The United States remains steadfastly opposed to rebuilding a postconflict Syria ruled by the murderous regime of Bashar al-Assad. The moral clarity on large-scale reconstruction, however, has precluded a more nuanced discussion about other forms of economic assistance that could potentially help Syrian society and mitigate instability in a country that has been ravaged by nearly a decade of war. Layer upon layer of sanctions, including those of the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act (known as the Caesar Act) that went into effect in June, have further reduced the room for maneuver.1

Economic coercion is a key pillar of current U.S. policy on Syria, which is predicated on behavior change so existential that it effectively amounts to regime change. Yet such a policy is incongruous with the reality on the ground, where Assad has consolidated control of 60 percent of Syrian territory and close to three-quarters of the population. Now, as Syria faces the worst economic crisis in its history, there are compelling strategic and moral reasons for the United States to step up its economic engagement. But it remains difficult for the United States to provide meaningful support to ordinary Syrians, without buttressing a corrupt regime that has co-opted assistance for its own benefit and shows no signs of compromise.

Given these realities, U.S. policymakers should move beyond the aspirational pursuits of a political transition and begin grappling with the dilemma of whether they can shape dynamics in a Syria that continues to be ruled by Assad. Doing so would require a major departure from the current, unrealistic policy. American policy must now assume—reluctantly, but necessarily—that the regime will survive indefinitely. In shifting its assumptions, the United States might ultimately decide that disengaging from Syria all together is a better course of action than pursuing unsatisfying, limited ways to project power in an adversarial country. However, the more likely scenario, given Washington’s predisposition for action, is for the United States to continue to remain involved in some way. Accordingly, this report seeks to broaden the aperture of the current U.S. policy debate, by examining the tradeoffs associated with leveraging economic assistance to advance a modest set of American objectives in an Assad-led Syria.

No Political Transition, No Reconstruction

Postconflict reconstruction has become a dirty word in Washington. After spending billions of dollars on nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan with little return on investment, U.S. policymakers and a war-weary public are loath to become embroiled in long-term commitments in conflict-torn countries, especially as increasing domestic challenges are exposing the need to invest more at home.

There is even less inclination to help rebuild a country like Syria, which has seen one-third of its infrastructure destroyed in more than nine years of conflict, and is incapable of paying, on its own, for the staggering costs of reconstruction—approximately $250–$388 billion as of 2018.2 Indeed, while the United States is the largest single donor of humanitarian assistance to Syria, one-third of which goes to regime-held areas, U.S. government policy has been steadfast in its opposition to providing reconstruction aid. As James F. Jeffrey, the American special representative for Syria engagement, put it in August 2018 (and has stated repeatedly since): “There will be no U.S. reconstruction assistance in Syria, nor U.S. support for such assistance from other nations, absent a credible political process in Geneva within the context of the 2254 process [the United Nations Security Council’s 2015 peace road map] that leads unalterably to a new constitution, free and fair UN supervised elections, and a political transition that reflects the will of the Syrian people.”3

The withholding of reconstruction assistance, coupled with an expansive sanctions regime, underpin Washington’s current policy of “maximum pressure,” which is supposed to extract major political concessions and hold the Syrian government accountable for crimes committed during the conflict.

The withholding of reconstruction assistance, coupled with an expansive sanctions regime, underpin Washington’s current policy of “maximum pressure,” which is supposed to extract major political concessions and hold the Syrian government accountable for crimes committed during the conflict. In December 2019, Congress passed the Caesar Act, which adds to an already extensive list of U.S. sanctions on certain sectors and individuals in Syria. The law is intended to “compel the government of Bashar al-Assad to halt its murderous attacks on the Syrian people and to support a transition to a government in Syria that respects the rule of law, human rights, and peaceful co-existence with its neighbors.”4 While previous sanctions have prohibited American companies from engaging in specific business activities that benefit the government, the Caesar Act goes a step further by imposing secondary sanctions on other countries that invest in Syria, including in the construction sector. With the first set of sanction designations announced on June 17, the legislation has, for the moment, deterred Gulf states like the United Arab Emirates—states that have restored relations with Damascus—from investing in Syria. It similarly deters investments from private individuals in the region. In Europe as well, while some small countries like Greece and Hungary have hinted at moving toward reengaging the Syrian regime, the European Union as a whole has renewed sanctions, and remains resolute in its commitment not to aid reconstruction. This deterrent effect has further undermined the largely unsuccessful efforts of Syria’s primary global backer, Russia, to end Damascus’s international isolation. Russia, in any case, has little interest or financial ability to pay for Syria’s reconstruction, and seems focused instead on extracting natural resources for its own benefit.

Carnage, Corruption, and Co-option

Sanctions proponents believe such coercive economic tools are one of the only remaining levers that the United States has to compel the Syrian regime to meaningfully change its behavior.5 But in addition to this purported leverage, there are several other important reasons that the United States remains opposed to rebuilding Syria.

First, the Syrian government, along with its global patrons Iran and Russia, bears primary responsibility for the destruction of the country. With the help of Russia, the regime has conducted a brutal aerial assault, including through the illegal use of barrel bombs and chemical weapons, that has regularly targeted civilian sites, such as hospitals and school buildings. Some 50 percent of such sites were partially or totally destroyed by 2017.6 More recently, the regime, during its offensive on Idlib, destroyed eighty-four medical facilities between December 2019 and March 2020 alone, which an independent UN inquiry confirmed were deliberate strikes.7 More than 50 percent of social infrastructure in the country—such as water, sanitation, and electricity systems—is nonoperational.8 To quell dissent, the regime has coupled its violent military campaign with a ruthless police state that has arbitrarily arrested and tortured hundreds of thousands of civilians. Nearly 128,000 have never emerged from prisons, while at least 14,000 have been killed under torture. This vast imprisonment has resulted in a flourishing “detention economy” in which aggrieved family members pay tens of thousands of dollars to corrupt government officials for information about their missing relatives.9 The psychological trauma and complete rupturing of the social fabric that the government has inflicted on Syrian society suggest that, in the words of a World Bank report on the costs of the conflict, “the visible impacts of the Syrian war may only be the tip of the iceberg.”10

More than 50 percent of social infrastructure in the country—such as water, sanitation, and electricity systems—is nonoperational.

Second, in Syria’s predatory economic system, any money that flows through Damascus necessarily enriches warlords and corrupt elites, which further exacerbates the economic grievances that initially fueled the conflict. This is particularly the case with reconstruction, which, as scholar Steven Heydemann writes, is “intended not to put in place the kind of ‘inclusive social contract’ that has come to be seen as the preferred outcome of reconstruction processes, but to reinforce and reassert [the regime’s] authority over economic activity and revitalize and renew the coalitions and bargains on which the regime has historically depended.”11 Indeed, the regime has harnessed a raft of counterterrorism and urban planning legislation to replace seemingly antagonistic populations with more regime-friendly ones, in what has effectively amounted to demographic engineering.12 For example, the controversial Law 10, which allows the government to designate development zones throughout Syria, has enabled the regime to displace lower-class Syrians, particularly from informal areas that are often seen as hotbeds for the opposition, as well as to prevent the return of refugees who have no ability to provide the necessary proof of ownership over property.13 These lands have been expropriated and reallocated to line the pockets of capitalist cronies through sprawling luxury residential and commercial projects, like Marota City in Damascus and the Dream Project in Homs.14 This wealth is then funneled back into the war as new and old oligarchs alike—such as Samer Foz and erstwhile regime insider Rami Makhlouf—fund pro-regime militias, perpetuating the vicious cycle of violence.15

A screen capture of the website for Marota City, a controversial planned luxury development near Damascus. Critics allege that such projects line the pockets of Assad’s cronies. Source: Marota City website,

Third, the regime has co-opted humanitarian assistance as a weapon of war to punish opponents and reward supporters. The fact that this is the case with humanitarian assistance, which is intended to be based entirely on need, suggests that reconstruction, which is inherently political, would be even more susceptible to diversion. To be sure, in the fog of war, some humanitarian assistance is often siphoned off to rogue actors, and aid providers are often forced to make unsavory compromises. In Afghanistan, for example, humanitarian actors were forced to abide by the Taliban’s draconian restrictions on female education in order to ensure that assistance was delivered to hard-hit areas.16 However, even veteran aid workers admit that relief efforts in government-controlled Syria are some of the most challenging and complex they have ever faced.17 Relying on the primacy of state sovereignty, the government has controlled all aspects of assistance provided via Damascus, undermining humanitarian organizations’ ability to adhere to their principles of independence, impartiality, and neutrality.18

The government determines who benefits from assistance by blocking organizations’ ability to conduct needs assessments, controlling where and what type of aid is delivered, and preventing the direct monitoring and evaluation of programming.19 It further undermines aid efforts by cultivating a climate of fear. International humanitarian organizations based in Damascus are forced to hire the regime’s preferred personnel, who effectively serve as moles for the government, as well as to partner with officially registered local organizations under effective government control, principally the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the Syria Trust for Development, Syrian first lady Asma al-Assad’s charity.20 Moreover, Syrian intelligence agencies closely monitor all assistance and are given access to beneficiary lists to determine which areas receive access. Local aid partners have even been tried on terrorism charges for distributing aid to opposition areas.21

Indeed, cross-line aid from Damascus to areas not under the regime’s control has been particularly hamstrung by this operating environment. As a result, beginning in 2014, the Security Council authorized the delivery of humanitarian assistance without the permission of the government, using border crossings from Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan.22 This cross-border mandate was renewed on an annual basis until the end of 2019, when Russian and Chinese objections resulted in the removal of the permission at the Iraqi and Jordanian border crossings, as well as the reduction of the authorization from one year to six months.23 The reason for this reversal is that, even though Syria is highly dependent on international humanitarian assistance—the UN estimates that it needs $3.82 billion in aid in 2020 alone—the regime increasingly insists that aid be funneled through its auspices, as it seeks to reassert itself as the legitimate authority across the country.24

A Turkish military vehicle passes through the village of Aaqrabate, Idlib governorate in February 2020. More than 900,000 civilians were displaced by fighting in or around Idlib from December to February. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

On July 11, Russia and China, exercising veto power on behalf of the Syrian regime, succeeded in further restricting cross-border aid flows, and forced the Security Council to close all but one of the crossing points from Turkey into Syria. The painstaking deliberations and insufficient result of this latest Security Council resolution underscored the increasing difficulty that the international community will undoubtedly face in sending aid to areas beyond the regime’s control.25 However, even in areas where the government has regained control—such as the city of Aleppo or the Damascus suburb of Ghouta—it has regularly diverted aid to populations it deems friendlier.26

In sum, given the Syrian government’s egregious behavior, and at a time when the United States is retreating inward and questioning the strategic value of engaging in the Middle East more generally, a policy or legal shift on the question of reconstructing Syria is highly unlikely.27

An Unsustainable Status Quo

The full-throated opposition to large-scale reconstruction has precluded a more nuanced discussion among U.S. policymakers about other potential forms of economic engagement in regime-held areas—forms that go beyond emergency humanitarian assistance but still fall far short of the types of activities that would be targeted by sanctions or require normalization with the regime.28 Given current dynamics in Syria, however, the unwillingness to engage in a debate on this issue may not be advisable—or even tenable, especially as European partners begin to wade into this space.

The first reason for keeping open the debate on aid is to help stave off a societal breakdown in Syria. The country’s unprecedented economic crisis may require the international community to step up its support to ordinary citizens by addressing the lack of employment opportunities, among other problems. Close to a decade of war, combined with the regime’s extractive policies and international sanctions, have devastated the Syrian economy. By 2015, the overall unemployment rate was 50 percent, while youth unemployment had reached 78 percent. By 2019, 83 percent of Syrians were living under the poverty line, and the country’s GDP had declined to almost one-third of its preconflict level.29 These rates have almost certainly worsened since the collapse of the Lebanese economy and the global repercussions of COVID-19 sent the Syrian pound into free fall in the past few months. The country is facing the sharpest rise in inflation in its history, topping 178 percent between May 2019 and May 2020.30 But while prices on staple goods have soared, wages are stagnant, meaning an average weekly salary buys no more than a few pounds of rice.31 As famine looms—the World Food Programme now estimates that 9.3 million Syrians are food insecure—begging and crime have reportedly become commonplace, and even “loyalist” constituencies are suffering.32

A second reason to question a posture of complete disengagement from Syria is that, while U.S. economic coercion has contributed to the collapse of the Syrian economy, it has failed in its intended outcome of altering the Syrian government’s behavior, especially now that it has consolidated control over much of the country. The regime looks set to renew its offensive in Idlib, belying the assertion of Donald Trump’s administration that “sanctions are eventually going to take money away from the war machine.”33 The regime’s refusal this past winter to participate in the UN-brokered Constitutional Committee—which convenes 150 members from the government, opposition, and civil society to draft a new Syrian constitution—suggests an unwillingness to play along with even cosmetic political processes. Imminent regime collapse as a result of the dire economic situation is also unlikely for a regime that prioritizes its survival above all else, even if it has exacerbated intra-elite tensions and discontent among loyal constituencies.34

A displaced Syrian girl waits on a muddy road in Marabune camp, Idlib governorate ,in February 2020. Idlib is the last rebel stronghold of fighters trying to overthrow Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and in the past years has become the last safe haven for civilians displaced by fighting in other areas of Syria. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

The United States should not expect much from Russia, either. While recent public criticism of the Syrian regime among prominent Russian voices may signal frustration in the Kremlin over Assad, Moscow is unlikely to push for substantive reforms.35 Moreover, even on issues like the Constitutional Committee or reconciliation agreements in formerly rebel-held territory, where Russia has put its reputation on the line to compel constructive engagement from the regime, Moscow has had limited success.36 At the same time, persistent violence in Dera’a—where the government has struggled to deliver basic services while also cracking down on former opposition—suggests that regime consolidation does not necessarily mean stability for the country.37 Thus, rather than waiting for regime change or behavior change, the United States must start thinking through ways in which it can potentially shape dynamics in a Syria that still has an intransigent Assad at the helm, but whose authoritarian and ineffective governance has deeply fractured Syrian society and may promise future instability.

The United States must start thinking through ways in which it can potentially shape dynamics in a Syria that still has an intransigent Assad at the helm.

A third argument against complete disengagement from Syria relates to the shifting strategies of U.S. allies and the international community. As most of Syria enters into low-intensity conflict or even a postconflict period, there is a discussion within the humanitarian and development community about the need to shift from solely emergency response to more sustainable assistance that lays the foundations for long-term recovery and helps Syrians—more than two-thirds of whom rely on humanitarian relief—move from aid dependence toward resilience. Such an approach is included in the UN Humanitarian Response Plan for Syria as assistance for “early recovery and livelihoods,” but only makes up a small portion of the current aid effort.38 Because such activities blur the line between humanitarian assistance and development or reconstruction, their implementation has been wrapped up in broader political discussions, and Western countries have adopted different positions on them. Most European countries, aside from France, are more forward-leaning than the United States when it comes to this work, and there are signs that they may become even more so, although they remain opposed to large-scale rehabilitation.39 In a recent public event, Jeffrey, the American special representative, said that the United States discourages some “EU activities that slip into reconstruction” because they risk legitimizing the regime.40 But for aid practitioners, such activities are both necessary to restore Syrians’ agency and dignity, and more cost-effective than emergency aid provision. Repairing water pipes or electrical lines, for example, is much less expensive than short-term fixes like trucking water or installing generators.41 Moreover, there is value in coordinating the U.S. position with key European allies to present a unified front. Such unity would prevent the regime or the Russians from exploiting divergent positions on technical issues for political ends.

Beyond Humanitarian Assistance in Regime-Held Syria

On the current trajectory, Syria will likely remain a failed state with a citizenry that is unable to move on from the devastation of the war. This prognosis provides compelling reasons for the United States to rethink its current policy on economic assistance. From a moral perspective, Washington will need to determine whether it can do more to support ordinary Syrians who have personally suffered and are not to blame for the regime’s behavior. Strategically, the United States has refocused attention on the importance of stabilizing fragile states with policy initiatives such as the 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review and the 2019 Global Fragility Act. In this context, the United States will be unable to ignore a country that has become a “haven for terrorists” and continues to destabilize the region.42

The challenge, then, is to identify whether there are ways to harness economic assistance to alleviate human suffering and potentially address some of the drivers of instability in Syria, but without further entrenching or legitimizing a deeply flawed system. Effective measures could include small-scale, community-based initiatives that build upon the limited engagement of European donors in regime-held Syria:

  • support to local communities who, in the absence of government services, have found ways to provide basic services themselves;
  • small-scale rehabilitations of public buildings like schools and hospitals, as well as electrical, water, and sanitation networks;
  • livelihood and employment opportunities through cash-for-work programs, vocational training, or access to capital for small businesses;
  • support to small, non-regime-affiliated civil society organizations, particularly in previously rebel-held territory where former U.S. partners operate;
  • social cohesion programs to mend societal fractures, such as between formerly opposition-held and regime-held communities, or between internally displaced people (IDPs) and host communities; and
  • community engagement programs to provide alternative outlets for vulnerable youth and to address the psychosocial impacts of the conflict.

These suggested avenues of engagement are, by definition, low-impact and limited. They can be useful in both regime- and opposition-held areas, where the United States has already had programs. Further, they avoid direct U.S. complicity with the regime, while maintaining a channel of U.S. influence in Syria—albeit a limited one that should not be overstated.

Considerations for Providing Assistance in Regime-Held Syria

However, providing assistance in regime-held Syria presents serious ethical and strategic challenges that are worth examining before pursuing.

As things currently stand, finding ways to entirely circumvent government control would likely be limited. A small set of local organizations have managed to maintain their relative independence. But Western officials and international and local aid workers and analysts have accused the UN Country Team—which comprises the various UN humanitarian and development agencies based in Damascus that provide the bulk of assistance—of being far too accommodating of the regime.43 As a result, efforts to work around the government would either need to be so small, innocuous, and localized that they would not draw the government’s ire or, if more explicitly political, would need to be done covertly, primarily online, similar to U.S. programming in other closed spaces, like Cuba or North Korea. The incredible risks of covert action for local actors, and the associated moral hazard issues—namely, the prospect of donor funding incentivizing local actors to take undue risks in an effort to align with donor priorities—would need to be weighed against the value of pursuing such programming. When the regime retook opposition-held areas where the United States had previously provided stabilization assistance—or politically oriented economic aid—governance and civil society actors who remained behind dissolved. The regime often arrested them. Considering the risks that local organizations would face for partnering with the United States in any way, it would be crucial for Washington to take cues from the local organizations themselves—instead of getting out ahead of them.

Efforts to work around the government would need to be so small that they would not draw the government’s ire. Or, if more political, they would need to be done covertly, primarily online.

The more likely scenario, then, is that the regime will remain involved to some degree in aid provision. According to some observers and policymakers, the majority of humanitarian assistance buttresses a brutal regime. Such assistance thus does more harm than good, and should not be provided at all.44 However, practitioners on the ground argue that getting some aid to the people—however paltry—is better than none, and accepting the regime’s machinations is the cost of doing business.

Since the start of the conflict, the U.S. government has largely subscribed to this latter logic and continued to provide humanitarian assistance, despite the egregious ways in which the regime has manipulated it. The question is, what is so qualitatively different about providing non-humanitarian assistance that makes it less palatable? One answer is that non-humanitarian aid is not life-saving. However, the moral discretion to withhold the aid gives donors more leverage to provide it on their own terms. For example, Germany has succeeded in getting the UN to implement early recovery activities in formerly opposition-held areas, or areas with a high proportion of IDPs and returnees, by insisting on a vulnerability-based, “whole of Syria” approach and mandating detailed reporting of project locations.45

A displaced Syrian woman sits with her family’s possessions as they arrive at a newly built camp near the village of Atmeh in Idlib, Syria, February 2020. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Images

Non-humanitarian assistance is also less palatable because attempts to address longer-term dynamics could have lasting negative repercussions that could fundamentally aggravate the root causes of the conflict, if implemented poorly. For example, any small-scale rehabilitation or repairs would need to be approached with a human-rights lens. They would need to only target areas that were not unlawfully confiscated by the regime, and be conducted in a way that does not prevent the return of displaced residents. Efforts to address the social aspects of recovery would need to be approached with a level of nuance and sophistication that can only come from longer-term engagement, an understanding of complex local dynamics, and strong oversight—all terms that are difficult in Syria’s police state. For example, a recent United Nations Development Programme initiative to identify positive coping mechanisms through theater led to public backlash, when the videos produced in one of the workshops reinforced negative sectarian stereotypes.46 Similarly, a recent UN-backed community center, run by the nongovernmental organization Syria Trust for Development, purports to encourage critical thinking abilities among children and citizenship among teenagers—but is, in reality, effectively a front to reinforce the regime’s narrative.47

Given these complications, the United States should tread lightly in providing more assistance without first demanding significant improvements in the operating environment. Failure to achieve such improvements would mean reinforcing a dysfunctional aid paradigm, and could actually exacerbate instability. Up to this point, Western donors have been reluctant to push back too forcefully against aid diversions, for fear of politicizing or jeopardizing assistance elsewhere. However, the time may be ripe for the United States to exert more pressure. Several damning think tank reports in the past year about the regime’s co-option of aid have forced an overdue reckoning within the UN, albeit with no real change on the ground (as evidenced by the World Health Organization’s inability to respond properly to COVID-19 in northeast Syria, due to the Syrian regime’s pressure).48

The United States should tread lightly in providing more assistance without first demanding significant improvements in the operating environment.

There are already tools available to push for better conditions for aid delivery, but they have been poorly applied. In 2017, after the UN was unable to break the regime’s brutal “siege and starve” tactics in places like Eastern Ghouta, it commissioned an internal document stipulating principles and parameters for delivering assistance and establishing a working group that would monitor adherence. However, the working group has never met, due to resistance from the UN Country Team in Damascus and specific UN agencies.49 The United States and its European partners should push the UN to convene the working group. They should also step up other forms of pressure to make unhindered aid access a prerequisite for any conversations about expanding the type of assistance they provide. American leadership in this regard could help the UN assert itself by telling the regime it needs to respond to donor pressure.

For its part, the Assad government may be willing to stomach some limited concessions for more aid in areas under its control, as it struggles to maintain support and project strength amidst the devastating economic crisis. But even then, the United States and its allies should set low expectations for compliance or improvement—and limit any aid efforts accordingly, or discretely provide assistance to the few number of NGOs that are able to operate with independence.

A final consideration pertains to the strategic value of this assistance. Beyond helping people, it remains unclear what such small, localized initiatives would really add up to without addressing the broader governance challenges that are driving instability. The U.S. government’s 2018 Stabilization Assistance Review, an interagency framework for leveraging U.S. diplomatic engagement, defense, and foreign assistance to stabilize conflict-affected areas, noted that mitigating conflict and fragility is an inherently political endeavor and should be tied to a clearly defined political end-state.50 As such, the implications for Syria are clear: assistance will have minimal impact without progress on substantive political reforms.

A more limited benefit of direct engagement with Syrians on the ground would be to cultivate and maintain relationships with key local civil society actors—not necessarily because of the work they are able to accomplish today, but for the work they could possibly accomplish in the future, if or when a political opening occurs. Such a “lifeline” approach is intellectually honest about the limits of engagement, but recognizes the value of keeping a foothold in the country, especially as divisions increase between those who have remained and those who have fled. Finally, non-humanitarian assistance could be valuable as part of a “more for more” approach in which the United States would provide economic carrots in exchange for concrete concessions. As stated above, larger political reforms would be unlikely, but smaller steps that make life modestly better for Syrians may be possible—such as access for United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees personnel to visit returnees.

These minimal strategic benefits would need to be weighed against the risks of the regime scoring a symbolic win by painting more engagement as a step toward normalization. Assuming that the regime continues to prioritize the latter over a small trickle of aid, this leaves minimal room to maneuver.

So why should the United States consider such unsatisfying, limited efforts—beyond just alleviating human suffering? There are at least three compelling reasons. First, this approach would allow for some semblance of commonality with European allies, which would strengthen Western efforts to present a united front against the regime. Second, it would provide the United States with a modicum of visibility and influence with the people of Syria. Third, it would prevent the United States from repeating its failures in adversarial states like Iran since 1979 and Iraq in the 1990s, in which economically punitive policies led to embittered populations, and further emboldened bellicose regimes that felt they had nothing more to lose. Moreover, by cutting off all engagement in those countries, the United States had no flexibility or maneuverability without a wholesale change in policy.

Using Economic Tools to Advance U.S. Interests

A common refrain in Washington policy circles is that American policy in Syria needs to better align means and ends. In other words, rather than pursuing the elusive goal of regime or behavior change with minimal resources, the United States should identify a more limited set of objectives that it can achieve in an Assad-led Syria. Even with this paradigm shift, the United States should not provide reconstruction assistance to Syria, given the regime’s odious crimes. However, there might be other economic tools that the United States can draw on to alleviate human suffering and advance American interests.

While this report focuses specifically on the provision of non-humanitarian assistance to Syria, other options include sanctions relief and withdrawing U.S. objections to the provision of reconstruction by other actors—including multilateral institutions like the World Bank—in exchange for concrete concessions. U.S. policy has followed such a route, with some success, in other pariah states, like Sudan. The multifaceted consequences of sanctions, in particular, have recently been thrown into sharp relief with the implementation of the Caesar Act: the sanctions have undoubtedly hurt ordinary Syrians without achieving their stated aims of meaningful political change. However, lifting them now, without any concessions from the regime, would give Assad an unwarranted boost.

In short, all of these options come with their own set of major risks and trade-offs that may ultimately render them untenable. However, now is the time to begin debating their merits. The alternative—a continued policy of wishful thinking—will only prolong the crisis.

header photo: The Syrian village of Atmeh, Idlib governorate hosts nearly 1 million displaced people. Pictured in September 2019. Source: Burak Kara/Getty Image


  1. “Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act,” U.S. Department of State, June 17, 2020,
  2. “Experts Discuss Post-Conflict Reconstruction Policies after Political Agreement in Syria,” United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, August 7, 2018,
  3. “Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee Sub-Committee on the Middle East and North Africa: U.S. Policy Toward Syria (Part II): Statement of Ambassador James F. Jeffrey Special Representative for Syria Engagement,” November 29, 2018,; “Special Representative for Syria Engagement James Jeffrey on Syria Caesar Act Designations, Special Briefing,” June 17, 2020,; “Security Council Unanimously Adopts Resolution 2254 (2015), Endorsing Road Map for Peace Process in Syria, Setting Timetable for Talks,” United Nations Security Council, December 18, 2015,
  4. National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020, S. 1790, 116th Congress (2019),
  5. “James Jeffrey on Syria Caesar Act Designations,” June 17, 2020.
  6. “The Toll of War: The Economic and Social Consequences of the Conflict in Syria,” World Bank, July 10, 2017,
  7. “Summary by the Secretary-General of the Report of the United Nations Headquarters Board of Inquiry,” United Nations, April 6, 2020,
  8. “Basic Infrastructure and Service Rehabilitation,” United Nations Development Programme Syria (UNDP Syria),
  9. Anne Barnard, “Inside Syria’s Secret Torture Prisons: How Bashar al-Assad Crushed Dissent,” New York Times, May 11, 2019,; Elizabeth Tsurkov and Suhail al-Ghazi, “‘People Can’t Even Afford to Buy Bulgur’: Discontent Is on the Rise as Syria’s Economic Crisis Worsens,” Middle East Institute, February 28, 2020,
  10. World Bank, “The Toll of War.”
  11. Steven Heydemann, “Reconstructing Authoritarianism: The Politics and Political Economy of Postconfilct Reconstruction in Syria,” Elliott School of International Affair Project on Middle East Political Science, September 2018,
  12. “No Return to Homs: A Case Study on Demographic Engineering in Syria,” The Syria Institute and PAX, February 21, 2017,
  13. For more on Law 10 see, for example, Edwar Hanna, Nour Harastani, “Property Law No. 10 and Its Implications on Syrian Cities,” Chatham House, June 2018, It is almost impossible to know the intent behind a measure such as Law 10 because of the opacity of the Syrian regime’s decision-making processes. A more generous interpretation would be that it is mainly an attempt to enlist private crony capital in the service of state-managed reconstruction, and that these other demographic effects are more incidental. Nevertheless, those effects are real—and dovetail with other regime policies that have been unambiguous in their intentions at demographic engineering.
  14. Joseph Daher, “The Paradox of Syria’s Reconstruction,” Carnegie Middle East Center, September 4, 2019,; Jihad Yazigi, “Destruct to Reconstruct: How the Syrian Regime Capitalises on Property Destruction and Land Legislation,” Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, July 2017,
  15. Danny Makki, “Syria’s War Economy Exacerbates Divide between Rich and Poor,” Middle East Institute, November 6, 2018,
  16. Mujib Mashal, “How the Taliban Outlasted a Superpower: Tenacity and Charge,” New York Times, May, 26, 2020,
  17. UN and international nongovernmental organization staff, interviews with the author, June 2020.
  18. To support its position, the Syrian government relies on UN General Assembly Resolution 46/182, which gives the affected state the primary role in managing humanitarian assistance within its territory.
  19. Haid Haid, “Principled Aid in Syria: A Framework for International Agencies,” Chatham House, July 4, 2019.
  20. Haid, “Principled Aid;” “Rigging the System: Government Policies Co-Opt Aid and Reconstruction Funding in Syria,” Human Rights Watch, June 28, 2019,; Annie Sparrow, “How UN Humanitarian Aid Has Propped Up Assad,” Foreign Affairs, September 20, 2018,
  21. “Documents Obtained by SJAC Show Role of Syrian Intelligence in Directing Humanitarian Aid,” Syria Justice and Accountability Centre, August 1, 2019.
  22. Sam Heller, “Syrian Humanitarian Lifeline Goes to a Vote,” The Century Foundation, December 18, 2017,
  23. Will Todman, “Cross-Border Aid, COVID-19, and U.S. Decisions in Syria,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, May 8, 2020,
  24. Syrian Humanitarian Response Plan 2020 Financial Tracking Service, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, 2020,
  25. Aron Lund, “Russia Holds Key to UN Syria Aid Operation,” The New Humanitarian, July 1, 2020,
  26. Human Rights Watch, “Rigging the System;” Emma Beals, “Assad’s Reconstruction Agenda Isn’t Waiting for Peace. Neither Should Ours,” The Century Foundation, April 25, 2018,
  27. Mara Karlin and Tamara Cofman Wittes, “America’s Middle East Purgatory: The Case for Doing Less,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2019,
  28. The U.S. government has provided stabilization (in other words, politically oriented) assistance to areas not under government control throughout the conflict. Much of this assistance was halted once the government recaptured territory. In spring 2018, Donald Trump froze all stabilization assistance to Syria, which ended programming in the part of the northwest still under rebel control (except for aid to the civilian aid organization the White Helmets) and resulted in programming in the northeast being funded entirely by foreign contributions, until a recent injection of $50 million from the U.S. government.
  29. “United Nations Calls for Sustained Support to Syrians and the Region Ahead of Brussels Conference,” United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, March 13, 2019,; Sharmila Devadas, Ibrahim Elbadawi, Norman V. Loayza, “Growth after War in Syria,” World Bank,
  30. World Food Programme, “Syria Market Price Watch Bulletin,” May 2020,
  31. Put another way, in terms of purchasing power, it would be as if a pound of rice in the United States cost $50. “Monitoring of Food Prices in Damascus,” July 20, 2020.,
  32. Basma Alloush and Alex Simon, “Will More Syria Sanctions Hurt the Very Civilians They Aim to Protect?,” War on the Rocks, June 10, 2020,
  33. “Live at State Briefing with Ambassador James Jeffrey,” U.S. State Department, January 30, 2020,
  34. Elizabeth Tsurkov, “Syria’s Economic Meltdown,” Center for Global Policy, June 2020,
  35. Alex Bick, “Assad the Spoiler: Russia’s Challenge in Syria,” The Wilson Center, April 30, 2020,
  36. Jomana Qaddour, “Homs, a Divided Incarnation of Syria’s Unresolved Conflict,” Carnegie Middle East Center, May 15, 2020,
  37. Tom Rollins, “Tensions in Syria’s Deraa are Getting Out of Hand,” January 26, 2020,
  38. “Syrian Arab Republic: 2019 Humanitarian Response Plan (January – December 2019),” UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, September 4, 2019,,undertaken%20across%20and%20within%20sectors.
  39. For example, the United Kingdom is beginning to explore funding “resilience” activities. US and European aid officials, interviews with the author, June 2020.
  40. The event, “Special Community Briefing by Ambassador James Jeffrey,” was organized by Americans for a Free Syria and Syrian American Council, and occurred on June 7, 2020.
  41. U.S. and European aid officials, interviews with the author, June 2020.
  42. Even the Trump administration, which is skeptical of providing foreign assistance abroad, has said that “we should work to address fragility and conflict in places where one, they represent safe havens for terrorists; two, their instability threatens U.S. economic prosperity; three, the out-migration of their citizens threatens U.S. domestic tranquility or strains the resources of key partners; four, the spread of global pandemics and diseases must be contained, and/or; five, geopolitical competitors like China, Iran, and Russia are exploiting institutional weaknesses for their own agendas, and at America’s expense.” Kiron Skinner, “The Trump Administration’s Approach to Fragile States,” March 14, 2019,
  43. “Demystifying Civil Society in Regime-Controlled Syria,” Synaps, June 10, 2020.
  44. U.S. Congressional staffers, interviews with the author, June 2020; Robert Ford, “Keeping Out of Syria,” Foreign Affairs, November/December 2017,; Sparrow, “How UN Humanitarian Aid Has Propped Up Regime.”
  45. European officials, interview with the author, June 2020.
  46. “Statement on a Recent Tweet,” UNDP Syria, May 20, 2019,
  47. Diana Darke, “Battle of the Syrian Charity Giants: Asma al-Assad versus Rami Makhlouf,” Middle East Institute, June 8, 2020,
  48. Haid, “Principled Aid;” Human Rights Watch, “Rigging the System.” For more on the World Health Organization’s response to COVID-19 in northeast Syria, see for example Amberin Zaman, “Syria’s Kurdish-Led Region Decries Lack of International Support in COVID-19 Fight,” Al-Monitor, April 20, 2020,
  49. Emma Beals, “UN Shelved 2017 Reforms to Syria Aid Response,” The New Humanitarian, February 26, 2018,
  50. “Stabilization Assistance Review: A Framework for Maximizing the Effectiveness of U.S. Government Efforts to Stabilize Conflict-Affected Areas,” U.S. Department of Defense, U.S. Department of State, U.S. Agency for International Development, June 2018,