Biden’s Syria Policy
Comfortably ahead in the polls with the election some four months away, it’s time to start imagining what a Biden Administration’s approach to the Middle East will be. A one-term President is a rare beast in US politics, yet Trump has already had a seismic impact on the DNA of the country, whether in the form of the record number of judges he has appointed or the seeming never ending list of organisations and treaties that he has withdrawn from.
Trump was no continuity President and we can expect that Biden would be attempting a serious course correction back to pursuing a more traditional set of US policies and priorities. New US Presidents from different political Parties understandably try to define themselves as a break from their predecessor. President Obama, for example, set off on what was called a ‘global apology tour’ following the more bullish and unilateral era of the Bush Administration.
Biden would have his work cut out trying to rebuild what Trump has destroyed and the world isn’t exactly without crisis. A rampaging COVID pandemic, a more Hawkish China, an activist Russia, a fractured Europe and a Middle East beset by conflict are just some of the priority items that will be in the Biden Presidential inbox.
Trump’s Syria approach has been characteristically erratic. Unlike Obama he was anxious for his ‘red lines’ to be sharper and unleashed a fusillade of cruise missiles against Assad’s military machine following an alleged chemical weapons attack. Trump has escalated Obama’s fight against ISIS and was in charge when the Caliphate fell apart, putting US boots on the ground to support the SDF and secure the east side of the Euphrates.
However, Trump’s allergy towards spending US blood and treasure on sustained presence abroad saw him announce US withdrawals from Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. Whilst these have not fully materialised, their sudden surprise announcement, seemingly without consulting allies has meant that the US can no longer be said to be a trusted and predictable ally. Indeed, at the time Biden has previously described Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops from Syria as a “complete failure” that gutted American credibility around the world.
Biden, then a potential Democratic nominee slated the President for “demolishing the moral authority of the United States of America” while emboldening U.S. adversaries, including Russia and Iran. Biden went onto say something that could be an important signpost of the values that his administration will stay true to; “we can be strong and smart at the same time.”
A ‘strong and smart’ US approach to Syria could mean finally that a longer-term vision of what the White House sees as the future of the country as looking like. Will Biden seek Regime change or at least a change in President? Will Biden accept a de facto partition of the country with a Kurdish controlled Northeast and a Rebel controlled Northwest? Will Biden support or push back on Israel’s continued shadow war against the Iranian and Hezbollah presence in the country? What is Biden’s view as to how ISIS can be prevented from becoming resurgent?
US policy towards Syria over the course of the Civil War has either been prioritising rhetoric over real action (Obama) or unpredictably reactive (Trump) This has allowed countries like Iran and Russia the space to pursue a far more consistent and from their perspective effective, strategy of preserving Assad’s rule in the country.
Biden’s team developing clear answers to these questions, or at least a roadmap as to how they will be answered will be infinitely bolstered by a more multilateralist approach to the strategy once agreed. Having the US and the EU at crossed or divergent purposes towards Syria and its region again causes a confusion and inconsistency that their adversaries will continue to exploit.
A renewed mandate to NATO and to US-EU relations with Syria as a priority can give a clear sense of direction of travel or ‘command prerogative’ that can be translated by the multitude of institutions that sit below them.
My hypothesis is that whilst Trump surrendered the hardest questions over Syria policy to the Russians, a Biden Administration would look to be far more assertive and contest Russian hegemony and unchecked influence over the country. This will metastasise certain tensions currently in play in the country in a more unpredictable manner. Already we see regular clips on social media of Russian and American patrols play rough and ready on Syria’s roads. Heightened geopolitical rivalry combined with ‘accidents’ happening at a local level could be an early test of Biden’s ability to press restart on America’s Syria policy.
by : jamse danselow