Event Summary: US Policy on Syria in the Age of Coronavirus
On Wednesday, May 20, 2020, the SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘US Policy on Syria in the Age of Coronavirus.’ The discussion featured Colonel (Ret.) Richard Outzen, member of the Policy Planning Staff at the Department of State, Jomana Qaddour, Nonresident Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and Will Todman, Associate Fellow of the Middle East Program at CSIS. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
To begin the discussion, Colonel Outzen explained that the global pandemic has not had much of an impact on the US policy toward Syria. US policy has largely remained the same and in some ways, COVID-19 has created space for opportunity. From 2015 to 2018, the Assad regime was able to make significant gains against the opposition and many predicted an outright regime victory. But now, this dynamic has completely changed. There are stressors within the regime that come from resource problems as well as the Caesar Act coming into play in June, which Colonel Outzen believes will be a game changer. This will provide the US with the tools to promote the accountability of the Assad regime and directly support the Syrian military. He made it clear that the US has provided the Syrian people with lifesaving aid and has committed $18 million to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Syria. But, there can be no reconstruction of Syria without the implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 2254. There is reason to believe that Russia is warming up to this resolution due to public statements from those close to the Kremlin criticizing the Assad regime and its lack of governance. Colonel Outzen finished by highlighting the importance of finding a political solution to the Syrian crisis in accordance with Resolution 2254.
Next, Qaddour began her introductory remarks by demonstrating that the Astana summit intended to set the framework in which Russia, Iran, and Turkey could deal with Syria, specifically Idlib. But because terrorism never left Idlib, Russia and Assad used this as carte blanche to attack the area. She then went onto explain that the HTS has placed Syrians in Idlib in a difficult position. The Syrian people view the HTS in the same light they view Assad: responsible for immense oppression and violence. In terms of US funding, Qaddour made it clear that the reduction in US funding puts the burden on civil society. Providing humanitarian assistance to Syrians is too large of a responsibility to place on civil society; it is forced to go head to head with the HTS ill-equipped and unarmed. Even if the HTS disbanded tomorrow, a lot of work still needs to be done in terms of civil society. Additionally, Qaddour provided a recommendation for Turkey. She stated that while the Turkish government has provided critical cross-border aid, it has yet to view Syrian civil society as a partner in Idlib.
Todman elaborated on the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, exacerbated by a nonexistent healthcare system from almost a decade of conflict. In his eyes, Assad has viewed the pandemic as a new opportunity to capitalize on human suffering and take advantage of his rivals. The regime has prevented the WHO from setting up testing facilities in Syria, and the aid that is allowed in the country is being funneled to pockets of Syria held by the regime. In 2014, the UN mandated cross-border aid by setting up four border crossings. This has become an increasingly political issue in the Security Council as Russia uses its veto as an opportunity to push for the normalization of the Assad government and claim infringement on Syrian sovereignty. Because of this, the US does not find itself in a commanding position; it is forced to convince Russia that blocking cross-border aid runs contrary to Moscow’s own interests. Todman also brought up the fact that the US can use its funding to the UN as leverage to undermine the Kremlin’s agenda. While he does not advocate for cutting UN funding, he notes that some of this funding does in fact end up in regime-held areas and the US can leverage its power to help vulnerable Syrian people.