Despite all appearances, speeches, and claims, Trump’s Syria policies have not marked a break from his predecessor’s. The fight against ISIS, U.S. financial support to the Syrian Democratic Forces, and even sanctions against the Assad regime are all policies set forward while now President-Elect Biden was in office. Except for a more aggressive stance towards the Iranian presence in Syria, Trump has mostly succeeded in completing what Obama’s administration bequeathed to him. Indeed, during the last four years, Trump’s administration has not developed its own specific Syria policy nor succeeded in solving the Syrian deadlock. Arrangements and agreements made with Russia, Turkey, and other regional powers have not helped to reach a sustainable and fair political resolution to the ongoing conflict, nor did the occasional bursts of unpredictable and momentary military actions against Assad helped to diminish any of his resolve to step out of power.
Unlike Trump, the newly elected president is expected to empower the State Department and the National Security Agency in pursuing his foreign policy. In Syria, Biden is likely to rely on bureaucrats, mostly from the Obama administration, with prior experience in the conflict. The composition of this transition team reveals the contour of his broader Middle East policy, and the first observation to be made is the absence of pro-opposition Syrian American activists who volunteered en masse in his campaign and who were hopeful of their ability to convince his administration to pursue a staunch anti-Assad policy. The second observation is the nomination of pro-JCPOA, pro-Kurdish, and pro-democracy former bureaucrats such as Hady Amr (US Deputy Special Envoy for Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations), Dana Stroul (senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), Jeffrey Prescott (senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Persian Gulf states on President Barack Obama’s National Security Council), Lisa Roman (senior advisor to the US special envoy for Syria from 2013 to 2015 and director for Syria at the National Security Council from 2015 to 2017) among others. We should still wait a few more weeks to see who will be nominated for the State Department and the UN, but the general trend shows an inclination towards a U.S. diplomacy revival in Syria.
The future U.S.-Syria team’s performance will be tested on four fronts. First, making considerable advances on negotiations for a political settlement. Second, preserving a sustainable presence for their local allies in northeastern Syria. Third, managing a subsequent U.S. military withdrawal from Syria. Fourth, leading a comprehensive and responsible economic sanctions policy without hurting the Syrian people or the chances of getting sensible compromises from Russia or the Assad regime. On these four fronts, U.S. foreign diplomacy will have to skilfully navigate the contradictory objectives of Russia, Turkey, Iran, the Arab block, and Israel.
During his campaign, Biden’s grand foreign policy announcements focused on re-engaging U.S. diplomacy in the world’s affairs and leading a global alliance for democracy. His wish to restart the Iran nuclear deal, reconsolidate NATO, protect the presence of the local non-state actors who are partners of the U.S. (mainly SDF), encourage democracy, and preserve human rights resonates well with his allies in Europe but could inflame tensions with his Middle East regional friends and foes. If the U.S.’s return to the JCPOA makes Ankara and Moscow happy, it will enrage Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi. Similarly, preserving the Syrian Defense Force’s sustainable rule over northeastern Syria could please the Arab block’s wishes to put Turkey’s ambitions in check, but it could also further damage strained U.S.-Turkish relations.
To overcome these difficulties, a Biden administration will most likely re-initiate a bilateral dialogue with Moscow. The most durable US-Russian arrangements over Syria, such as the Geneva communique, UNSC resolution 2254, the handover of the Syrian chemical arsenal deal, and the delineation of zones of influence along the Euphrates, were all achieved during Obama’s presidency. Following the same steps, the future U.S. diplomatic corps will seek a grand arrangement with Russia over Syria’s political settlement. The United States could recognize the outcome of a “reconciliation” process that eventually ends with a symbolic victory for both the opposition and the Assad regime in return for a gradual ease of sanctions.
With Turkey, U.S. diplomacy will face a more significant challenge. Biden’s vocal criticism of Trump’s lack of U.S. support to the Kurds during the Operation Peace Spring, in addition to his recent anti-AK Party statements, has deeply concerned the Turkish leadership and has cast considerable doubt on U.S. intentions in Syria. Nevertheless, the complicated relationship between Ankara and Washington stems beyond Syria, and if Biden is serious about preserving and restoring trust among NATO members, then the United States will need to find a middle ground with Turkey.
Finally, concerning Iran, there is no way for the U.S. administration to prevent Iran from further entrenching itself in the Levant when given more significant financial resources, and this is precisely what the JCPOA has provided Tehran with. The Biden campaign has promised the Syrian diaspora in the United States that it will not seek a new agreement with Iran at the Syrian people’s expense. However, his team has yet to provide a credible and comprehensive framework to achieve such an ambitious objective, not only to convince the Syrian opposition but also Iran’s regional foes.
Except for ISIS’ territorial defeat, Biden is inheriting a dossier that has retained most of its characteristics since 2016, and there are no indications that U.S. Syria policy will witness any dramatic changes during his administration. However, it will gain more consistency than Trump’s zigzags, allowing other actors to develop more composed and pragmatic policies, thus increasing the chances of reaching a realistic epilogue to the current cycle of violence. If Biden’s primary goal is to restore American leadership on the international scene, then Syria should be a stage to demonstrate his ability to lead, coordinate allies’ contradictory policies, and to contain foes and adversaries. Whether his administration would seize this opportunity or not is a question only time can answer.