Biden’s Syria Policy: Steady Non-commitment and Persistent Failure

The Biden administration’s Syria policy, as well as its policy for the Middle East in general, stems from priorities and practices set in place during the eight years of the Obama administration, both of which fell short of the vision that the former president so well expressed, but that was thwarted by realities on the ground. President Obama’s disastrous Syria policy exemplified the failure of an idealistic foreign policy agenda to develop an effective strategic mix of soft and hard power to help forces of democracy transform the Middle East. Although US-led diplomacy did succeed in concluding the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal with Iran, a second track to limit the risk of violence in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria was never even initiated. In Syria, a curious mix of diplomacy and force failed to achieve any results.

In a speech about Assad’s use of chemical weapons, former Secretary of State John Kerry cited all of the moral and political factors at play, only to conclude that whatever the US decided to do would be limited, and would need to be thoroughly discussed with both Congress and the American people beforehand. This speech set the tone for American inaction on Syria, while talks between Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in 2013, and again in 2016  following Russia’s 2015 intervention in Syria, only pointed to a growing Russian influence in the country and a declining American role. Russia essentially bolstered the Assad regime and protected it against international opprobrium or accountability.

Obama’s desire to prioritize diplomacy over a military-based foreign policy failed to translate into an entirely peaceful approach to conflict in the Middle East.

At the same time, Obama’s desire to prioritize diplomacy over a military-based foreign policy failed to translate into an entirely peaceful approach to conflict in the Middle East. The use of CIA-directed drone strikes and military operations featured heavily in Syria, Yemen, and Libya, prolonging the use of force, but with a narrow focus and limited results.

Biden Retreats

In a similar vein, Biden’s recent visit to Saudi Arabia and his fist-bump with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—after having previously dubbed him a rogue dictator—represented a clear setback to attempts to conduct a value-based foreign policy, instead marking a return to “business as usual” with the region’s dictators. Progressives have arguably failed at setting a human rights-based foreign policy agenda for the administration and now complain of a return to Cold War-like alliances more in line with realpolitik than with the more idealistic agenda for which they had hoped.

On the Syria front, the Biden administration has set very limited goals for both its sanctions on the country and its troops on the ground. And although the administration’s own relations with the Assad regime remain severed, it has not opposed its regional partners’ attempts to bring Assad back into the Arab fold. The United Arab Emirates, Jordan, Algeria, and Egypt have all taken steps toward normalizing relations with the Assad regime, and Saudi Arabia seems to be heading in that direction as well. Qatar, meanwhile, has so far been opposed to normalizing with Assad, but has advocated a more humane approach to the Syrian people, and in particular to refugees and internally displaced Syrians—an issue that requires at least a minimum of coordination with Syrian authorities.

The US has also failed to come up with a coherent approach to sanctions. In August 2021, for example, US Ambassador to Lebanon Dorothy Shea came out strongly against an Iranian offer to ship oil to Lebanon to aid in its energy crisis, and offered instead to facilitate the export of Egyptian gas and Jordanian electricity through Syria. However, and despite a proposed agreement to bypass Caesar Act sanctions on direct dealings with Syria, final approval of the deal by the State Department still has not been received. The Egyptian gas pipeline to Lebanon violates both the letter and the very essence of Caesar Act sanctions on Syria. And although the Biden administration may try to convince Congress that the pipeline is a purely humanitarian project not requiring a formal waiver, this would still represent an exception to the legislation that will likely require congressional approval—perhaps a difficult proposition in this election year.

Securing Egyptian gas to Lebanon via Syria would represent an exception to the Caesar Act and will likely require congressional approval—perhaps a difficult proposition in this election year.

In military matters, Biden has retained a small contingent of roughly 900 soldiers in Syria, split between the northeast where they back up and train Kurdish forces, and the southeast, specifically at al-Tanf base where they monitor the Syria-Iraq border for the movement of arms and fighters. These forces could easily be supported, if need be, by air power from CENTCOM’s Al-Udeid Air Base in Qatar. Nevertheless, this limited US military presence betrays the administration’s modest goals and its shrinking strategic interest in Syria. Recent history indicates that these forces only strike in self-defense or in retaliation for attacks against them from the so-called Islamic State (IS) or hostile forces supported by Iran. A recent drone attack against US forces at al-Tanf, for example, led to a retaliatory raid on Iran-backed militias inside Iraq. Given the lack of US political involvement in Syria, a strike there is relatively cost-free when compared to the other, more complex situations, such as that involving US diplomatic efforts in Iraq.

But with the United States now focusing nearly all of its diplomatic energy on nuclear talks with Iran in order to fulfill Biden’s promise to revive the JCPOA, the administration has completely abandoned the goal of assisting the process of political transition in Syria. For eight years, the United States Agency for International Development was charged with devising and implementing a political transition in partnership with the Syrian opposition and Syrian and American NGOs. This program was finally dropped in favor of a focus on humanitarian issues and community recovery programs. The Astana talks, which were originally conceived by Russia, Turkey, and Iran to find a political settlement to the Syrian conflict, have meanwhile collapsed because of the Syrian regime’s intransigence due to the confidence it has gained by being supported by Russia and Iran. Meanwhile, the ceasefire in and around Idlib in Syria’s northwest is subject to frequent flareups, indicating that the three dominant powers, Russia, Turkey, and Iran, have still not agreed on the determination of control over the area or on the fate of Islamist forces. And the United States, which did not participate in the Astana talks, has indeed dropped out altogether from helping to devise a political transition in Syria.

Biden’s Declared Goals in Syria

The Biden administration’s declared goals in Syria remain largely the same as those under the Trump administration, and those laid out under President Barack Obama. Combatting Islamist terrorist organizations is still an important goal for the administration, as the February 2022 killing of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi clearly demonstrates. And various administration officials have summed up US goals as comprising, “the enduring defeat” of IS, the maintenance of open humanitarian corridors in northern Syria, and support for the UN and other actors’ mediation efforts toward reaching a political solution to the Syrian crisis, including a process of political transition to a more humane and democratic system. However, it is clear that the US only remains most concerned with defeating what remains of the so-called Islamic State.

The Biden administration’s declared goals in Syria remain largely the same as those under the Trump administration, and those laid out under President Barack Obama.

By all accounts, the Islamic State is no longer the organization it once was, especially after having lost its hold on territory in Iraq and Syria. However, it remains a force still capable of mounting operations in northern Syria along the Turkish border, and in the southeast as well. The US military is therefore aiming to keep the organization at bay, while also continuing to target its leadership and those responsible for murdering American citizens. The US goal of weakening pro-Iran militias in Syria is also still desired, but the heavy lifting on that issue is left to Israel, which is carrying out frequent raids in the country.

Displaced Syrians living in Lebanon due to the war in their home country are now estimated to be at 1.5 million, many of whom are not officially documented and are believed to be living in extreme poverty. While the United States has contributed $2.9 billion in humanitarian assistance to these refugees since the start of the Syrian crisis, a long-term solution necessarily involves repatriation, which is a much more complex endeavor than making a financial contribution. And as in the case of the gas pipeline from Egypt, a repatriation plan would necessitate directly dealing with the Syrian government, and hence another potential violation of the Caesar Act. Lebanese government officials complain that it is hypocritical for the US to admit that Lebanon suffers from the burden of supporting Syrian refugees while also threatening to impose further sanctions if Lebanese officials coordinate directly with their Syrian counterparts on repatriation. In a letter to UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati complained that the UN (which has not been part of recent Lebanese-Syrian negotiations) must find a new way of solving the issue of Syrian refugees in Lebanon before matters get “out of control.”

One human rights organization, the Syria Accountability and Justice Center, noted that the Syrian regime’s claim that it is prepared to facilitate and accommodate the return of its citizens significantly clashes with reports on the ground from those who have put that claim to the test. It a June 2021 report, the center stated that, “The Syrian government continues to promote what it calls ‘status settlements’ advertising safe havens for Syrian refugees. But the reality of the matter differs from what is claimed. Syrians who wish to return must fill out a detailed application answering questions about allegiance to the opposition and family members.”

And the White Helmets, a civil defense organization in Syria, has also reported on the continued suffering of internally displaced people in areas controlled by the Assad regime. In addition, innocent men, women, and children are regularly killed by bombardments from Syrian and Russian forces, by unexploded landmines, and due to battles between the Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-dominated military faction, the Turkish army, and IS.

Staying the Course

In terms of a foreign policy doctrine, Obama set the tone and Biden has followed suit, albeit with his own accent given the markers and faits accomplis of his immediate predecessor, Donald Trump. But Obama’s singular foreign policy achievement—the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran—was never approved (or rejected, for that matter) by Congress. And the lack of a second track on regional issues was a further limitation under the Obama administration. Given this controversial background and the ultimate abrogation of the JCPOA in 2018 by former President Trump, it is no wonder that Biden has placed so much importance on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran. However, the agreement’s political fortunes under Biden are no better than they were under his predecessors, and will perhaps be considerably worse should the Republican Party win the upcoming US midterm elections. Current talks on the deal present their own difficulties, especially as they have remained indirect and as Iran today is under the more hardline administration of President Ebrahim Raisi.

Given the controversial background and the ultimate abrogation of the JCPOA in 2018 by former President Trump, it is no wonder that Biden has placed so much importance on reviving the nuclear deal with Iran.

The combination of a circumscribed American military role in Syria and an apparent US acquiescence to Arab rapprochement with the Assad regime while at the same time maintaining the Caesar Act sanctions, belies the fact that the US is only paying lip service when it participates in issuing statements on its commitment to political transition in Syria. In fact, such statements expose the limits and contradictions of US policy in the country. The drastically reduced American military role in Syria, along with increased strategic coordination with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, points to the difficulty in abandoning Cold War alliances and practices. A complete shift to a strong, consistent, and effective value-based policy in Syria—and in the Middle East more generally—thus remains at best a work in progress.