Middle East Syria
MENASource February 1, 2021

Syria: Which way forward under Biden?

By Frederic C. Hof

March 2021 will mark the tenth anniversary of Bashar al-Assad’s decision to wage war on peaceful protestors rather than pursue peace with Israel via a very promising and productive American mediation. Assad’s decision would produce refugee flows that would ultimately change the politics of Europe in ways that delighted the Kremlin. It would also lead to the destruction of the Syrian state. And it would produce American policy responses that would only deepen the crisis while compromising the credibility of the United States, both inside Syria and far beyond. Now a new administration must grapple with this problem from hell. What is to be done?

The default position of President Joe Biden and his team will likely be along the lines of trying to manage the mess. In fairness, however, its Syria inheritance from the Donald Trump administration is not as toxic as what the Barack Obama administration bequeathed to its successor. 

Eager to do a nuclear deal with Assad’s regional champion, Iran, President Obama adamantly refused to lift a finger to oppose or punish the mass civilian homicide survival strategy of the Syrian regime, even as Obama deployed troops to fight the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in northeastern Syria and Iraq. Indeed, The Wall Street Journal reported on a letter from Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader, assuring him that US military operations in Syria would not target his client. Already encouraged by the 2013 “red line” collapse, Assad made maximum sanguinary use of a renewed and gratuitous blank check.

The Trump administration twice responded militarily to regime chemical attacks on civilians, disproving the Obama thesis that punishing and deterring Assad’s Syria would only lead to invasion and occupation. The slippery slope to escalation argument of a supine Obama administration was further undermined when a Russian attack across the Euphrates River was routed. The Trump administration accelerated the battle against ISIS in the northeast, leading to the erasure of the physical “caliphate.” But even this victory was spoiled by bad policy. The thoughtlessly casual Obama administration decision to partner against ISIS with the Syrian chapter of the terrorist PKK both alienated Turkey and prolonged the battle against ISIS, employing as it did a militia instead of professionals against armed extremists. And then President Trump, after speaking to Turkey’s president, casually betrayed the Kurds while administration officials proclaimed that the post-combat stabilization of areas liberated from ISIS was just too hard for Americans to organize.

The Biden administration, coming to office exactly two weeks after an armed insurrection, is clearly and properly fixated on the pandemic and its economic consequences. To make Syria any kind of an operational priority is physically impossible. 

Parties interested in promoting the political fortunes of Assad—starting with the dictator himself—are trying hard to take advantage of the new administration’s preoccupations. The Syrian regime has argued consistently that US economic sanctions—not its own corruption, incompetence, and brutality—are predominantly responsible for the Syrian economy’s failure. This line is supported by the Carter Center, which is doubling down on President Jimmy Carter’s 2018 New York Times op-ed in which he identified the lifting of sanctions as the key to Syria’s economic recovery and called for gradual diplomatic reengagement with Assad—the twenty-first century’s greatest war criminal to date.

Undoubtedly, the Biden administration should review sanctions placed on regime kingpins and institutions to try to ensure that nothing the US does to hold them accountable adds even marginally to the suffering Syrians endure due to their misrule. Sanctions can often be blunt instruments producing unintended effects. But there is no need for the new administration to take instruction from those seeking to solidify the rule of Syria’s principal destroyer.

Unless challenged again militarily by the Russians or other regime enablers, the Biden administration will try in the near-term to keep Syria on the back burner or off the policy stove altogether, continuing to provide humanitarian assistance to refugees and to Syrians living in areas not controlled by the regime.  Indeed, every effort should be made—partners included—to provide emergency aid to all needy Syrians regardless of where they live. Yet doing so in regime-controlled areas is, as the United Nations has discovered, difficult, as members of the regime’s entourage have successfully garnered self-enriching aid contracts.

What to do operationally in areas of northeastern Syria where American forces and local partners seek to prevent the resurgence of ISIS should be a matter of urgent internal review. A prominent American former diplomat has suggested that the anti-ISIS mission be handed to Russia and the regime, along with the areas liberated from ISIS in northeastern Syria. The Islamist extremists trying desperately to mount an insurgency comeback will pray that the advice be accepted. They know all too well that the caliphate never would have existed absent the misrule of Assad in Syria and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in Iraq.

Is it true that the country that oversaw postwar stabilization in Japan and Germany now lacks the skills to work with Syrians and international partners to enable legitimate local governance in the northeast—to create the long-awaited alternative to Assad? The Departments of Defense and State, with critical input from the Agency for International Development, should review this Trump administration conclusion. Yes, a decision in northeastern Syria to avoid the disastrous absence of post-combat stabilization in Iraq and Libya will be hard to implement on the ground. Syrian Kurds should not rule Syrian Arabs, and Syrian Kurds should not be ruled by Turks. But Assad and his regime have succeeded in making Syria a gaping, bleeding wound largely by arguing to minorities and even Sunni Arabs that there is no alternative to brutal family rule except rule by equally brutal Islamist extremists. Northeastern Syria certainly was the place to prove the regime and its apologists wrong. Is it still?

In terms of an overall objective for Syria, political transition producing legitimate governance remains the goal. It will not happen in the next twenty minutes, figuratively speaking. But Syria under Assad and his entourage will never be anything short of a serious threat to the peace. It will be a menace to its neighbors, a promoter of Islamist extremism and terrorism, and a platform for Iranian regional hegemony. Under Assad, Syria will always threaten to empty itself, even if—or perhaps especially—reconstruction funding is lavished on an insatiable regime.

There are no near-term fixes for Syria. The most damaging option in terms of American interests and the future of Syria would be to assume that Assad has won and crawl into his oily embrace. It will be important to continue supporting the UN Special Envoy and to uphold the international community’s political transition decisions as embodied in the 2012 Final Communique of the Action Group on Syria and Security Council Resolution 2254. Efforts to build a full record supporting the eventual legal accountability of Assad and his associates should be redoubled and, as recommended in 2019 by the Syria Support Group, an investigation into Russian war crimes in Syria should be undertaken.

The new administration must commit itself to punishing militarily any renewed campaign of mass killings of civilians and state terror undertaken by the Assad regime. Regime stalwarts were heading for the exits in the summer of 2013 when President Obama erased his own chemical weapons red line. Senior Biden administration officials have publicly acknowledged regret for the Syria policies of the Obama administration. The sincerity of those regrets and their operational significance will be tested if the Assad regime resumes mass slaughter, whether by chemical weapons, barrel bombs, or any other instruments of state terror in its inventory.

American action and inaction in Syria instructed adversaries of the US how hard and how far they could push in Ukraine and elsewhere. Syria has never been a candidate for self-containment. It is possible that ten years of bad American policy has rendered thoughtfulness and discipline in defining objectives and devising a strategy useless. Assad and his regime are not about to empty their prisons, welcome home refugees, or share power with anyone. They await, patiently, the Western surrender their enablers assure them is sure to come. The Biden administration, while avoiding violent regime change in Syria, must never accommodate the Assad regime.

Ambassador Frederic C. Hof is Bard College’s Diplomat in Residence and a Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

Image: Syria's President Bashar al-Assad addresses the new members of parliament in Damascus, Syria in this handout released by SANA on August 12, 2020. SANA/Handout via REUTERS