Middle East Syria
MENASource September 1, 2021

On the way out like Afghanistan? The Biden administration’s Syria policy labyrinth

By Abdulrahman al-Masri

The Joe Biden administration’s Syria policy review is still ongoing. Since taking office seven months ago, President Biden has been operating with an interim Syria policy that has lacked purpose and direction thus far. It has largely been a continuation of the previous administration’s policy—namely, maintaining a low-cost stabilization mission in northeastern Syria and economic pressure on the Bashar al-Assad regime without a clear policy objective. To date, America’s approach towards Syria remains narrow and has no actual strategy for the Syrian conflict itself.

Whenever this interminable review concludes and whatever it may entail, realistically, there is little indication to suggest that it would meaningfully alter the United States’ foreign policy approach towards the tormented country. The current US strategic calculus imposes strict confines on foreign policy choices and limits Washington from coherently addressing the many threats enveloped in the Syria file. The conflict in Syria has been relegated by three consecutive US administrations—long enough that serious reengagement would seem too audacious today, as the present domestic constraints on the Biden administration are unlikely to encourage bold or risk-tolerant initiatives, and the complexity of the Syrian conflict offers no easy answers.

Consistent with a downgraded global posture and the decline of US influence in the Middle East, the Biden administration would likely extend its current back-seat approach in Syria. However, this would not be consequence-free. America’s competitors—namely Russia—will likely view a pronounced US disengagement policy as an opportunity to challenge its presence in Syria.

Past (in)action and present deadlock

Throughout the past decade, the US suffered from two interdependent policy incoherencies pertaining to the Syrian conflict. First, the US treated Syria as secondary to and contingent on other regional policies, such as fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), countering Iranian regional expansionism, managing relations with Turkey, and competing with Russia.

There has truly never been a stand-alone and consistent Syria policy by a US administration since the start of the conflict in 2011. Washington could not formulate a sound Syria policy balanced against and attuned to its wider agenda in the region. In other words, the US pursued multiple objectives in Syria without having a distinct policy for Syria itself.

The other problem is that the US—particularly since the Trump administration—has been considering Syria’s ever-evolving conflict as if it is somewhat fixed or static. Washington has not been dynamic nor adaptive to the shifting power centers in the country and has largely been acting as a mere observer with a very narrow bearing.

These problems have not only misguided the past two administrations—Barack Obama’s and Donald Trump’s—from recognizing strategic interests in the Syrian conflict, but also arguably disabled the US from realizing success in many of their other regional policies. President Obama lacked commitment and was solely focused on negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran, while President Trump was overly broad and transactional and lacked nuance.

Consequently, Biden is acutely constrained without many options. The predicament today is that it is too late for Washington to reengage the Syria file in a way that would make the Biden administration perceive the potential short-term outcomes as outweighing the costs and risks.

Acting meaningfully in Syria requires accruing leverage the US has long lost; the conflict’s pace and evolvement and the depth of commitments of rivals would unlikely be met with sufficient American political will. Since Biden took office in January, there has been little indication to suggest that Washington was pursuing leverage in Syria. While President Biden initially promised to restore America’s place in the world or reverse his predecessors’ actions, the truth of the matter is that the best Biden can do today is deal with the consequences.

Withdrawal on the horizon?

From the past few months, one can conclude that the Biden administration is trying to achieve two minimal goals in Syria: (1) improve the conditions of humanitarian assistance delivery and (2) maintain a US military footprint in northeastern Syria. While these actions may be achievable, the former is really on the periphery of the Syria file, and its impact on US policy and the development of the conflict is minimal. The latter, however, requires more political will and commitment.

As the Biden administration is predicted to commit to continuing with the same approach, the roughly nine hundred US troops in the northeast of Syria contributing to post-ISIS stabilization and capacity building of local Kurdish partners will increasingly become Russia’s target. While critical to endure the defeat of ISIS and assist the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the US military contingent is very susceptible to challenges without a pronounced commitment to its sustenance.

The fashion in which the US recently withdrew its deployed forces from Afghanistan does not only make the Russians more interested in seeing a similar departure from Syria, but also concerns partners, such as the SDF, who would again question America’s commitment. The largely Kurdish SDF has serious concerns about its political survival and, with foreseeable challenges from Turkey and the Assad regime, the SDF would surely consider the Russians to be a more dedicated guarantor of the status quo. And, as Moscow determinedly warms its relations with Syria’s Kurdish leadership, it would not be surprising to see the Biden administration perceive withdrawal as a viable option, utilizing reasoning around ending America’s involvement in “endless wars.”

While the Biden administration’s renewed interest in reengaging the diplomatic track will not be the only tool of involvement in such a scenario, its prospects would severely drop. Though sanctions do the job of punishing the Assad regime for war crimes and severe human rights violations, they, alone, are insufficient as US leverage—they will neither force the Assad regime to change behavior or leadership nor do they further US interests. The only tool likely to do this would have been military force, but all signs indicate that this is next to impossible today. 

The US does not know what it wants in Syria and has no coherent endgame—both friends and foes are aware of that. The Biden administration is unlikely to prioritize Syria in the coming months. President Biden appears to want to avoid entanglement in the competing interests of the conflict, given the dramatic shift in priorities of the US foreign policy agenda and acute lack of safe options for reengagement in Syria.

The United States’ narrow objectives and continuous wait-and-see approach are not sustainable and the likelihood is that America’s rivals in Syria would work towards a US departure. In such a case, Washington will need to prepare for the possibility of another Afghanistan-style troop departure scenario. Lacking a proactive strategy will not only impact its ability to advance interests in Syria and the region, but also grant rivals the ability to use Syria as a platform to pursue their regional agendas.

Abdulrahman al-Masri is a nonresident fellow with the Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs. Follow him on Twitter: @AbdulrhmanMasri.

Image: U.S. and Turkish military forces conduct a joint ground patrol inside the security mechanism area in northeast, Syria, September 8, 2019. Picture taken September 8, 2019. U.S. Army/Spc. Alec Dionne/Handout via REUTERS