Reframing US Syria policy: The road to Damascus runs through Moscow

Women walk past damaged buildings at the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp on the southern outskirts of Damascus, Syria December 1, 2020. Picture taken December 1, 2020. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki


The ongoing partnership between Iran and Russia in Syria has proved effective and successful since the outbreak of civil war in the country in 2011, preventing the fall of the Assad regime, contributing to the defeat of the Islamic State group (IS), and significantly increasing both countries’ geopolitical, diplomatic, and military footprint and influence in the region. Yet Syria remains a dysfunctional state with multiple challenges to its sovereignty, security, and economy, in addition to human right violations against its population resulting in a continuing refugee crisis and a smoldering insurgency.

The path forward for reconciliation and reconstruction will be determined by great power competition and cooperation. Syria is facing colossal reconstruction costs in addition to ongoing humanitarian difficulties that are unlikely to abate any time soon. The United States has lost significant leverage as a result of inaction when self-imposed red lines were crossed and an incoherent foreign policy in recent years, which opened the door for increased Iranian and Russian influence. The small remaining U.S. military presence in Syria has become more of a burden than an advantage, since it gives Washington little diplomatic leverage while tying up considerable military support assets and corresponding legal liabilities. Nevertheless, the U.S. has strong motives to stabilize the country in order to prevent the resurgence of IS, reduce the Iranian proxy threat against Israel, and avert the reoccurrence of another refugee migration crisis.

U.S. policy towards Syria should recognize the primacy of great power competition and necessity of pragmatic engagement with Russia. The decisive Russian intervention in Syria provides Moscow opportunities for engagement with the West. In the long term, Russia knows that the West seeks a political transition from the Assad regime. However, in the short term, the U.S. should incentivize Russia through diplomatic and economic engagement and pressure to stabilize areas it controls, reduce Iranian proxy militia presence and weapon build-ups near Israel’s borders, and continue cooperation with counterterrorism and deconfliction operations. When the time is right, Washington should reengage in the political reconciliation process and reconstruction. Taking action on restrained, short-term goals with higher probability of success is preferable to maintaining the status quo.


  • Acknowledgements and disclosures

    Many thanks to Ted Reinert who edited this paper, Rachel Slattery who provided layout, and Brookings fellows who reviewed and provided significant feedback.