Will Engaging Assad Outweigh the Costs?

In 2023, the Syrian refugee crisis enters its twelfth year as one of the most devastating catastrophes of our time. This intractable conflict denies millions of Syrian children access to education; Syria will feel the effects of this outcome for generations. Neighbouring countries such as Lebanon continue to bear the heavy weight of its impact, deepening instability and chaos in a country with a defunct government on the brink of economic collapse. Although the readmittance of Syria to the Arab League occurred without any measures to hold the Assad regime accountable for its brutalities, war crimes, and human rights violations, this analysis seeks to understand how this new development can be leveraged to ameliorate the human suffering of millions of Syrians, especially as tensions continue to rise within host countries. To what extent do the advantages of sanctioning the Assad regime outweigh the immense hardship experienced by millions of refugees and displaced people inside Syria? Is there a humane and ethical way to isolate Assad himself without increasing the suffering of the Syrian people at home and in neighbouring countries?

Annie-Marie Gergi
August 21, 2023

In early June, the Syrian opposition called for direct talks with the regime of Bashar al-Assad through the United Nations, representing a major political shift. This move comes as Syria rejoins the Arab fold and begins to normalize relations with the Arab states. Due to continued bloodshed, many regional and international players largely oppose any attempts to negotiate with Assad. However, Syria’s recent readmittance to the Arab League may create an opportunity for Arab states and the international community to pursue a new approach to negotiations with Assad.  

Although uncertain and risky, a new approach using carrots and sticks must pressure Assad towards accepting a political solution that transitions the war-torn country from one-party rule to a multi-party system that meaningfully includes the Syrian opposition in the political process. Only a genuine political transition can begin the process of healing and reconciliation in Syria and end the decade-long war that ravaged the country and pauperized its population. The success of this political transition will not only depend on the ability of key Arab states like Egypt and the international community to hold the Assad regime accountable for its human rights violations but also to offer economic and political incentives for post-war reconstruction and rehabilitation. The safe return of Syrian refugees home will be at the heart of this multilateral approach.  

According to the UNHCR, there are currently 805,326 registered refugees in Lebanon and an estimate of over 1.5 million refugees living in the country in total. This reality exists amid the complete collapse of Lebanon’s economy and the degradation of the Lebanese pound. Lebanon’s economic crisis plunged nearly 82 percent of Lebanon’s population into poverty. Mired by political gridlock in parliament, Lebanon's non-functioning caretaker government contributed to many of the country's economic problems. Additionally, the United Nations suspended aid in U.S. dollars for Syrian refugees in Lebanon after meeting with Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and Social Affairs Minister Hector Hajjar in May 2023. This decision to suspend the use of dual currency comes as anti-Syrian sentiments are widespread within Lebanon.

Anti-refugee rhetoric continues to mount within Lebanon, with Syrian refugees becoming scapegoats for some of the pressing internal problems facing the country, including Lebanon’s devastated economy. Many Lebanese citizens resent how much foreign aid these refugees receive, worry about job availability and employment prospects, and have concerns about the permanence of Syrian refugees in Lebanon. There is a shared belief that the international community turned its back on Lebanese citizens by providing preferential treatment to refugee communities as millions of Lebanese face food insecurity and abject poverty.

For Lebanon, whose refugee population now makes up over 30 percent of its overall population, these issues are especially salient. However, the refugee crisis shifted focus from the root cause of Lebanon’s economic crisis: the absence of a unified and functioning government and severe political corruption. The growing resentment and frustration within Lebanon led to the unlawful deportation of thousands of Syrian refugees by the Lebanese security forces in April and May 2023, placing these deportees in direct danger of persecution and torture upon their return to Syria.

As tensions continue to rise within Lebanon, both Jordan and Lebanon have begun the process of re-engaging with Syria’s Assad through the Arab League. Among the regional states, there is consensus that a different approach to Syria is needed. Assad currently controls over 70 percent of Syrian territory, and the expulsion of Syria from the Arab League over the past twelve years led to no resolution.

To aid in this pursuit, Jordanian lawmakers constructed a roadmap to negotiate a peace plan with Damascus, ahead of Syria's readmittance. The plan focused on resolving the political conflict through initiatives to address the refugee crisis, accounting for missing detainees, curbing drug smuggling, and countering the influence of Iranian militias in Syria. However, Assad’s Syria rejoined the Arab fold without any real push by the Arab states to hold him accountable for his brutality or articulate any concrete demands towards a future settlement.

Jordan’s roadmap provides a positive starting point for this process. The announcement of direct engagement between the Assad regime and the opposition indicates that normalizing relations with Syria might create a platform for meaningful progress. Through the United Nations, the regional states and the international community have an opportunity to facilitate re-engagement with the opposition. This re-engagement, however, must be followed by the establishment of concrete benchmarks outlining the required actions for Assad. There will also need to be sustained diplomatic engagement by the key regional powers including Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Iran, and the European Union.

There are clear moral hazards associated with engaging Assad. The international community, including the United States, opposed the normalization of relations with the Assad regime without tangible efforts to hold the regime accountable for its war crimes and human rights violations. Since 2011, the EU and the U.S. have imposed severe sanctions on Syria in response to these atrocities. Far from being effective, these sanctions devastated the lives of everyday Syrians and deepened the suffering of its already-scarred population while failing to protect them from the brutalities of Assad’s regime.  

For the past 12 years, more than half of Syria’s population was displaced. In their host countries, many Syrians face extreme poverty, unlawful deportations, and lack of access to education. Host countries for Syrian refugees, including Turkey, Jordan, and Lebanon, continue to be overwhelmed by the crisis, and Lebanon now hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world. If engagement with Assad’s regime will begin the process of a safe return for displaced Syrian refugees and the chance for them to rebuild a future, then regional states and the international community must capitalize on the moment at hand.

Annie-Marie Gergi is the Executive Director of Teach for Lebanon-US, an NGO that works with both Lebanese and Syrian students within Lebanon. She holds a BA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Manchester and an MA in Gender Studies and Law from SOAS, University of London.