Former US President Barack Obama admitted in an interview this month that he is “still tormented by the tragedy in Syria.” He certainly should be. In the international arena, no conflict in his two terms saw so much destruction and loss of life, and arguably so little positive impact from the US. If it haunts him, one wonders what it does to President-elect Joe Biden, who as vice president was also a key pillar in shaping the Obama administration’s Syria policy.
The Obama-era policies in terms of Syria were largely a costly exercise in wishful thinking. Without deploying serious military force in concert with allies, why did he start the regime-change bandwagon? It fed the fantasies that the US would lead the charge to kick out the Assad regime, which from the outset Obama had no intention of doing.
In Obama’s recently published memoirs, he is clear about the situation in 2011 regarding Syria: “Our options were painfully limited.” If so, why — in tandem with British, French and German leaders — did Obama call for Bashar Assad to step aside when he had no intention to back that up? Why did Obama allow red lines to be drawn that he had no intention of policing, as was painfully made clear after his decision not to respond to the Assad regime’s chemical weapons attacks in 2013? Why indeed was the red line only defined in terms of chemical weapons when conventional weapons had killed hundreds of thousands?
All of this matters because so many of Biden’s likely team were a core part of the Obama administration. Will they still be married to notions of regime change? This might be unlikely. Tony Blinken, a key Biden ally and likely secretary of state, wrote: “The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”
Tony Blinken, set to be Biden's Secretary of State, on Syria: "The [Obama] administration has to acknowledge that we failed.... We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life.... And it's something that I will take with me for the rest of my days." https://t.co/dc4VPkJV06— Charles Я. Davis (@charliearchy) November 23, 2020
Philip H. Gordon, former White House coordinator for the Middle East, was similarly critical: “What we ended up doing was support the opposition enough to escalate and perpetuate a tragic horrible devastating civil conflict, with huge humanitarian repercussions, refugee flows, spillover effects in the neighbors, exacerbation of terrorism, but not enough to actually bring about the change of regime.” It begs the question as to how much engagement a Biden administration will have with the remnants of the Syrian political opposition, who appear more divided and impotent than at any point in the last decade.
When Blinken was asked about normalization with the Assad regime, he said: “It is virtually impossible for me to imagine that.” This did not rule it out, but it is safe to assume it is not a likely scenario in the next four years. A more pertinent question is whether Biden will maintain or even intensify sanctions on Syria. They will not be lifted, but perhaps the aims could be altered, including goals such as producing certain key reforms or safe voluntary return of refugees.
Biden will have to engage in diplomacy, to reach out to allies to make up for President Donald Trump’s disinterest in Syria. Given the power arrangements on the ground, Biden’s relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be key. Can Biden reengage with the UN political process and find a means of working with his Russian counterpart? Putin will want to know what will be in it for him.
But then there is Turkey. In one unguarded comment at a talk at Harvard’s Kennedy School in 2014, Biden told the audience of students: “Our allies in the region were our largest problem in Syria.” This led Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan to demand an apology, which after two days Biden did, but not before Erdogan had described their relationship as “history.”
Biden will have to handle Erdogan delicately to resolve many areas of acute tension, not least over the S-400 missile system that Turkey bought from Russia. Biden also angers Erdogan because he insists that the US should not ditch its Kurdish allies in Syria, an accusation he throws at Trump.
Turkey sees these American allies as terrorists. Biden’s support of these Kurdish groups is one reason why he will not pull forces from Syria, if Trump has left any behind. Sen. Chris Coons, another close Biden ally, was clear that he would “support a continued presence by United States troops on the ground in Syria and Afghanistan to retain the capacity, to prevent groups like Al-Qaeda and ISIS (Daesh) to establish physical strongholds and to launch, again, terrorist attacks against our nations.”
Biden made similar comments himself: “These ‘forever wars’ have to end. I support drawing down the troops. But here’s the problem, we still have to worry about terrorism and (Daesh).”
Another reason is oil. Key advisers to Trump persuaded him to return a US presence in part because of Syrian oil. In fact there is not much oil present, and it is not clear that the Biden team considers the oil as something the US will be holding on to, unlike Trump. Blinken sees the oil as “a point of leverage because the Syrian government would love to have dominion over those resources. We should not give that up for free.”
Overall, Biden will have other priorities, and as with Trump, the focus in the Middle East will be on Iran, albeit with the aim of securing a deal. The Assad regime will hope this leads to some sanctions relief for Syria, something the Syrian people certainly need in this economic crisis even if the regime’s record does not merit it. Biden will want to see less of an Iranian footprint in Syria, and almost certainly will not step in to halt Israeli attacks on Iranian targets in the country.
The optimistic if unlikely scenario is that American diplomatic muscle will be directed to ensuring significant progress in the UN-led political process in Geneva, including with the constitutional committee. This may be the only way that Biden can find a small degree of success, a tiny way of helping those people out of this never-ending tragedy that still torments his former boss.
Chris Doyle is the director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding. Twitter: @Doylech
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