By Arab News
By Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami*
Ever since US President Joe Biden was inaugurated last month, politicians and analysts focusing on Middle Eastern affairs have been assessing his policies and evaluating their possible direction in relation to the outstanding issues in the region. Considering the US’ standing as the leader of the free world and influencer of global politics, Biden’s Middle East policies will be decisive in influencing the direction taken by other nations and shaping the course of regional and global affairs.
The Syrian question, which has remained unresolved for a decade, is one of the main issues preoccupying politicians and analysts. Biden’s position on this issue will help guide future policies and trajectories in relation to Syria and the region as well. This is due to the massive and far-reaching impact of the Syrian crisis on the other issues with which it is intertwined, further complicating the overall situation in the Middle East and escalating disputes, hence impacting regional and global peace and security.
Among think tanks and analysts, as well as within the corridors of power, the debate is growing over which strategic direction the Biden administration will take in relation to Syria, with his policy on the crisis currently lacking transparency and coherency. This is because Biden has not yet presented a clear policy statement or outlined his approach to the crisis. This is not limited to Syria, with the administration currently broadly prioritizing domestic issues, such as combating the coronavirus crisis, while simultaneously strengthening international alliances, expressing misgivings about the Iranian nuclear program, and showing determination to counter Russia’s growing global influence.
There are two possible approaches Biden could take on Syria. The first would replicate Barack Obama’s policy — this is based on Biden appointing several officials who previously served under Obama. Moreover, Biden himself served as vice president to Obama throughout his two terms. These officials want the US to withdraw from the Middle East generally and from Syria in particular, viewing the region as crisis-ridden due to sectarian disputes. These officials had no problem in the US carrying out combat missions against terrorists using drones, according to Obama’s autobiography.
The second possible approach on Syria would be different from Obama’s policy, and this is a strong possibility as Biden has reiterated on multiple occasions that his rule will not be an extension of Obama’s. Also, experts believe that Biden is unlikely to repeat Obama’s mistakes in Syria, which resulted from his eagerness to conclude the Iranian nuclear agreement without paying heed to the Tehran regime’s regional behavior. The nuclear deal turned Iran into a country with extensive and destabilizing influence in the Middle East, making it extremely costly for regional and international actors, including the US, to confront it.
For these reasons, the Biden administration’s policy approach toward Syria is expected to be shaped by political reformist voices within the Democratic Party. In addition, the president’s wider regional policy approach is likely to focus on countering Russian influence, providing absolute and constant support for Israel, combating terrorist organizations, and reaching understandings on Washington’s potential return to the nuclear deal.
In line with the second approach, remarks made by one of Biden’s close advisers to the Syrian community in the US, speaking before Biden assumed his duties as president, shed some light on Biden’s expected Syrian policy. The adviser reiterated the incoming president’s intention of explaining to Russia that, following consultations and coordination on the Syrian question between Washington and the European capitals, they would refuse to participate in Syria’s reconstruction without real progress toward comprehensive political reform, including the release of prisoners. Hence, the US sanctions imposed on the Assad regime and the entities cooperating with him will remain in place, including those imposed on Russia under the Caesar Act, which entered into force last June.
This strategy aims to push Syrian President Bashar Assad toward a political settlement, in tandem with US diplomatic efforts to counter the Russian propaganda that aims to polish Assad’s image and convince global powers to participate in Syria’s reconstruction.
In addition, the Biden administration is likely to underline its support for de-escalation moves and outline plans to keep US forces in northern Syria to stop the Assad regime’s airstrikes targeting Kurdish areas. The Biden administration is also likely to coordinate with Turkey to settle the Idlib issue.
It seems that keeping US forces in the north of the country and the sanctions on the regime will be the two main pillars of Biden’s Syria policy. In addition, the US is likely to limit Russian and Iranian influence. However, the Russians are unlikely to withdraw from their areas of influence, which contain strategic resources. And the Iranian regime won’t end its sponsorship of armed militias.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime will ultimately comply with the Caesar Act’s conditions in order to get the sanctions lifted. This will include releasing prisoners, carrying out political reforms, facilitating the return of refugees, and bringing war criminals, including senior figures in the Assad regime, to justice.
The Biden administration is also aware of the growing dangers of new Daesh cells in some Syrian and Iraqi provinces, which will make it imperative for it to keep some military forces in Syria to counter the terrorist group.
In addition, the Biden administration’s commitment to providing absolute and constant support for Israel will prompt it to ensure a robust military presence in Syria. This will allow Washington to fully support Israeli airstrikes targeting Iranian militias in Syria to push them to comply with Israel’s red lines.
This means that the US pulling out from Syria is fraught with difficulties, unless a new consensus is reached, under which the US has a satisfactory share. In addition, the US pulling out will complicate Washington’s support for the Syrian Kurds, who are its allies within the Syrian equation. However, ongoing US support for the Syrian Kurds could escalate tensions with Ankara, a foe of the Kurds.
I foresee, according to the prevailing calculations, that the Biden administration will pursue a much more resilient regional policy than that of the former US administration, particularly when dealing with Iran and its behavior in Syria and elsewhere.
- Dr. Mohammed Al-Sulami is President of the International Institute for Iranian Studies (Rasanah). Twitter: @mohalsulami