New Paper Offers ‘Course Correction’ for America’s Failed Syria Policy


CONTACT: Jessica Rosenblum, Quincy Institute, 202.800.4662/ [email protected]

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Current U.S. policy towards Syria does not serve the U.S. interest and risks tilting the country towards collapse that will likely cause greater suffering for the Syrian people, further destabilization of neighboring countries, and military escalation between Iran and Israel, according to a new report.

The paper — Course Correction: Preventing State Collapse in Syria — released today by the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, calls for an alternative course of measured and pragmatic diplomatic engagement with the Syrian government and its allies. Since the start of the Syrian civil war there has been an unbridgeable gap between stated U.S. goals in Syria and the means available to achieve them. The proposals in this paper recognize that gap, as well as the reality that Assad cannot be coerced, negotiated or forced out of power. 

Authored by Steven Simon, Quincy Institute Senior Research Analyst and former member of the National Security Council staff under the Obama and Clinton administrations, the report argues that the U.S. lacks the ability to reverse the outcome of Syria’s civil war and should focus instead on preventing a catastrophic state collapse that would undercut both American interests and those of Syrian civilians.

“Recognizing that Assad is largely culpable for the war, the worst outcome for both U.S. interests and for Syrian civilians would be total collapse of the Syrian state, “ Simon says. With millions of Syrians internally displaced, and yet more living as refugees abroad; with the ongoing dangers of the COVID-19 pandemic; and with economic troubles now compounded by the pending collapse of neighboring Lebanon, Syrians cannot absorb more turmoil.

“If the Syrian state were to fail, migration and internal displacement would grow exponentially and repatriation would come to a halt,” Simon writes, “Apart from the humanitarian consequences for the affected population, neighboring countries would bear the brunt of the refugee surge. The anarchic conditions accompanying state failure would turn parts of Syria into a game preserve for militants.”

The Trump administration’s shambolic “maximum pressure” policy towards Syria makes these outcomes likely. While the U.S. administration officially denies that its goal is to topple the Assad regime, advocates within the administration, led by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have chosen a policy designed to do just that. Sanctions have proven unlikely to achieve the already dubious goal of regime change; they will, however,  increase the suffering of the Syrian people, potentially destabilizing the Syrian state.

Through carefully structured diplomacy, the U.S. can prevent these outcomes. Simon suggests a concrete set of actions by the Syrian government and its backers, and a set that the United States can take in return. 

From Syria, the U.S. requires: 

• Government cooperation in and facilitation of humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, including unfettered movement of goods and services and unimpeded operations of NGOs,

• Syrian constraints on Iranian and Iranian proxy movements in Syrian territory, to prevent an escalation of conflict between Israel and Iran,

• The release of arbitrary detainees, including American citizens, and agreement on International Red Cross access to detention facilities​.

In return, the U.S. can offer:

• The suspension of sanctions that impede reconstruction efforts, along with the return of oilfields to Syrian government control,

• Open diplomatic contact with the Syrian regime, in addition to the use of intermediaries,

• Collaboration with Russia and Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to stabilize the country and help rebuild it.

“As is so often the case with the most complex and intractable foreign policy challenges, American statecraft is stuck with trying to achieve the least-bad outcome given realities on the ground that, while unpalatable, are also unchangeable in view of the limits on U.S. influence and the costs and risks Washington is willing to bear,” Simon writes.

The policy recommendations in this paper would move the U.S. toward ameliorating rather than exacerbating these conditions. Simon says: “The aim of this report  is not to strengthen the Syrian regime, but to enable the reconstruction of a viable Syrian society and economy, regardless of who rules the country. Under the present circumstances, this is the best outcome that can be achieved.