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. 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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
 “The Daily Telegraph: the US sanctions affect ordinary Syrians while the war riche live their normal lives”, Al-Quds Al-Arabi, 16 November 2019.
 Samir Salha, “So that Biden would not surprise us in Syria”, Turk Press, 15 November 2020.
 Radwan Ziadeh, “The prospects for Biden's policy in Syria”, Syria TV, 20 November 2020.
 Hussien Abdelaziz, “The Syrian file and the US presidencies”, Arabi 21, 7 November 2020.
 “How will Biden's election affect Iran in Syria?”, Baladi News, 10 November 2020.
 Samir Salha, “So that Biden would not surprise us in Syria”, op. cit.
 “Stratfor: How will Israel try to shape Biden’s Middle East policies?”, Asharq Alarabi Centre, 20 November 2020.
 “Why will Syria rank low among Biden's priorities?“, Middle East Eye, translated by the Nedaa Syria website, 14 November 2020.
 Farazdaq Haydar, “Biden's foreign priorities: Corona, China, Russia, Europe”, 180 Post website, 7 November 2020.
 “Idlib: the M4 conflict is not yet over”, Al-Modon, 24 November 2020.
 Bassam Mukdad, “Syria in the Biden era”, Enab Baladi, 11 November 2020.
 “Joel Rayburn to Asharq Al-Awsat: US policy will not change with Biden”, Asharq Al-Awsat, 14 November 2020.
Zeinab F. Shuker | 21 Jan 2021
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