It has been more than two weeks since Joe Biden took office in the United States. So far, nothing significant has been said concerning Syria and we have no idea what the administration’s new course of action will look like. Although there are certain distinct elements, the continuation of the war against ISIS and support for the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), many things remain vague.
We have drawn certain conclusions about what may happen by checking the footprints of those officials the Biden administration has selected for key positions. A team which was heavily involved in Syria policies during the Obama era has now been put to work. Many of them have learned lessons from the past, but not all of them have learned the same lesson. While one believes that the current situation is the result of Obama’s failure to adequately arm the opposition forces, another thinks that the idea to overthrow the Assad regime has proven wrong. Both do not rule out imposing increased pressure on the Assad regime.
The sense coming from the opponents, who are part of the armed struggle, is one of hopelessness when it comes to Biden. However, there is also the view in Washington of incorporating the presence of the Turkish military on the field as part of a strategy to suppress the Assad regime. After withdrawing from the M-5 highway, the Turkish Armed Forces (TSK) set up a barrier between armed groups and Syrian forces south and east of Idlib; Jabal al-Zawiya, northwest of Hama; Jabal al-Akrad, northeast of Latakia; and the western rural areas of Aleppo.
According to these opponents, a “Steel Shield” has been formed at more than 70 military spots with 6,000 Turkish troops, as well as about 7,500 vehicles, including tanks, armored vehicles, cannons, rocket launchers, and radars. Some sources say the number of troops and vehicles is double. The “Steel Shield,” which protects armed groups, may prove to be valuable for a possible American strategy, depending on the direction of the policy.
Until we know that direction, we will continue to ask the following questions: What will be the stance towards those armed groups sheltered by the Turkish army? Will they differentiate them as “terrorists” and “moderates” again? Certain European actors are annoyed by the Astana process orchestrated by Russia, Iran, and Turkey, and argue that the West should use its influence. They also want to kill the Geneva process which they see as a waste of time. Will those actors have their expectations met with regard to Biden’s leadership?
Biden is clearly in no rush to show his true colors. He either wants to start off with a well thought out roadmap or he has put the Syrian file under the carpet. The latter is looking more likely.
Those who have reviewed the profile of Secretary of State Antony Blinken assume that there will be an increased pressure on the Assad administration, as Blinken is known for his stance on maintaining U.S. military presence in Syria.
The appointment that makes the opponents hopeful is National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. He heavily advocated for arming the opposition during the Obama administration; however, it would be very difficult to make the same argument these days.
Another name which everybody has marked is Brett McGurk, the Middle East Coordinator at the National Security Council. For many he represents the policy of putting SDF at the center of everything. This was a policy which was at odds with Turkey and also one that disregarded the other opposition front.
Biden's choosing Robert Malley for the position of U.S. Special Envoy to Iran seems to have upset al-Assad’s enemies who were expecting the new administration to correct the perceived mistakes of Obama's Syria policy. These factions think Malley’s return will have repercussions for Syrian policies. People like Senator Tom Cotton consider Malley an Iran sympathizer and an enemy of Israel. According to Washington Post writer Josh Rogin, Malley opposed any support for the Syrian opposition and any sanctions against the Al-Assad regime during the Obama term in order not to jeopardize negotiations with Iran. Those who have high expectations for Malley share the concern that while trying to return to the nuclear deal with Iran, Biden will not address Iran’s presence in Syria.
If we consider Blinken’s appointment to the State Department a more important indicator, even if they avoid repeating Obama era policies, we can still anticipate more repressive Syrian politics will be adopted somehow with a different construction.
Even though Blinken said the Obama administration failed in Syria, he also mentioned that stronger sanctions should be imposed under the Caesar Act. In an opinion piece he wrote for the Washington Post in 2019, Blinken wrote, “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little.” It is not difficult to predict where an insistence on these sanctions will take Syria: Collapse and disaster. An atomized country they will never be able to recover. The current situation in Syria is already grim: According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Aid (OCHA), 8 out of 10 people in the country suffer from poverty. According to the World Food Program, 9.3 million people in Syria do not have food security.
Those who still want to maintain regime change as a priority, contrary to McGurk’s policies, offer a path that increases support for the opposition, escalates the pressure on the Damascus-Tehran-Moscow line, and focuses on Turkey’s capacity for anti-Assad intervention. Of course, those would advocate for such policy also believe that Turkey needs to abandon the Astana process, stop hostility toward the Kurds, and focus on Syrian forces.
In fact, the picture McGurk has drawn is more dimensional and realistic than those who push back against him. In a detailed article in Foreign Affairs from 2019, he wrote that al-Assad was not going anywhere under current conditions and that the U.S. would not be able to “expel every last Iranian boot” from Syria. He also wrote that Turkey was a problematic ally well before any disagreement over Syria: “In 2014 and 2015, Obama repeatedly asked Erdoğan to control the Turkish border with Syria, through which ISIS fighters and materiel flowed freely. Erdoğan took no action.” McGurk also argued that Turkey refused to do anything about al Qaeda’s entrenchment in northwestern Syria.
Emphasizing the importance of a U.S. presence in the field, he also wrote, “The U.S. deployment in Syria made it possible for the United States to stand toe to toe with Russia, contain Iran, restrain Turkey, hold the Arab states in line, and, most important, prevent a resurgence of ISIS.”
According to McGurk, instead of weakening U.S. influence and deterrence through insisting on unreachable aims, cooperation with Russia should be sought to force the hands of the Assad administration and Iran. The SDF should also be encouraged to reach an agreement with Damascus.
McGurk said that by the fall of 2018, the United States was preparing for intensive negotiations with Russia along two sequential tracks. “On the first track, Washington would try to encourage the Russians to compel the Syrian regime to cooperate in the UN-backed peace talks known as ‘the Geneva process.’ … If the Geneva process did not produce a breakthrough, U.S. diplomats had prepared a second track for negotiating directly with the Russians to broker a deal between the SDF and the Syrian regime.”
According to McGurk, it was never a realistic aim that all Iranians would leave Syria. This country and Iran’s military partnership date back to the early 1980s. McGurk also pointed out that Washington has no relations with Damascus or Tehran, so it will have to work with Moscow in order to get anything done.
McGurk believes the Arab states wanted to normalize relations with Damascus against Iranian and Turkish expansion, but the U.S. opposed it. However, he also said he believes this should be accompanied by confidence-building measures from the Assad regime such as a general amnesty and the return of the refugees.
McGurk argues that Washington should pursue more limited goals instead of unachievable aims such as the removal of Assad. Only McGurk has gone into such detail on the subject.
While we are plucking flower petals, waiting to understand Biden’s upcoming Syria-policies, former Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey D. Feltman also came onto the scene. He and Hrair Balian co-authored an article for Responsible Statecraft and wrote that the U.S. policy since 2011 has failed to produce results, except for confronting the ISIS threat in northeast Syria. Sanctions have also failed to produce behavioral change. For this reason, he proposes that negotiations with Assad should be considered and sanctions could be lifted. The sanctions have decimated the Syrian middle class which Feltman sees as a potential engine for stability and long-term reform. The authors suggest a step-by-step approach which requires verifiable Syrian action, where steps would include the release of political prisoners, dignified reception for returning refugees, good-faith participation in the U.N.’s Geneva process and greater decentralization. Because Feltman is being considered for a new position as U.S. Special Envoy to Syria, his proposals have drawn attention.
Former Damascus Ambassador Robert Ford also suggests cooperation with Russia and Turkey in Syria in his article for Foreign Policy. In short, there is a lot of talk about how the politics of the past 10 years have not produced results and that a reorientation is needed.
I believe the most likely scenario is that there will be a balanced blend of McGurk’s views with others. Hopefully, as a result, we may also come across a moderate, unambitious policy.
Many people predict that Syria will not be a priority. That may be so, but Turkey is one of the countries that should be focused on while Biden is putting relations with NATO allies on the right track. This inevitably brings Syrian politics to the table, regardless of the priority order because of the Kurds and the SDF.