The Caravan

The Biden Administration Can And Should Rectify America’s Failures In Syria

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

It has been almost a decade since the Syrian people rose up against the Assad regime, demanding their freedom. While the world was hesitant to support the protestors, malign powers gladly stepped in to help Assad, creating an unmitigated disaster that has devastated Syria and sent shockwaves around the world. Half of the population, around 13 million people, has been displaced, and more than a quarter of all Syrians have fled the country. Over 50% of the country’s critical infrastructure has been destroyed, over 80% of the population lives below the poverty line, and an entire generation of children knows nothing but war, dilapidated tents, and the squalor of camps. Still, the crisis has yet to be addressed in any clear and meaningful way by the most important actor on the world stage, the United States.  

Both the Obama and Trump Administrations struggled to form coherent Syria strategies. The incoming administration, therefore, has the opportunity to rectify past mistakes and set Syria on a path to recovery. The US is the only country capable of taking on this challenge, and if President-elect Biden chooses to do so—which he should—he will reap tremendous rewards. By ushering in a Syrian political transition, the US can reclaim its mantle as a principled world leader, restore its regional credibility, and impose once again the international laws and norms that actors like Russia and Syria have bulldozed with impunity. This latter goal is of critical global importance because the Security Council’s impotence in the face of a decade of egregious violations in Syria has emboldened nefarious actors around the world and eroded faith in international institutions. The post-WWII international order that the US helped establish, which produced the most peaceful period in modern history, is facing unprecedented challenges today. We urgently need to strengthen this system so that it can withstand the rising tide of authoritarianism around the globe, and there is no better place to do that than Syria.

The Biden Administration’s primary goal in Syria must be a genuine political transition as envisioned in the Geneva Communiqué and UN Security Council Resolution 2254 (2015). As long as Assad remains in power the conflict will never end, it will just evolve, and the millions of refugees will have no hope of safe return. While the goal of political transition and the many steps needed to reach it will be a heavy lift, the Biden Administration has several advantages over its predecessors. For one thing, after years of mismanaging the economy and neglecting the country to fund the military, Assad has created a financial meltdown. This crisis is causing unrest within the regime’s political base and even Assad’s own family. Another important advantage is that when President Biden takes office, the US will have ten years of experience and institutional memory in Syria to draw on. To tap into that, however, will require that America have an honest reckoning with its past mistakes in Syria and learn from them. Here are three key lessons that the Biden Administration should take to heart:

  • Leverage is critical. The regime and its backers have broken every multilateral agreement they have made. After years of bad faith talks it is clear that the US must enter future negotiations with sufficient leverage to induce Assad, Russia, and Iran to take them seriously. This means keeping US Special Forces in the northeast, resuming support to the Syrian opposition, working closely with Turkey to shore up the fragile ceasefire in Idlib, and maintaining a political and economic pressure campaign in coordination with US allies.
  • Deterrence works. To be effective, American diplomacy in Syria must be backed by the credible use of force. Early on many US officials argued that any strike against Assad would spiral into a broader conflict. This risk aversion hindered decision-making during the Obama Administration, resulting most notoriously in the failure to enforce President Obama’s chemical weapons “red line.” In hindsight, it is clear that this was a mistake because, with the credible threat of retaliation gone, the Assad regime and its backers escalated their attacks to unprecedented heights and Syrian civilians paid the price. By contrast, when the regime launched chemical attacks in April 2017 and April 2018, President Trump ordered retaliatory missile strikes. Not only did these strikes not spark wider conflict, they effectively ended Assad’s use of proscribed chemical weapons. These and other military actions since 2016 reinforce the fact that the US can use targeted force in Syria to protect America’s allies and uphold its red lines without getting sucked into deeper entanglements.
  • What happens in Syria never stays in Syria. Syria sits at the crossroad of civilizations and its decade of tragedy has reverberated around the world. Refugees have overwhelmed Syria’s neighbors and caused instability in Europe. Propagandists have used Syrian refugees to fuel rising right-wing nationalist movements, to justify regressive anti-immigration policies in the US and Europe, and to encourage Britain’s exit from the EU. After using Syria as a testing and training ground for new weapons, militias, and tactics—and emboldened by the lack of repercussions—Russia and Iran have taken their enhanced military capabilities on the road, fueling new conflicts from Ukraine to Yemen. Since the consequences of the Syrian conflict are global, US policy must evaluate Syria within the wider foreign policy context. This is particularly true in terms of the Iran deal. When the Biden Administration seeks to reenter the deal, it must be clear-eyed about how the deal will impact Iran’s regional expansionism and have a plan to address its baneful consequences.

So with these lessons in hand and clearly articulated goals, how should the US proceed?

To start, the Biden Administration needs a strong Syria team led by an experienced diplomat whose appointment will signal that the new administration is serious. This team should be tasked with achieving a political transition as part of a clearly articulated strategy, empowered with decision-making authority and a full range of policy tools, and backed up by the credible threat of force. Under prior administrations, Syria teams have been stymied by the lack of one or more of these supportive elements. For example, under the risk-averse Obama Administration, Syria envoys could not rely on the credible threat of force when it was needed. As Secretary of State, John Kerry pushed for a military response to Assad’s 2013 sarin gas attack to no avail. His calls for a forceful response to Assad’s ceasefire violations were similarly ignored, undermining America’s negotiating position at the Geneva talks. The Trump Administration, meanwhile, had an excellent team with Ambassador James Jeffrey and Deputy Assistant Secretary Joel Rayburn at the helm, but they, too, were hobbled by the lack of an overall strategy or effective inter-agency coordination. Remarkably, they still managed to increase America’s leverage by enacting tough new sanctions and pushing America’s allies to maintain economic and diplomatic pressure on the regime.

The Biden Administration must consolidate and expand the leverage that it will inherit from Jeffrey and Rayburn. This means enforcing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which singled out the most malign actors within the regime, and further expanding targeted sanctions. Similarly, the Biden Administration should go beyond just maintaining unilateral US pressure on the regime and its enablers by getting its allies to commit to these same measures. This could take the form of a signaling summit in 2021 where participants make a collective commitment to withholding reconstruction funds and refusing diplomatic normalization with the regime until there is a genuine political transition.

As far as negotiations, the diplomatic process today has devolved into farcical ‘Constitutional Committee’ talks dominated by Russia. These talks, which most Syrians view as irrelevant, have been stagnant for over a year and have been exploited by Russia and the regime to delay progress while they consolidate military gains. It is time for the US to take back the reins. After restoring its support to the Syrian opposition, the Biden Administration should launch new, reinvigorated transition talks in cooperation with the UN and its allies.

In terms of the Iran deal, the Biden Administration should renegotiate the terms to address Iran’s aggression across the Middle East. President-elect Biden recently wrote that the US would lift sanctions and “rejoin the agreement as a starting point for follow-on negotiations,” but what incentive would Iran have to negotiate further if it’d already received what it wanted? Since the original negotiations, the US has, among other measures, levied new sanctions against Iranian financial institutions, creating greater leverage to push for better terms. The new administration should not squander this new leverage by lifting all sanctions without addressing the other regional threats posed by Iran, including its most lethal weapon: its vast and growing network of proxy militias. Iran is the primary underwriter of Assad’s war, and any sanctions relief to Iran that is not highly targeted will end up going to arm and train militias in Syria, as much of the 8 billion dollars in assets unfrozen by the Obama administration inevitably did. The US must not repeat the mistake of sacrificing the rest of the region on the altar of this singular end by giving Iran an unconditional windfall to destabilize the region. Instead the administration must take concrete steps inside and outside of the deal to deter Iranian expansionism and malign regional behavior.

To create fertile ground for a successful national political transition, the US must also rethink its policies towards the political and armed opposition and the Kurdish-dominated SDF. A credible political opposition is needed so that Syrian civilians are effectively represented in negotiations, but with Etilaf, the main opposition body, dependent on Turkey, and the High Negotiations Commission beholden to Saudi Arabia, opposition figures have been turned into proxies for regional powers. The Biden Administration should reinvest in Syria’s political opposition, helping them to regain the independence needed to credibly engage in negotiations and reestablish legitimacy on the ground.

With regards to the armed opposition, the US erred in abandoning vetted moderate forces in favor of the YPG and narrowing its scope in Syria to just defeating ISIS. The Kurdish YPG is the group behind the “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), which it created as a rebranding exercise to present itself as a more palatable partner. Although it was a reliable ally against ISIS, this group has fallen far short of the democratic fighting force that America envisioned. In 2017, then former Obama official (and current future Secretary of State) Antony Blinken wrote an op-ed about arming the Kurds in which he said the US “should insist that [the YPG] commit to not use any weapons against Turkey, to cede liberated Raqqa to local forces, to respect Syria’s territorial integrity and to dissociate itself from the P.K.K.” This advice was ignored, and to date the US has made no effort to hold its Syrian Kurdish allies accountable. The YPG has maintained its ties with the PKK (a designated terrorist organization), failed to diversify its ranks, refused to devolve control to local authorities, cozied up to the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran, and committed serious human rights abuses against Kurdish and Arab civilians.

At odds with Turkey, Iraqi Kurdistan, other Syrian Kurds, local Arab communities, and Syrian opposition groups, the YPG is a destabilizing force that lacks local legitimacy and long-term governing capabilities. Unless it plans to maintain America’s troop presence in Syria indefinitely, the Biden Administration must address this untenable situation and condition support on measurable reforms. It should also reinstate support to vetted moderate opposition forces, particularly in the south. Since the Trump Administration cut all support to these partners and Assad was allowed to recapture Daraa in 2018, conditions in the area have grown worse, not better. Government forces have murdered hundreds of “reconciled” opposition fighters and people live in fear of detentions, assassinations, and the low-level insurgency that regularly boils over into violence. A credible armed opposition is needed to provide security and stability to Arab-majority liberated areas and prevent the reemergence of ISIS.

Syrian civilians and civil society must also be central in the US strategy because a strong civil society is needed for long-term stability and local resilience. The incoming administration should restore Syria stabilization funding and expand this support to liberated areas in the northwest where civil society organizations and local governing institutions have withered after years of neglect. Similarly, the US must extend  humanitarian support to the extremely vulnerable communities in Rukban in the south, and Idlib in the northwest, working with our ally Turkey to stabilize the population there. Millions of displaced Syrians remain in Idlib, hundreds of thousands of them are in IDP camps that threaten to become regional coronavirus super spreader centers without US-led international action.

Finally, the Biden Administration must lead by example with regards to the Syrian refugee crisis. It can do so by restarting admission of Syrian refugees and significantly increasing the cap above prior levels. This move will be a reaffirmation of American values and a clear stand against the ugly nativist fear mongering that caricatured these war victims as terrorists. Additionally, the administration should allow Syrians who have been living in the US under the uncertainty of the TPS program to apply for green cards, as was done last year for Liberians. Displaced Syrians who have lived in the US for years have become valued members in their communities and they cannot return to Bashar al-Assad’s Syria without risking torture and death.

The state of affairs in Syria today is grim and shifting the momentum will require a significant commitment from the US, but it is both possible and necessary. The incoming Biden Administration will have team members who understand all that we have lost by allowing the crisis in Syria to metastasize. The time has come to rectify past mistakes. By stepping up to the challenges of Syria today President-elect Biden can save lives, leave a lasting legacy at home and abroad, and bring America’s values and actions into alignment.

Mohammad Alaa Ghanem is a Syrian Pro-Democracy Campaigner and Human Rights Activist.

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