qaeda and Hezbollah – prosper while Syrians seeking dignity and opportunity leave. Under Assad, Syria can aspire to be no more than a Levantine North Korea.
The Obama administration’s pursuit of a nuclear deal with Iran helped explain its refusal to use limited military strikes to defend Syrian civilians from the regime’s mass homicide. After all, for Iran Assad is vital. He alone is willing to subordinate Syria both to Tehran and its representative in Lebanon: Hezbollah. One prays, however, that the Biden team has learned that what happens in Syria does not stay there; that erasing red lines and assuring Iran’s Supreme Leader about the immunity of his Syrian client only broadcasts weakness and promotes instability around the globe.
Has Assad “won?” He has not. To the extent Iran and Russia have rescued him militarily, perhaps a new definition of the term “catastrophic victory” has been created. Assad is supremely skillful in executing a survival strategy rooted in terror. Yet that strategy, compounded by regime corruption and incompetence, has rendered him illegitimate and incapable of governing effectively.
A regime rescue mission in the name of engagement would fail. The US, its allies, and its partners have no business engaging the premier war criminal (to date) of the 21st century and the author of Syria’s implosion. Moscow and Tehran earnestly pray that the new administration will through a lifeline to their foundering client.
Political transition alone will put Syria on the path to reconstruction while protecting the security of states – including the US – threatened by the consequences of Assad regime terror. Political transition – enabled by discipline and patience and accompanied by humanitarian assistance and protection for Syrians in need - should remain the bedrock of the Biden administration’s policy toward Syria. If engagement is what the regime wants, let it send an empowered delegation to the UN in Geneva to negotiate the terms of Syria’s political transition.
*Ambassador Frederic C. Hof teaches at Bard College in New York. In 2011 and 2012 he served as advisor to the US Secretary of State on political transition in Syria.