The Biden Administration and Expected Policies on the Syrian Issue

EPC | 08 Dec 2020

The local, regional and international actors involved in the Syrian conflict are anticipating the policies of the US President-elect Joe Biden's administration and the strategy by which he will deal with the Syrian issue and the actors therein. This paper sheds light on the Biden administration's potential policy toward the Syrian conflict, its positions on the domestic and external actors, and the potential responses on the part of those actors.

Syria's position for Biden

Analysts derive information about the new US administration’s policy towards Syria from statements and positions issued by Biden or his work team in previous periods regarding the issue. One of Biden’s advisers asserts that the Middle East will rank fourth in the interests of the next President, after Asia, Europe and the Western Hemisphere.[1] This trend will likely reflect on Syria, given that Antony Blinken admits, before his designation as Secretary of State, that the US is currently weak in Syria and does not have the required presence. Blinken criticised the weak US effectiveness during the Trump era, and believes that the Geneva negotiations would not be revived unless the US increases the influence on the ground. He supports the stay of the US forces in northeastern Syria to protect the oil fields and support the Kurdish Autonomous Administration. Both Blinken and a number of the Biden administration officials also expressed remorse for the way the Syrian crisis was managed at the time of Barack Obama's administration.[2]

In any case, Syria is expected to occupy an important position in the US administration’s strategy for two important reasons. The first is the existence of US political investments and military assets in Syria. Despite the emerging changes on its front, Syria continues to constitute a hot spot in view of the fact that matters therein remain in the circle of conflict. The second is the association of the Syrian portfolio with the portfolios of the relations of the US with the international and regional actors involved in the conflict. At this stage, two types of estimations appear to prevail regarding the approach that would be adopted by the Biden administration in dealing with the Syrian issue:

  • Biden will follow the policies drawn up by the Trump administration in Syria. Indeed, he has no other options, considering that the Trump administration has confined the US role in Syria to a small and limited scope, both militarily and politically, by focusing on the military presence in eastern Syria and the Al-Tanf base, and by calling on the Syrian regime to change its behaviour, accept the participation of the opposition, and hold accountable those involved in war crimes, according to what was mentioned in the document of the former US envoy James Jeffrey.
  • Biden would follow the policy of former President Barack Obama, considering that Biden was one of the makers of that policy in his capacity as Vice President at that stage. In his administration, Biden would use the tools and experiences that managed the US policy in Syria and the region. In this context, the name of Antony Blinken is prominent, given that he is considered one of the architects of the nuclear agreement with Iran, based on which Iran’s regional policies, specifically towards Syria, were overlooked.[3]

Determinants of the Biden Administration’s policy in Syria

The first determinant: the different objective circumstances: it is no longer possible to reproduce the policy adopted by the Democrats towards the Syrian crisis due to the difference in the current facts:

  1. The Obama administration’s priorities were focused on arranging the military conditions in the field and arranging the political base from which the intra-Syrian dialogue would be launched under the auspices of the United Nations (UN). However, now, after the regression of the military opposition, the US tools have subsided, with nothing at hand except the political and economic pressure in addition to the presence of the US forces east of the Euphrates.[4]
  2. The relationship with Russia: the Obama administration opted for facilitating the Russian intervention and not obstructing or confronting it. The motive for the Obama administration was to drown Russia in the Syrian quagmire. However, Russia has turned into an influential and effective power. It has managed to turn challenges into opportunities through its management of the war. In addition, Joe Biden has a different view about Russia, which he views as a strategic opponent and the primary enemy, unlike Obama who viewed Russia as a regional power and not an equal to the US and, thus, does not pose a threat to the US interests.
  3. The agreement with Iran: despite numerous indications that Biden and the staff of his administration would want to return to the nuclear agreement with Iran, the options of the new administration and its margin of manoeuvrability have become weak for more than one reason:
  • The difficulty of reproducing the previous agreement, considering that any new agreement must include the ballistic missiles and Iran's regional activity, which has become a requirement of many US allies, and the estimation that the conservatives in Iran would not accept this condition.
  • It is no longer possible to barter the interests of the Arab countries for Iran's acceptance to sign the nuclear agreement, as was the case in 2015, especially after the UAE and Bahrain peace treaties with Israel, which is considered a security variable that cannot be ignored by the US administrations.[5]

The second determinant: the existing balances in Syria: these were drawn by the actors involved in Syria, especially Russia and Turkey, entailing many rounds of conflicts and arrangements, some of which were recognised by the US, albeit by turning a blind eye to them, such as the Astana Platform, the decisions of the Sochi conference, and the arrangements in Idlib. This narrows the margin for manoeuvre before the Biden administration which will find itself faced with two options, either to accept those balances that have become supported by conditions on the ground, or reject them and subsequently get involved int conflicts with Russia and Turkey.[6]

The third determinant: the US sanctions against the Assad regime: these are sanctions that received the absolute approval of members of Congress from both parties.

The fourth determinant: Trump himself: his recent actions and moves in the transitional phase indicate that he does not intend to retire from politics and is considering returning to the presidency in the next elections. Therefore, he will constitute a permanent monitor of the Biden administration’s actions, especially in its Middle Eastern policies, specifically on the Iranian issue. This would tie the hands of the Democratic administration and reduce its margin of manoeuvrability on the Syrian issue. In addition, during the remainder of his administration, Trump can impose policies that the Biden administration would not be able to bypass, especially with regard to Iran.

The fifth determinant: Israel and its security interests in Syria: Israel seeks to change the facts in Syria through its "war between wars" waged against Iran's proxies. Through the intelligence it possesses on the Iranian nuclear activity and pressure capabilities in the US political milieu, Israel can influence the policy of the Biden administration in Syria.[7]

The link between the Syrian portfolio and the portfolios of the US relations

The Syrian scene has become intertwined so that the new US administration is expected to face great difficulties in dealing with it, especially in terms of its overlap with the relations of the US with the regional and international players involved in the crisis. This matter would force the Biden administration either to make concessions to those actors on the Syrian issue, which are mostly concessions that the Assad regime would benefit from, so that those concessions would hit the US administration’s policy of sanctions and isolating the regime, or to confront those players, especially Iran, Russia and Turkey.[8]

Relationship with Iran

Iran is aware of the difficulty of its upcoming negotiations with the Biden administration to conclude a new agreement on its nuclear programme. As a result, it seeks to strengthen its cards, especially on the Syrian issue. The intensity of the Israeli strikes against Iranian sites in Syria reflects the speed of the Iranian expansion and the attempt to impose a fait accompli in Syria to force the Biden administration to take this fact into consideration when negotiating with Iran, counting it among the Iranian strengths.

As a result, Biden's policy in Syria is expected to be affected, one way or another, by the US-Iranian relations. Any breakthrough in this relationship, especially in terms of easing the sanctions against Iran, would reflect on the situation in Syria by raising the volume of Iranian funding to the Syrian regime and mitigating its economic and financial crises. However, in case the negotiations between the two sides are complicated, the Syrian crisis may slide into violent confrontations between Israel and the Iranian militias on Syrian soil. Those confrontations would extend to the sites of the Syrian regime's army and its camps where those militias are located.[9]

Relationship with Russia

Russia and the US contend over more than one issue. However, the Syrian issue has a peculiarity, namely the presence of forces from both sides and the occurrence of direct frictions between them. This would drive the Biden administration to find mechanisms to continue coordination between the two sides. While a major breakthrough is not expected in the Syrian issue, the more plausible likelihood is the continued operation of the current coordination mechanisms between the US and Russian forces, with the possibility that, in the transitional phase, Russia would take control of more opposition-controlled areas in Idlib to change the facts and weaken the opposition’s cards. This may take place either by clashing with Turkey, with which the relationship has been strained as a result of the Azerbaijani-Armenian conflict, or by agreeing with Turkey through the swap of areas in Idlib near the M4 highway for the expansion of Turkish influence on the border strip at the expense of the influence of the Syrian Democratic Forces (QSD, SDF).

Russia, Iran and the Syrian regime fear a change in the performance of the US administration in favour of the opposition and Turkey with the takeover of the new President. Those actors are also concerned about the Saudi-Turkish rapprochement, and are expected to resort to military action in Idlib in order to shuffle the cards and embarrass the Biden administration.[10]

Relationship with Turkey

The Biden administration is facing complicated conditions on the Turkish side. Biden did not hide his intention to punish Turkey. His threats were clear and explicit to make Turkey pay the price for its purchase of S-400 missiles. Turkey also anticipates the Biden administration. That is why it made quick arrangements in the Libyan and Nagorno-Karabakh portfolios to devote itself to the portfolio of its relations with the Biden administration.

In its relationship with Turkey on the Syrian issue, the Biden administration faces a dilemma, which is the lenient approach adopted by the Trump administration in dealing with Turkey. This raised the ceiling of the latter’s expectations so that it is no longer ready to concede its gains in the Syrian arena, although those gains are deducted from the balance of the US influence in Syria and at the expense of the US’ closest allies, namely the Kurdish-Arab QSD forces.

Features of the Biden administration's expected policy

  • Increasing the US military presence in the east of the Euphrates and Al-Tanf to strengthen the US presence in Syria and enable the Biden administration to impose its influence as a player in the future of the Syrian arrangements. This approach is supported by Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
  • Activating the US diplomacy to a greater extent and in a noticeably different manner from the way this issue was handled by the Trump administration. The Constitutional Committee is likely to be activated to reach a political solution before the presidential elections in Syria in the summer of 2021.
  • Re-engaging with human rights organisations and agencies, given that the Democrats have experience in this field. This would constitute an alternative to working with the Syrian "political and military" opposition, which has retreated significantly and no longer has any weight in the new developments.[11]
  • Continuing pressure on the Assad regime at an increasing pace by primarily expanding the scope of the sanctions. Secretary of State Blinken has emphasised the impossibility of accepting direct negotiations with Assad.[12]
  • The Biden administration is not expected to seek to change Assad by force despite the remorse expressed by many of the Biden administration officials for the mistakes that were made during the Obama administration stage, especially Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and despite the sharp criticism by Vice President Kamala Harris who has classified Assad as a war criminal, considering that the Biden administration is not ready to get involved in military conflicts in Syria.
  • Raising the level of financial and political support provided to the Kurds and seeking to establish the Kurdish administration in Syria’s new constitution. This is attributable to President Biden’s personal sympathy with the Kurdish issue in general, given that he had proposed during his term of office as Vice President to President Obama that Iraq be divided into three parts, and supported the right of the Kurds to have an independent state.

Conclusion

  • President Joseph Biden's administration is facing complex situations in its future Syrian policy as a result of the interconnection between the Syrian portfolio and the portfolios of the US relations with the regional and international actors involved in the Syrian conflict, so much so that this administration may not be capable of separating its policies towards the portfolios of its relations with Russia, Iran, Turkey and Israel, on the one hand, and its Syrian policy, on the other. This would place it in embarrassing contradictions and drive it to make choices that contradict the US constants.
  • The margin of manoeuvrability for the Biden administration would not be comfortable, as it faces a number of limitations as a result of the changing facts in the Syrian arena during the phase of the Donald Trump administration, the different circumstances, and the changing size of the actors’ roles and their influences on the Syrian game.
  • Qualitative changes are not expected to occur in the Biden administration’s policy towards Syria, as the current policy is likely to be developed, which is based on keeping some forces in the eastern Euphrates region and maintaining the sanctions imposed on the Assad regime, through a relative increase in the number of US forces and increasing sanctions against the Assad regime in the framework of the Caesar Act, in addition to increasing the diplomatic activity, especially at the level of alliances that had previously been formed by the Obama administration to manage the conflict in Syria.
  • However, there is another path that the Biden administration could take in two cases:
  • If there is a major change on the ground, such as a massive Russian-Iranian attack on the northern Syria region, or an attempt to strike the Kurdish forces in eastern Syria. In that case, the Biden administration would find itself forced to get involved in direct confrontation and change its Syrian approach. This possibility is plausible, considering that Russia seems to be tired of the negotiation path and the stalemate in Syria and has a desire to put a permanent end to this context to impose a fait accompli on the Biden administration.
  • If the three main actors in the Syrian conflict, namely Russia, Iran and Turkey, reach understandings, especially in terms of speeding up the political solution and isolating the US administration from those developments, then the Biden administration would consider it in its interest to complicate the situation in the Syrian arena, mix the cards, and perhaps return to the old policies of providing military and intelligence support to the opposition.

References

[1] “The Daily Telegraph: the US sanctions affect ordinary Syrians while the war riche live their normal lives”, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 16 November 2019.

[2] Samir Salha, “So that Biden would not surprise us in Syria”, Turk Press, 15 November 2020.

[3] Radwan Ziadeh, “The prospects for Biden's policy in Syria”, Syria TV, 20 November 2020.

[4] Hussien Abdelaziz, “The Syrian file and the US presidencies”, Arabi 21, 7 November 2020.

[5] “How will Biden's election affect Iran in Syria?”, Baladi News, 10 November 2020.

[6] Samir Salha, “So that Biden would not surprise us in Syria”, op. cit.

[7] “Stratfor: How will Israel try to shape Biden’s Middle East policies?”, Asharq Alarabi Centre, 20 November 2020.

[8] “Why will Syria rank low among Biden's priorities?“, Middle East Eye, translated by the Nedaa Syria website, 14 November 2020.

[9] Farazdaq Haydar, “Biden's foreign priorities: Corona, China, Russia, Europe”, 180 Post website, 7 November 2020.

[10] “Idlib: the M4 conflict is not yet over”, Al-Modon, 24 November 2020.

[11] Bassam Mukdad, “Syria in the Biden era”, Enab Baladi, 11 November 2020.

[12] “Joel Rayburn to Asharq Al-Awsat: US policy will not change with Biden”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 November 2020.

 

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