Freeze and Build: A Strategic Approach to Syria Policy

Freeze and Build: A Strategy Focused on Aid and Development

With diplomatic efforts dead in the water and multinational institutions in a state of paralysis, the time has come to think outside of the box when it comes to Syria policy. To rely on years-old frameworks and assumptions would be dangerously short-sighted. The international community must now pivot toward a far more strategic approach to Syria — one focused on freezing existing lines of conflict and building zones of control and influence into self-sustaining regions of stability.

The time of reactive, short-term policy in which problems are treated with bandages must now be replaced by something constructive, seeking to stabilize areas of Syria and enhance our collective diplomatic leverage. By embracing a policy of strategic patience, the U.S. and allies would seek to create new realities in northwestern and northeastern Syria that would exist in parallel and stand in stark contrast to the life offered by Assad’s regime.

With a grave humanitarian crisis and economic collapse in the cards, and with Russia both distracted by Ukraine and now considered an international pariah in line with the likes of Kim Jong-un’s North Korea, Assad looks set to become acutely vulnerable. That is an opportunity that can only be exploited through a wholesale shift in policy approach.

It is important to state at the outset that this would not be a policy of partition, a prospect long greeted with deep hostility by Syrians of all stripes. This would also not be a policy that declared or considered UNSCR 2254 dead, or that served to weaken international commitment to it. Ultimately, this would be a strategic approach that at its core, acknowledged the long-standing reality that Syria’s conflict is already largely frozen and that worked to stabilize and improve the lives of the millions of civilians living in areas under our influence or control. At the center of this approach would be a determination to get strategic about aid and stabilization work and to use it to enhance our leverage, rather than to weaken it in the way that our short-termist and reactive approach has until now.

A “freeze and build” policy would actually serve to strengthen collective international resolve and to increase leverage aimed at pursuing UNSCR 2254’s goals. In doing so, the U.S. and allies would be far better placed to engage in meaningful diplomacy aimed at settling Syria’s crisis, whenever conditions to do so became more amenable.

Some things will stay the same

Before exploring what ought to change, it is worth emphasizing what would remain the same within an effective freeze and build strategy. The U.S. would continue to publicly commit to maintaining its existing troop presence in northeastern Syria aimed at combating the persistent challenge posed by ISIS. The U.S. would also publicly signal on a consistent basis that those troops retained the right to self-defense and would serve to guarantee the existing lines of control separating territories governed by our SDF partners and areas controlled by pro-regime forces and by Turkish-backed opposition groups. The U.S. — and covertly deployed allied special operations forces — would remain engaged in the counter-ISIS campaign, advising, assisting, and training SDF partner forces, while collecting intelligence and conducting counterterrorism operations.

Freezing existing lines of control across northern Syria ought not to be a controversial issue. Though imperfect, northwestern Syria has enjoyed the longest-lasting ceasefire of the entire 11-year conflict — now more than two years old. That relative calm was founded upon a bilateral arrangement between Turkey and Russia, following an unprecedented Turkish air assault against Syrian regime forces in late February and early March 2020. Though not officially a ceasefire per se, northeastern Syria also enjoys relative calm thanks to a series of deconfliction and lines of control agreements involving the SDF, Russia, Turkey, and Damascus. Though tit-for-tat violent incidents continue to occur across lines in the northwest and northeast, there has been no meaningful threat of major and sustained hostilities for at least two years.

The U.S. and European allies would also commit to maintaining the existing array of sanctions against the Assad regime and associated actors implicated in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Syria. Sanctions would be clearly framed as punitive in nature, while the U.S. Treasury Department and its counterparts in Europe would continue their ongoing efforts aimed at assessing and minimizing unintended negative secondary consequences. The U.S. and Europe would also work to consistently and determinedly counter an expected intensification of anti-sanctions rhetoric from Damascus, Moscow, and Tehran. At the core of that counter-narrative would be an assertion of the long-standing central truth: that a variety of other factors — such as regime corruption; the collapse of Lebanon’s economy; the enormous scale of destruction meted out by the regime since 2011; and a refusal of the regime’s primary external backers to contribute significant financial assistance — are of far greater consequence to Syria’s economic collapse and continued struggle than any effect of sanctions.

The U.S. and Europe would also commit to continue, if not double down on ongoing accountability efforts, including and particularly those utilizing powers of universal jurisdiction in Europe. The international community should be under no illusion that committing war crimes and crimes against humanity is not a temporary accusation, but a permanent one.

Likewise, the U.S. and Europe should remain hard-nosed when engaging with allies in the Middle East and make it clear in no uncertain terms that re-engaging with and normalizing Assad and his regime will damage their standing in our capitals. The recent restructuring of the Syria Small Group appears already to have sent that signal to some in the region — the phrase “you are with us or against us” comes to mind.

However, the U.S. must also be cognizant of the very real likelihood that should a nuclear deal be reached with Iran, the resulting dissent from traditional U.S. allies in the Gulf is likely to cost our leverage over their respective Syria postures. Any recent progress in convincing the likes of the UAE to slow their re-engagement with Assad is likely to be scuppered by the furor following a new Iran deal. It may also serve as a sufficient motive to push Saudi Arabia into the re-engagement camp.

Some things need to change

At the core of this freeze and build strategy is an urgent need to finally get strategic about aid and stabilization work in northern Syria. In order to do so, the U.S. and Europe need to work swiftly and determinedly to exploit the current strains in Turkey’s relationship with Russia in an attempt to bring it closer to our Syria policy orbit. Recent discussions with senior Turkish officials indicated a clear, highly unusual but potentially slim window in which to explore alternative strategic arrangements in northern Syria. Despite Turkey’s clear and well-known concerns about the SDF and its linkages with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), those discussions signaled a chance for a substantive quid pro quo arrangement with Ankara, focused on aid and stabilization work in Syria’s northwest and northeast.

Even before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, there existed acute levels of concern about the prospect for a cross-border aid extension in the UN Security Council in July. Those fears are sky high now. For that reason, recent exploratory work undertaken by the U.S., U.K., and France to consider alternative methods of delivering aid into northern Syria must be inserted into a high-level discussion with Ankara. For Turkey, sustaining aid supplies into the northwest is an issue of existential importance, given the crippling instability that would inevitably result from any cut-off and the subsequent refugee flows that would then follow. For the West, any meaningful cross-border effort conducted independently from a U.N. mandate would require full Turkish participation and facilitation — so that discussion must begin urgently. Perhaps it was raised by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, during her recent visit to Ankara — the most senior U.S. visit to Turkey in some time.

But that discussion alone is not enough. While sustaining aid to the nearly 4 million civilians in northwestern Syria is vitally important, the emphasis must shift from emergency aid toward stabilization and targeted reconstruction. Moreover, that more strategic approach to assistance must also extend across northern Syria, to encompass Turkish-influenced areas of northern Aleppo and the expansive SDF region in the northeast. There is no doubt that any decision to pivot toward a heavier emphasis on stabilization and reconstruction in SDF areas will be a source of concern for Turkey, but so too could a sudden cessation of Western support to the Turkish-influenced northwest. Despite the apparent diplomatic challenges, there would seem to be a deal to be had here, based on the principal of mutual strategic reciprocity.

Accomplishing such an ambitious agenda will require more than formidable deal-making with Turkey — it will also necessitate a surge in fundraising, at a time when European governments are bracing themselves for the humanitarian impact of the war in Ukraine. To confront this challenge, the policy and donor discussion must pivot away from fulfilling emergency needs toward stabilization efforts aimed at fostering a durable calm and civilian self-sufficiency. To put it in blunt terms: the international community must cease supplying tents, blankets, and food baskets and begin constructing semi-permanent housing for displaced peoples and provide investment for small businesses and agriculture, as well as sustainable resources like solar power. This aid would be delivered by a coalition of allied government aid agencies, with a central role assumed by USAID in the northeast of Syria, and in all likelihood, by Turkey’s AFAD in the northwest.

This will present a challenge for an already stretched international donor community, but it is also an opportunity to finally take advantage of the large and well-resourced Syrian exiled business community. Many highly successful Syrian businessmen and women, based elsewhere in the Middle East and Europe, have long wanted to invest substantial sums of money into areas not controlled by Assad. Yet complications posed by U.S. and E.U. sanctions and a prioritization of emergency relief over stabilization and reconstruction have prevented any meaningful direction of funds into northern Syria. It is time that changed.

The U.S. and Europe should therefore consider introducing sanctions waivers across northwestern and northeastern Syria, to create conditions that would be more amenable to a commercial aid effort — driven by external investments into stabilization, reconstruction, local business, education, and civil society. The Biden administration is poised to implement a Caesar Act waiver to northeastern Syria, but for now at least, it appears to have excluded the northwest from a similar arrangement. That is short-sighted and a missed opportunity to deal with Turkey.

The U.S. government may claim that a sanctions waiver in the northwest is impossible due to the fact that the area is under the de facto control of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), a designated terrorist organization. Yet the northeast is under the control of the SDF, which continues to be dominated at a leadership level by veteran operatives of the PKK — also a designated terrorist organization. If the Biden administration wanted to accomplish a north-wide waiver, it could do so. The considerable legal obstacles that would have been raised in 2014, when the decision was made to arm, equip, and partner with the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — at that time, labeled publicly by the U.S. government as the PKK’s Syrian affiliate, and thus as a terrorist organization — were pushed aside, after all.

In the northwest today, some donor governments have already provided non-governmental organizations (NGOs) implementing their assistance the necessary permissions to work around and, when necessary, to negotiate with HTS — but many others remain hesitant. One major issue impeding meaningful aid work in northwestern Syria is donor concerns around funding the work of NGOs inside areas controlled by HTS, despite the fact that the majority of U.N. assistance into the region is implemented by local NGOs.

There are at least 3.5 million displaced people across northern Syria, 2.5 million of whom are in the northwest. Of those 2.5 million, more than 80% have been displaced at least six times and some as many as 25 times. A displacement crisis of this scale, and over such an extended period of time, requires more than short-term emergency assistance. These communities will not return to regime areas and unless the international approach to aid changes, they will remain displaced and acutely vulnerable.

There is also a powerful argument to be made that a more strategic approach to aid and development assistance to northwestern Syria is the most potent chance we have to challenge the primacy of a group like HTS. In January 2022, HTS rolled out a concerted public relations effort to show off how its “Salvation Government” had constructed a 2-mile road linking two towns in Idlib. The roadway, equipped with dozens of street lamps, was lauded by HTS leader Abu Mohammed al-Jolani as a “revolutionary achievement.”

Were international funds directed toward rebuilding Idlib’s basic infrastructure, educating its children, and fostering the local economy, it would quickly overshadow anything HTS was capable of achieving, and HTS’s unchallenged primacy would swiftly dwindle. Were HTS to attack or obstruct foreign stabilization and development efforts, it would reveal its self-interested priorities for all to see and risk losing everything. Far from emboldening HTS, a concerted international effort to be more strategic about aid and development work in Idlib would present a formidable and likely insurmountable challenge to the group’s dominance. It may also coerce it into continuing its current path of pragmatic moderation. Repeated and concerted foreign pressure against HTS in response to allegations of interference in aid provision and allocation since 2019 has consistently seen the group step away and concede. HTS needs foreign aid to continue far more than it needs to control or benefit directly from it.

Beyond a determined effort focused on “building” local capacity and infrastructure across northern Syria, the U.S., Europe, and likeminded allies must also place far greater pressure on the U.N. itself to address the deep structural issues associated with the U.N. Damascus-based aid effort. The international community cannot continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars into a system manipulated to such an extent by Damascus that only 49 cents of each dollar goes toward aid, and that aid is then diverted away from those in need or stolen by regime operatives. No longer can the U.N.’s aid mission in Damascus continue to pay millions of dollars to regime-linked military companies associated with war crimes, or channel aid through entities owned and run by members of the Assad family. If left unchallenged, this situation means donor money is more likely to contribute toward regime crimes than to help those truly in need.


Facing Reality

Before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the precipitous collapse of U.S. and European relations with Moscow, the chances of meaningful progress being made in a Syrian diplomatic process were distinctly slim. The Constitutional Committee was considered largely dead — and was never a particularly serious endeavor to begin with — and discussions around a step for step initiative were being met with acute concern in many European capitals. That some regional states had re-engaged with Assad’s regime under the guise of step for step but failed to achieve anything beyond subjecting themselves to international ridicule and condemnation, undermined the concept before the U.N. even got it started. Pursued in that style, a step for step process would only have rewarded Assad’s regime by granting it legitimacy while plunging yet another dagger into an already enfeebled and largely illusionary diplomatic effort.

Today, the international community faces two choices when it comes to Syria policy. One option would be comparatively easy — to sustain the status quo, expressing support for diplomatic efforts that require the full, continuous, and constructive investment of all key stakeholders, while continuing to combat ISIS and hoping that aid may still be delivered to some of those in need, despite acute problems in Damascus and a likely Russian veto at the U.N. in July. Notwithstanding the many risks ordinarily associated with this years-old approach, the circumstances now prevalent with war in Europe mean that at best, this approach equates to “kicking the can down the road,” but at worst, it would be a policy that guaranteed a gradual degradation in leverage and a probable death knell for any meaningful resolution in the future.

The alternative approach, as laid out in this paper, requires a bold shift in posture. The U.S., Europe, and likeminded allies must acknowledge that Syria’s diplomatic process is currently paralyzed and in order to maintain and possibly enhance our collective leverage for whenever it comes back to life, we need to freeze conflict lines and get strategic about aid. In doing so, this policy would seek to stabilize northern Syria and help rebuild its basic infrastructure, offering more sustainable and credible alternatives to regime rule. This approach would necessitate intensive multilateral groundwork to prepare the necessary conditions and mechanisms to implement such a tactical-to-strategic pivot, but the potential benefits are manifold.

While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may provide a catalyst for this policy shift, in truth, it represents a strategic adaptation that has long been necessary. On today’s current path, the international community is sleepwalking toward irrelevance or capitulation on Syria and that promises only to reward war crimes and guarantee long-term instability. Providing band-aids to the many symptoms of Syria’s crisis has never been a sustainable solution, least of all today.


Charles Lister is a senior fellow and the Director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism & Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute. His work focuses primarily on all-things Syria and on issues of terrorism and insurgency across the Levant. The views expressed in this piece are his own.

Photo by Muhammed Said/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images.

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