We need diplomacy not sanctions for peace in Syria

We need diplomacy not sanctions for peace in Syria
© Getty Images

Many Democrats have been confused by President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump watching 'very closely' as Portland braces for dueling protests WaPo calls Trump admin 'another threat' to endangered species Are Democrats turning Trump-like? MORE’s announced withdrawal of troops from Syria, and some have called the withdrawal a mistake. Yet Trump’s announcement is not wrong, just incomplete. It is time to leave Syria, but also time to ramp up U.S. diplomacy, both directly with the region’s governments and through the United Nations. Unfortunately, this week, some House Democrats are proposing to use their new majority to push through Congress a slate of wide-ranging sanctions that would make diplomacy much harder.

The U.S. went into Syria in 2011 to support an insurrection against Bashar al-Assad. In 2012, President Obama signed a presidential finding calling on the CIA to work with Saudi Arabia to support the overthrow of the Assad regime, code-named Operation Timber Sycamore. This billion-dollar CIA operation led to weapons in the hands of Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. Most Americans would be dismayed to learn that our government armed groups affiliated with Al Qaeda, the very group associated with 9/11.  Since 2014, the U.S. has been directly involved in combat missions, mainly supporting insurgents in the fight against ISIS.

ADVERTISEMENT

In 2017, Trump correctly decided to end Timber Sycamore. Now he is proposing to withdraw the remaining U.S. forces.  

The truth is that the U.S. engagement from 2011 was misguided and doomed to fail. The U.S. goal was to overthrow Assad in order to end a regime backed by Russia and Iran. Yet, both countries were prepared to more than match Obama’s commitment of forces, especially with Russia’s intervention in 2015, rendering the U.S.-backed insurgents a complete failure. The misguided proxy war stoked by the U.S., Saudi Arabia, and other US allies eventually displaced more than 10 million people and led to the deaths of around half a million civilians and combatants.  

Moreover, Operation Timber Sycamore supported Sunni jihadists favored by Saudi Arabia, and it was the splintering of those jihadist forces that led to the rise of ISIS in Syria. This was a classic boomerang effect, where the initial CIA action came back to haunt the U.S. in even more disastrous terms.

The initial goal of the U.S. — to overthrow the Syrian regime in order to install a government friendly to the U.S. and antagonistic to Russia and Iran — was and is out of reach. That goal is now wholly disowned by the foreign policy community. When Obama’s ambassador to Syria, Robert S. Ford, was asked in December why he had shifted away from “pushing for the U.S. to be more involved in Syria,” he replied, “The Syrian government won the civil war basically two years ago. And I have been saying since that time that the Americans need to be realistic, need to accept that the Assad government, as awful as it is, has won the war and that we need to adapt our strategies in the Middle East because of that.”  

Yet, some House Democrats have apparently not gotten the message, choosing instead to push H.R. 31 — the so-called Caesar Civilian Protection Act — for a floor vote this week under fast-track procedures, rather than pursuing careful debate and deliberation through the committee process, as advocates for peace and diplomacy have urged. This bill aims to sanction Syria, Russia and Iran even further. 

That would be a grave mistake, doing little more than to risk further chaos in Syria as U.S. troops withdraw. The predictable result would be greater violence, more space for ISIS to reconstitute itself, and a further reason for Syria to lean on Iran and Russia, with no benefits whatsoever for the Syrian people. It would not lead to regime change nor to any other particular political outcome within Syria. 

This round of sanctions would also punish the Gulf states that are normalizing relations with the Syrian government and should contribute to financing the country’s reconstruction. The Kurds are engaged in military coordination with Syrian state forces that have taken over northeastern Syria, providing the Kurds an important buffer against Turkey. Incredibly, the Kurds too could become subject to sanctions for their relations with the Syrian government.

Instead, the Democrats should favor a diplomatic solution to the Syrian proxy war. With effective diplomacy, it is possible to achieve important U.S. foreign policy goals in the context of the troop withdrawal. National Security Advisor John Bolton’s recent warning to Turkey against military strikes on the Kurds is part of the necessary diplomacy. The U.S. should seek an agreement in the UN Security Council on ending the war, reconstructing the country, and accommodating the legitimate security concerns of all regional actors. This would help to further stabilize the entire region.  

H.R. 31 is an outdated package of sanctions that would do nothing to improve outcomes for the beleaguered Syrian civilians. Rather than advancing H.R. 31, House Democrats should lead the call for international diplomacy to end the violence in Syria, remove outside forces, protect the Kurds, and begin the reconstruction in Syria funded mainly by the region itself. This approach would be vital for the survival and health of millions of people devastated by the futile and misjudged proxy war. 

ADVERTISEMENT

It is time to end the failed U.S. wars of regime change in Middle East. The proposed new set of sanctions would perpetuate rather than end the violence. We need a new approach, based on diplomacy.   

Jeffrey Sachs is University Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. Sachs served as special advisor to United Nations Secretary-GeneralAntónio Guterres on the Sustainable Development Goals, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on both the Sustainable Development Goals and Millennium Development Goals, and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Millennium Development Goals.