Can Biden afford to ignore the Syrian crisis?


Osama al Sharif

President Joe Biden and his top foreign policy team are yet to unveil a policy on the decade-old Syrian crisis, if any. So far the State Department under Secretary Anthony Blinken has reiterated its commitment to implementing tough economic sanctions under the Caesar Act, while the Pentagon announced recently that the US military in eastern Syria will no longer be responsible for protecting oil and gas fields. Instead, it will focus on fighting Daesh. But is this enough? This falls short of a clear and stable approach to resolving a crisis that continues to erode the country’s social and economic fabric resulting in the destruction and eventual partition of Syria.

It is not clear also if Syria will emerge as foreign policy priority for the Biden administration with early indications pointing to a lack of vision on how to proceed after years of failed myopic strategies. But the fact remains that the Syrian crisis, with its multinational dimensions, is a major regional disruptor. One cannot resolve the Iran Question, including the nuclear deal and Tehran’s regional agenda in Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, without addressing the complex Syrian crisis.

Successive US administrations had failed to implement a valid strategy in Syria. The Obama White House opted to back anti-Assad regime rebels, comprising nationalists, leftist and extremist elements, in a bid to topple the regime. That policy had a disastrous effect on the people of Syria and paved the way for the emergence of Daesh while failing to bring down the regime. Millions of Syrians have been displaced, almost half-a-million killed, while the world stood by as Damascus deployed chemical weapons against its own people. Both the regime and rebel groups stand accused of gross war crimes. Obama left Syria in turmoil, just as he did in Libya.

President Trump inherited the Syrian crisis and while he sought to end US involvement in the region he was faced with the dire challenge presented by Daesh in both Syria and Iraq. His policy, not often clear, focused on defeating the terror group while enforcing economic sanctions on the regime. Between the Obama and Trump administrations Russian military intervention in Syria took place in 2015 and became permanent in 2017. That was a game changer in the dynamics of the civil war that both US leaders had failed to appreciate.

Coinciding with the Russian intervention, Turkish forces crossed the borders with Syria in 2016 to contain and repulse Syrian Kurdish rebels allied with Arab and other ethnic minorities east of the Euphrates. The SDF/YPG forces were labeled as terrorist groups by Ankara associated with the PKK. Meanwhile, the regime allowed thousands of Iranian and Hizbollah fighters to come to its aid thus sounding alarm bells in Israel.

There is no doubt that Syria presents a major geopolitical challenge for the region and beyond. Russian initiatives to find a political settlement to the civil war had come out short. The UN, which is sponsoring efforts to write a new constitution for the country, has made little progress as well.

The US cannot solve the Syrian crisis on its own. It needs the help of the European Union, as an economic powerhouse, as well as that of Moscow and Ankara as major players on the ground. The US approach should be part of a bigger vision for its policy in the region. So far President Biden has shown a desire to reduce US military involvement in the region in a bid to give diplomacy a chance. That can be seen in his view of the conflicts in Yemen and Libya. But Syria is much more complicated.

One alternative is to admit that the regime is not going away anytime soon and that the international community should engage it in an effort to force it to embrace reforms in return for easing the sanctions, adopting a road map for future reconstruction of the country and repatriating refugees. This quid pro quo is not guaranteed to succeed but it could entice Moscow to put real pressure on Assad. Russia’s support for the regime cannot be open-ended and is unlikely to include economic aid.

Leaving things as they are is dangerous on the long run. It will spell the de facto partition of the country allowing Turkey, Iran and Russia, each with a different agenda, to remain in the country for many years with the real risk of triggering a major conflagration, say between Israel, which wants the Iranians out, and Iran at any time. It also leaves uncontrolled pockets of territory for Daesh allowing it to regroup and present new threats.

The Trump administration had avoided working with the Russians on resolving a number of conflicts, from Ukraine to Syria and Libya. By ignoring Syria, Biden will have a difficult time restoring peace in Iraq or saving Lebanon from collapsing. He will also have a tough time containing Turkish ambitions to expand its control over Syrian territory. The risk of an Israeli-Iranian confrontation in Syria and beyond will also present a challenge.

Instead, President Biden must work with his European allies and eventually with President Vladimir Putin to reach a common vision for Syria. That vision may not be perfect but it could prevent further deterioration of the conflict, which could spill over at any time.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman


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