At the Biden-Putin summit, a bid for Syrian peace

By lifting up innocent Syrians with new aid, the U.S. may help define the terms for peace and a democratic future.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield talks to a rescue worker in Turkey at the Syrian crossing point Bab al-Hawa, June 3.

After 10 years of civil war against a brutal regime, half of the people in Syria have voted with their feet. They have either fled to nearby countries or to areas still controlled by anti-regime forces. Now with fighting at an ebb, these displaced millions are caught in a power struggle between the United States and Russia to end the war – a struggle that could be decided at a summit June 14 between President Joe Biden and President Vladimir Putin.

This first summit between the two leaders will deal with many issues, not the least is whether Syria’s future will be decided by the tools of war or the tools of peace. The U.S. and Russia both have forces in this pivotal Mideast state. Turkey and Iran also play a military role, making Syria a potential flashpoint for a larger war. But last week, the Biden administration made a bid to deploy a tool of peace.

It announced $240 million in new humanitarian aid to Syria’s displaced population. It is a hefty amount that adds to past U.S. aid and is designed to help cut through the justification for more violence. (Nearly 500,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war). The money will not only help meet the immediate needs of some 13 million people, but also further build up parts of Syrian society that demanded freedom a decade ago in mass protests and now want to prepare for a possible end of the Assad regime.

The U.S. aid also sends a signal to all Syrians, especially those that still support the Assad regime, that the eventual reconstruction of their country can best be funded by those seeking peaceful, democratic government, such as the U.S. Neither Russia nor Iran have healthy economies that can afford the estimated $200 billion to $300 billion required to rebuild Syria.

One specific issue at the Biden-Putin summit is whether Russia will veto a measure at the U.N. Security Council in July that would open more border crossings into Syria to deliver aid – outside any control by the regime. Since 2019, only one access point has been available, with about 1,000 U.N. trucks a month able to enter because of Russia’s veto power.

Mr. Putin seeks global approval that the regime has won the war. But by aiding millions of innocent Syrians, the U.S. and other countries are defining the terms of peace in favor of half the population. Or as Omar Alshogre, a former prisoner of the regime, recently told the U.S. Congress:

“We always have this narrative that the regime actually told us that the conflict in Syria is so complex that ... it’s difficult to do good, because you don’t know who’s good, who’s bad. That’s not true. We actually know who is good, actually know who is bad. The Syrian people fighting against the regime are the ones that need to be supported.”

Not all wars are fought with weapons. Aiding innocent civilians – with food, houses, schooling, and hope for the future – can reaffirm their role in defining the peace. “The regime will fall,” said Mr. Alshogre. “It will take years, but the regime will fall and then we would have the responsibility to rebuild our nation.”

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