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The Biden Team Eyes the Conflict in Syria Warily

Barely two months in office, the administration of President Joseph R. Biden Jr. let pass relatively quietly the 10th anniversary of the Syrian conflict, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken merely joining a statement with his British, French, German, and Italian counterparts. No Syria envoy has been appointed to replace Ambassador James Jeffrey and until recently the administration has avoided public statements on Syria. At the end of March, Blinken delivered public remarks at the United Nations Security Council but focused on the humanitarian situation and the need for the Security Council to reauthorize border crossings in northwest and northeast Syria for U.N. assistance. Except for castigating the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for targeting hospitals and humanitarian deliveries, he offered little in the way of specific signals about broader policy intentions for Syria. Interestingly, during Biden’s presidential campaign, Blinken pointed to the leverage the United States had in Syria, highlighting the military presence in the northeast and the U.S. government’s unique ability, “at the right time,” to mobilize others in the rebuilding and reconstruction of Syria.

The public restraint makes sense given that the administration seems still to be trying to figure out the way ahead for U.S. policy in Syria. The Biden team will need to carefully examine the policy objectives the United States has pursued over the past several years, weigh U.S. points of leverage, and consider how best it can work with its allies.

U.S. Syria policy during the administration of former President Donald J. Trump sought to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant; achieve a political solution for the Syrian conflict; stop the Assad regime from using chemical weapons; and compel the departure of Iranian troops and proxies. The U.S.-led coalition made great progress in the fight against ISIL in Syria, dealing the group a series of catastrophic military setbacks to its command and control, leadership, and ability to mount anything but target-of-opportunity local attacks. Success against use of chemical weapons was a mixed bag, but U.S. warnings and military action seem to have had significant impact on Assad regime calculations in this regard. There has been little or no success in pursuing a political solution for Syria, beyond some process developments of limited impact overseen by U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, and no progress in the removal of Iranian forces.

The United States pursued these objectives with several points of leverage: a small U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria, focused on fighting ISIL; leading an 83-member global coalition against ISIL that provided support for other Syria objectives; several layers of economic sanctions targeting regime figures and entities; and U.S. diplomacy at the U.N. and with key countries. The United States has also exercised some blocking leverage, stopping or slowing the normalization of diplomatic ties with the Assad regime and, with its economic sanctions, preventing the flow of reconstruction assistance the Syrian regime badly needs.

The current U.S. policy seems sustainable at least in the short and intermediate term, giving the Biden team time to work out and implement its approach to Syria. The U.S. military presence is quite small – between 500 and 1,000 service members, according to public accounts – making it relatively easy to support logistically and justify in policy terms. This force continues to partner effectively with the highly capable local Syrian Democratic Forces to maintain strong counterterrorism pressure on ISIL sleeper cells. The U.S. presence dissuades potential intervening parties and gives the SDF the operating space it needs to control one-third of Syrian territory, including strategic oil and hydroelectric resources as well as a rich farming region, key assets the Assad regime desperately wants to regain.

The SDF has taken additional steps to stabilize the situation in the northeast, helping create this space for the Biden team to decide on its policy. The SDF has detained some 10,000 ISIL fighters who surrendered on the battlefield and worked with international and local nongovernmental organizations to ensure food and medical services for nearly 60,000 family members affiliated with these detained fighters or others killed in battle. The SDF, with its affiliated civilian organizations, has established dozens of civil councils in northeastern Syria to ensure local administration and provision of essential services, working closely with NGOs funded by the United States and other coalition countries, including the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. There have been complaints concerning some SDF security measures, but despite the defects, SDF-provided local security and governance have kept the northeast stable since the fall of ISIL.

In the meantime, the United States continues to support the efforts of the U.N. special envoy for Syria. Pedersen has convened the constitutional committee five times in Geneva over the past two years and has met repeatedly with officials of key states, and the Syrian regime, to pursue – with little success – a political solution for Syria. In recent public remarks, Pedersen pointed to a window of opportunity for resolving the Syria crisis, but warned it would require realistic, precise demands by key stakeholders to consolidate what he described as the fragile calm in Syria, since the 2020 cease-fire in the northwest.

As the Biden team reassesses the Syria policy it inherited, it will need to determine if the United States has the leverage to accomplish the objectives policymakers previously established. Skeptics of the policy have insisted the United States lacks such leverage and needs a new approach or have argued that economic sanctions have delivered only illusory gains for a political solution but have inflicted real, widespread hardship on the Syrian people. Proponents, including former senior U.S. officials, insist the sanctions and isolation are working but will need more time for decisive impact.

In the meantime, as Pedersen has said, the Syrian people are “among the greatest victims” of this century and feel trapped in a conflict without end. Even as the Biden administration, given its approach to foreign relations so far, will likely be motivated to pursue a policy that avoids signaling abdication on the issue of holding the Assad regime accountable for the massive war crimes it has committed, it will also feel compelled to pay careful attention to the humanitarian catastrophe in Syria. In 2019 in Syria, well before the economic collapse of 2020 that worsened conditions dramatically, an estimated 40% of Syrians lived in extreme poverty, according to the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia and the University of St Andrews (versus less than 1% in 2010), and the World Food Program estimates 12.4 million people are currently food insecure (versus 6.5 million in 2020), despite the billions of dollars in humanitarian assistance pledged each year for Syria. The key in this regard isn’t the provision of humanitarian aid, as important as that is, but making a realistic assessment about humanitarian costs and the prospects of succeeding with a policy heavily reliant on long-term application of economic sanctions.

As the administration weighs its options, it will also need to carefully consider how much support it can build in the region. Key allies in the region have been signaling for some time the need for a new approach to Syria, while proceeding gingerly, to avoid getting crosswise with the pronounced anti-Assad accents of senior U.S. officials in the previous administration or with the strictures of the congressionally mandated Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act sanctions, which came into force in 2020. One good barometer for assessing support for U.S. policy in Syria is the series of approaches adopted by the United States’ Gulf Arab allies.

Gulf countries, to varying degrees, have been concerned by Iran’s intervention and influence in Syria, and some, such as the UAE, are also concerned by Turkey’s interventions. In earlier years of the conflict Gulf countries condemned Assad’s violence – urging regime change and backing various rebel groups. As Assad has regained control of significant parts of the country and, with Russian and Iranian help, dealt decisive blows to the armed opposition, policies have been evolving.

Some Gulf counties have been easing toward normalizing relations with the Syrian regime. In late 2018, the UAE reopened its embassy in Damascus, and Bahrain issued a statement a few days later making clear its embassy was open and conducting normal business, with both led at the charge d’affaires level. In March 2020, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan and Assad discussed the coronavirus pandemic by phone, the first direct contact by an Arab leader with the Syrian president. More recently, the UAE joined Egypt in March in calling for Syria’s return to the Arab League, after a 10-year suspension of its membership.

Oman’s view on Syria has been shaped by its long-standing policy of nonintervention in regional affairs. It never closed its embassy in Damascus and was the first Gulf Arab country to reinstate its ambassador, in late 2020. It also remained active at high-level diplomacy throughout the conflict, sending its foreign minister to Damascus to meet Assad twice and hosting two similar visits, the most recent in March.

Qatar was the first Gulf Arab state to close its embassy in Damascus, in 2011, and it subsequently embraced a variety of opposition forces providing military and financial support. More recently Qatar has lent support to Turkey’s efforts in Syria and scaled back military support for rebels, seeing Qatar-Turkey-Russia talks as a path forward. Qatar, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, continues to support various strands of the Syrian political opposition.

Kuwait has taken a wait-and-see perspective on reengaging with Assad, with senior officials indicating it would await an Arab League green light to reopen its embassy in Damascus.

The United States’ Gulf Arab allies will be critical, at the right time, in helping finance what are likely to be exceedingly elevated costs involved in rebuilding Syria.

As the Biden team looks to retool the Syria policy it inherited, it will need to assess its leverage as it tries to formulate attainable objectives. If it is considering some version of staying the course – presumably assuming it has the leverage it needs – the administration will also need to factor in the decidedly lukewarm support of Gulf Arab countries (and other Arab capitals) for this approach. Gulf leaders seem fatigued from 10 years of dealing with the conflict and have assessed that Assad is likely to be around for years to come. They see Syria as a potential risk if Assad is unable to reassert control of a failing state and Assad as a threat if he reconstitutes his authority without their support. Gulf leaders will be, at best, reluctant supporters of a Syria policy that doubles down on the previous administration’s approach. That does not mean such an approach cannot be pursued: With forceful diplomacy, backed by the coercive impact of U.S. sanctions, and in tandem with key European countries that supported the Trump administration’s Syria policies, the new team can move ahead by looking back to previous policy for guidance. But Gulf (and other Arab) leaders’ realpolitik approach highlights another difficulty in crafting a workable Syria policy that reflects the right balance of U.S. interests and values.

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