At their summit in Helsinki, Finland, in July, President Trump and President Vladimir Putin of Russia reportedly agreed to end the Syrian war and to move Iranian forces away from the Syria-Israel border. President Trump has also indicated that he is willing to accept President Bashar al-Assad’s remaining in office and is prepared to withdraw American forces from Syria. This is a start. But more is needed to end the violence in Syria.
Beginning in 2011, Western and Middle Eastern powers rallied around the slogan “Assad must go.” This singular focus on the fate of Syria’s president hardened positions on all sides and made it much more difficult to explore other options.
The calls for regime change have diminished since then, but there are still some voices in Western policy circles that demand a full transition of power from the Assad government. A better approach at this point would be to test the Syrian government’s ability to embark on a new course that has the potential to bring the war to a close.
Western countries, including the United States, should re-engage incrementally with the Syrian government. They can start by reopening their embassies in Syria, since Western diplomats’ absence from Damascus has led to missed opportunities. The West should also abandon the goal of regime change and temper expectations of democratic transition in Syria in the short-to-medium term. Instead, the focus should be on patiently building democracy.
In exchange for this re-engagement, Damascus should be required to enact reforms, though the West must keep its demands moderate. Additionally, the West should be prepared to contribute to the reconstruction of Syria, perhaps selectively by sector. Humanitarian assistance alone will remain a bottomless pit as long as enterprising Syrians are unable to revive the country’s economy and create jobs, particularly for young people.
Syria’s economy cannot be revived while the country remains under sanctions that hurt ordinary citizens. Lifting sanctions will be crucial to solving the huge challenges of reconstruction, unemployment and economic revival. Otherwise, a generation of Syrian children coming of age in the next few years and idle young men now in their 20s will be susceptible to insurgent and extremist recruiters and could resume the war in the next decade.
To begin addressing these many challenges, all concerned must engage in a political process to wind down the war. Undermining of the Geneva peace process by Syria or European indifference to the situation will only lead to greater instability and suffering.
There are other drivers of the conflict in Syria that must be addressed. Mr. Assad’s government, with the help of Russia and Iran, has regained control of much of the territory it had lost to an assortment of rebel forces, ranging from secular militias to jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other violent extremist groups.
Despite these gains, much of Syria remains outside the government’s control, including, according to Carter Center research, 27 percent of the country’s territory in the north and east that is held by Syrian Kurds with the help of an international coalition led by the United States. Opposition groups, some with close ties to Al Qaeda, control the northwestern province of Idlib. And Turkey has established along its border a protectorate in northwest Syria.
In July, a Kurdish delegation met with the Syrian government to negotiate a continuation of the de facto autonomy the Kurds secured early in the war. This was a constructive development, and more such talks should be encouraged. The opposition, which is concentrated in Idlib province, should also explore what is possible through political dialogue. Continuing to fight would be futile. At the same time, determining the fate of the Turkish-occupied territory in northwest Syria will require an international intervention.
For these complex measures to come to fruition, the Syrian government must accept the inevitability of reforms and implement confidence-building measures, including the release of detainees and accountability for their treatment.
Immense violations of the laws of war and human rights have been committed in Syria, including the use of chemical weapons. Some such violations continue today. As a result, half the country’s people have been displaced, and their homes and livelihoods destroyed. The international community has been a helpless witness to these violations, except in 2013, when a joint Russian-American effort removed from Syria the bulk of the country’s chemical weapons stockpile.
Assigning responsibility for the catastrophe in Syria would be an important part of postwar healing, but the priority now should be to end the war. Many Syrians have concluded that almost any peace, even an imperfect or ugly peace, is better than ongoing violence. The alternative is a failed state for decades ahead in the heart of the Middle East.
Jimmy Carter, the founder of the Carter Center, was president of the United States from 1977 to 19881.