Changes in US policy towards Syria after the election of President-elect Joe Biden in November’s US presidential elections remain unclear in scale and direction, and there has been little clarity on the team Biden will choose to manage the Syria issue in Washington.
This lack of clarity has also been the case for the new administration’s position on the Syrian conflict, a potential political solution, Russia’s involvement in the Middle East, the question of Iran and its nuclear programme and still-frozen assets, the treatment of the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, and US sanctions against Syria, Iran and Russia.
US policy on Syria will likely change, however, and it will do so in the light of the many changes that have occurred since Biden left the administration of former US president Barack Obama in 2016, where he was vice-president.
Biden sought then to enforce democratic and human rights in Syria, while also arguing for US troops on the ground.
While it will be difficult for him to implement these policies in Syria now, owing to circumstances on the ground, Biden, like Obama, may continue with his former policy of being lenient towards the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, not seeking to destabilise it but relying instead on a policy of “reforming its behavior” even though this has been shown to be futile.
Outgoing US president Donald Trump increased the pressure on the Syrian regime and abandoned the former carrot-and-stick policy of the Obama administration. Biden’s name was closely connected to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and fighting the Islamic State (IS) group when he was vice-president, issues that remained in place under Trump.
Biden was partially responsible for the failure to reach a solution in Syria when he was vice-president under Obama. This will likely make him more involved in Syria after his investiture in January, despite the presence of several obstacles that could block any progress on Syria.
There is the presence of Turkish troops in northern Syria, for example, which Biden tried to block when he was vice-president, creating tensions in relations between Washington and Ankara.
The Russian intervention in Syria in late 2015 is another challenge facing the president-elect, one that was not present during Obama’s tenure. Russia’s attempts to steer the Syrian issue, taking advantage of the fact that Washington has been exclusively focused on US interests, will also be a challenge.
A third challenge is the extent of SDF influence over large swathes of the country, after the liberation of territories under IS control, triggering tribal and ethnic tensions in the region that now must be resolved.
All these challenges limit the possibility of making fundamental changes to US policy in the region, and therefore Biden’s only option will be to become more involved in the political arena and push for a political solution to the conflict in Syria.
Biden will not be able to make many changes at the beginning of his tenure, because he must take into consideration divisions in the US between Republicans and Democrats, which mean he will have trouble controlling Congress.
He will have to take into consideration the outlook of the Republicans in the US, and some commentators believe that he will likely bolster the power of Kurds in Syria as an independent group, as has been the case in neighbouring Iraq. Biden is also known for his enthusiasm for the SDF, and he has close relations with the Kurds in Syria and Iraq.
Biden could face further problems with Turkey that could hinder the reaching of a solution in northeastern Syria.
The US Caesar Act that imposes sanctions on members of the Syrian regime is another factor that could impact US foreign policy regarding a political solution. The legislation was blocked by the administration in which Biden was vice-president, but it could now be a weapon in Washington’s hands to pressure for a political solution.
Syrian public opinion is divided on new US policies towards Syria and also on which president would have been better for the Syrian opposition. Trump was popular in the opposition because he was seen to be tough on Iran, imposing sanctions on Tehran, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal, and undermining Iran’s military capabilities.
The Syrian opposition is concerned that Biden’s policy on Syria will be influenced by a desire to restore US relations with Iran and relaunch the talks on Iran’s nuclear programme.
Reconstruction in Syria could see some movement after the Trump administration halted it, and there could be a possibility of suspending the Caesar Act and putting pressure on the Syrian regime through diplomacy instead, risking merely managing the conflict without enforcing a solution.
Republicans and Democrats in the US agree that there is a need to maintain the US military presence in northeastern Syria because of fears the IS terrorist group could reorganise and resume its attacks.
Biden has had a close relationship with the Kurds since the Iraq War in 2003, and it is probable that the new administration will support the Kurds in northeastern Syria, especially in the light of tense relations with Turkey.
The Kurds will be reassured that the US will not abandon them once again, as was the case under Trump when he cancelled an air strike against the Syrian regime by US troops stationed off the Syrian coast.
During Biden’s election campaign, he discussed mistakes made under the Obama administration in Syria, promising not to repeat them as they eventually led to the Russian intervention in Syria.
For many Syrians, Biden’s victory means a return to a more predictable US foreign policy, in contrast to that of Trump, which was often unpredictable.
The US official stand is that there can be no reconstruction in Syria while Al-Assad remains in power. Neither can any reconstruction take place while the Caesar Act is still in force because major global companies will not gamble on forging relations with the regime and participating in reconstruction if they could be hurt by US sanctions.
Most Syrians now hope that the new US administration will set out a clear work plan for a political solution and make Washington’s position clear, either by pushing the Constitutional Committee set up to draft a new constitution forward or returning to UN Security Council Resolution 2254.
UN Special Envoy to Syria Geir Pedersen recently said that the latter would likely happen, adding that there was a possibility of returning to a policy of setting up a transitional governing body in Syria.
The Syrian regime hopes for a generous deal from Biden that will breathe new life into it. It is apparently willing to compromise on many issues, including on its ties to Iran. However, its ties to Russia will remain an obstacle because further US involvement contradicts Russia’s strategic interests.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 19 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly