Syria as a Continuing Danger
We ignore Syria at our peril. After almost eleven years, the Syrian conflict is as acutely dangerous an international security problem as ever. What began in 2011 as a popular revolt against Bashar al-Assad’s rule quickly expanded into a regional conflict that has no end in sight. With five external military forces jostling with each other in or over Syria (Russia, Iran, Turkey, the United States, and Israel), the potential for intrastate conflict in any given week is high. Syria is the source of the world’s largest refugee crisis, with about twelve million Syrians--half of the country’s prewar population--either registered as refugees or internally displaced.1 The country is a cockpit of terrorism, with Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other such groups present in large numbers and sometimes controlling territory. Bashar al-Assad’s determination to maintain vast chemical weapons makes Syria the world’s most glaring WMD problem as well. The Assad regime’s mass killing and jailing of hundreds of thousands of Syrians makes it the worst human rights problem of the 21st century. Add to these horrors the recent development that the Assad regime has become a major narco-state.
The internal war among Syrian political factions shows no sign of resolving itself. After a decade of war, the country is de facto partitioned into three zones: the rump failed state ruled by Assad, containing perhaps 10 million Syrians; a de facto Turkish protectorate of opposition-held territories in the northwest with about five million Syrians; and a de facto U.S. protectorate in the northeast with about four million Syrians under the control of the Kurdish-led Syrian democratic forces. Assad finds himself without the military or financial means of reconquering the other two zones, and the world finds Assad without any inclination to make peace with the other two. In short, Syria remains a tense battlefield with all the necessary ingredients to flare into broader warfare at any time.
The Biden Administration’s Syria Ambiguity
Against this complicated backdrop, the Biden administration spent the past ten months perhaps understandably seeking to redirect U.S. attention and energy toward other crises. From an early stage, Biden’s team signalled that Syria would be a significantly lower priority for the new administration when compared with the last. When questioned about their intentions, the Biden team for months said clear direction would have to wait for the completion of a lengthy policy review, though their ambiguous cessation of pressure on the Assad regime created speculation that Biden might entertain reestablishing ties with Damascus. Senior U.S. officials fed this view when they urged regional countries to participate in a deal that would send gas and electricity to struggling Lebanon via the Assad regime, and when Emirati leaders reestablished diplomatic ties with Assad earlier this month, many in the region assumed they were doing so with Washington’s blessing. In the meantime, Biden’s hasty withdrawal from Afghanistan had created suspicions he might pull U.S. troops from Syria as well.2
In recent days, the Biden administration has cleared up some, but not all, of this ambiguity. Biden’s NSC Coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, told a conference audience in Bahrain on November 21 that the long-awaited policy review had identified four U.S. priorities in Syria: reducing violence; maintaining pressure on ISIS via the U.S.-led military coalition in eastern Syria; addressing Syria’s humanitarian crisis; and supporting Israel’s right to defend itself from Syria-based threats (a euphemism for supporting Israeli airstrikes against the Iranian military presence in Syria). McGurk also clarified that Biden has no intention of withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria or elsewhere in the region, and he threw cold water on the idea of normalization with Assad.3 And although McGurk has described the previous administration’s goal of expelling the Iranian military from Syria as “maximalist” and unrealistic, both McGurk and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned in Manama that the administration would not tolerate Iranian aggression against U.S. interests anywhere in the region.4
These overdue clarifications are welcome, but their effect may be somewhat muted by mixed signals. The Syrian opposition and international players will no doubt note that absent from McGurk’s four priorities are the UN-led political process in Geneva; the Caesar Act and its sanctions pressure against Assad; and U.S. diplomacy to resolve or significantly mitigate the Turkey-PKK conflict across northern Syria and Iraq. All three of these had been priorities for the previous administration.5 McGurk’s and Austin’s declarations in Manama that the Biden administration intended to push back on Iranian aggression in the Middle East were also curiously undermined at the same forum by U.S. envoy for Iran Robert Malley, who pronounced that the Middle East’s dysfunction is largely owing to Iran’s “exclusion” by the rest of the region.”6 Malley also repeated his frequent assessment that the previous administration’s “maximum pressure campaign” against Tehran had only made the Iran problem worse.7
Regional and International Dissatisfaction with Biden’s Approach
The Biden team’s newly articulated Syria policy is a welcome change from its ten months of silence and the regional anxiety that accompanied it. But it’s likely the administration’s stripped-down Syria priorities list will leave much of the surrounding region with the judgment that the United States, for the time being, is not interested in a more comprehensive approach that accounts for the priorities of Syria’s neighbors.
The Israelis, first and foremost, do not agree with the Biden team’s approach to the Iran problem, either in the larger sense or in Syria in particular, where for several years Israelis have sought what they call a “total rollback” of Iranian strategic weapons and military presence. On the same stage as McGurk in Manama, Israeli National Security Advisor Eyal Hulata took issue with the Biden administration’s decision to relieve the pressure the previous administration had placed on Tehran as he called Iran and its proxies “the most destabilizing force in the region.”8 “Iran won’t make concessions only because we ask them nicely,” he added. “They don’t work like that. Whoever says pressure doesn’t work needs to look at how pressure by both Republican and Democratic administrations made Iran change its policy.”9
Turkey, meanwhile, finds itself in the same situation it bristled under during the previous administration. Meeting with President Erdogan in early November, Biden reportedly warned the Turkish leader the United States would not allow Turkey to attack the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), a force Ankara considers under the control of the PKK and frequently accuses of facilitating terrorist attacks inside Turkey.10 Just days later, SDF leader Mazloum Abdi publicly revealed that U.S. officials had assured him Washington would not allow Turkey to attack the SDF again as it had done in October 2019.11[xi] But whether or how the Biden administration intends to address the tinder box of tensions between Turkey and the PKK throughout northern Syria and Iraq is not yet clear. Though the previous administration tried to lessen tensions in this zone by brokering talks between the SDF and Turkish-sponsored Kurdish parties, those talks broke down with the outbreak of violence between the PKK and the KDP, and no resumption appears to be in the offing.
For their part, the Arab states find themselves left with several potentially existential threats and no U.S.-led strategy for resolving them: millions of Syrian refugees who have no prospect for returning home; Sunni terrorist groups that aim to use Syria as a base against the entire region; and the danger that Syria could be turning into a large-scale Iranian military outpost. Anxiety over these dangers--and over the fear, especially among the Gulf states, that Erdogan’s Turkey is becoming an intolerable threat as well--has created a split between Arab states that want to continue Assad’s isolation and states such as the UAE that want to test whether these problems can be solved by remaking Assad into an ally.12 But “normalizing” Assad is an approach the Arab states have unsuccessfully tried before,13 and thus far there is no indication Assad will be willing to do the minimum required to secure Gulf interests in his country. This is a reality that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Qatar appear to recognize. Their clear-eyed assessment is no doubt reinforced by the fact that the Assad regime, in collaboration with Lebanese Hizballah, continues to export billions of dollars worth of the illegal drug Captagon into the Gulf, making the Syrian government one of the most prominent narcostates in the world.14 It’s also the case that the UAE and other Arab states have not managed to explain how their preferred policy of normalizing relations with Assad and his regime can possibly lead to a stable outcome in Syria, something that will be incumbent upon them to do if they are to persuade the other major Arab states and international players to join them in this approach.
Just as the Biden team’s priorities omit the most pressing interests of Syria’s neighbors, they offer no encouragement to the UN-led peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition in Geneva. Neither McGurk nor other senior U.S. officials have included the Geneva political process or UNSCR 2254, the resolution on which the Geneva talks are based, in their descriptions of the Biden administration’s strategy. Absent strong U.S.-led pressure on the Assad regime and its allies, the regime can simply frustrate the process in Geneva with recalcitrant theatrics, as it did in an abortive round of talks in October that UN Special Envoy Geir Pedersen was forced to declare “a big disappointment.”15 The failure of the October talks left the UN-led process with no clear path forward for the first time since 2017.
Conclusion: Where is Biden’s Syria Policy Leading?
The Biden team has tended to describe their Syria policy in relation to the previous administration’s policy. Where the Trump team was supposedly maximalist, the Biden team describes their approach as narrow and pragmatic. Biden’s top Syria officials believe the Trump administration overreached by focusing not just on counterterrorism, but also on the problem of Iran and on the quest for a UN-led political settlement. And where the Trump administration supposedly overemphasized Syria at the expense of more pressing problems, the Biden team asserts it will avoid opportunity costs by downgrading Syria as a policy portfolio, including by refraining from appointing a senior envoy to fill the post held by Ambassador Jim Jeffrey until late 2020.
While it is true the Trump administration’s Syria policy was not perfect, most notably in its on-again, off-again treatment of the U.S. military presence in eastern Syria, the real difference between the Trump and Biden approaches is that the latter has chosen to focus on four symptoms of the Syrian conflict, rather than addressing its fundamental causes--the nature of the Assad regime and the Iranian regime’s regional expansion--as the former attempted to do. The Biden team proposes to focus on the terrorism and humanitarian crisis emanating from Syria without seeking a solution to the overall conflict from which those problems spring. They intend to reduce violence in Syria through cease fires that will not be connected to a broader process to resolve the political conflict that creates the violence in the first place. They signal a green light for Israel to “mow the grass” by attacking Iranian bases and weapons in Syria without addressing the unprecedented (at least in modern times) Iranian military expansion into the Levant more broadly. And they omit mention of the Syrian regime’s weapons of mass destruction that came close to leading the United States to war with Damascus in 2013, and did lead the United States to war with Damascus in 2017 and 2018.
In short, the Biden administration aspires to manage rather than to end the Syrian conflict, while deflecting calls for more comprehensive solutions as maximalist and unrealistic. By ignoring causes in favor of symptoms, Biden’s approach will ensure that the conflict will not end anytime soon and that the potential for an explosive escalation will remain at all times. By not articulating an end state for the conflict that accounts for the needs of U.S. regional allies, the Biden administration will leave a policy vacuum in which other actors will seek their own often destabilizing solutions. Regional actors have already noted that American officials have downgraded American interests from conflict resolution to conflict management. But they also note that in practice it seems the Biden team has downgraded US actions from conflict management to benign neglect. Having read this new weather pattern in Washington, Syrians and the region around them will forecast years more of war.