The Biden administration has a window of opportunity to formulate a new Syria policy to circumvent one that could legitimise Assad’s regime and give Moscow a wider area of influence in the war-torn country.
A proposed deal between Washington and Moscow to end the conflict in Syria—brokered by US National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator Brett McGurk—could be the biggest collateral damage of the Ukraine war, with Russia unlikely to sign on the dotted lines following the punishing western sanctions.
Under the deal drawn up by McGurk—an influential diplomat tasked with handling American affairs in the Middle East and North Africa—Russia would have provided guarantees for the YPG terror group to preserve its gains in northern Syria. In return, the US would withdraw from Syria and accept the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
By committing the YPG to the deal, McGurk—the mastermind behind the decision to partner with the YPG against Daesh—would have secured his political masterpiece in the Middle East, and with that his political career. Yet, in the current context, arguing for a deal with Moscow—and the de-facto handover of the American area of influence to it—is something no one in Washington would dare to do.
At this point, even if the US wanted to negotiate with Russia over Syria, it is unlikely that Moscow would be interested. Putting aside geopolitical and military considerations, even agreements over humanitarian issues seem to be at risk; it is likely that Russia will veto a cross-border deal for humanitarian aid and thus break the last diplomatic positively connotated agenda between the two major powers in Syria.
Divisions within Washington
The State Department had vehemently opposed Mcgurk’s idea but its leverage against the work of the NSC and US Central Command (CENTCOM) was limited. As known, CENTCOM, with the leading role of McGurk, managed to torpedo the Manbij Roadmap agreed between the Turkish and American Foreign Ministers in 2018. Moreover, CENTCOM officials even opened the airspace for Russia with the aim of preventing another Turkish-Syrian military operation against the YPG in 2021.
In recent times, the biggest difference between the institutions arose over efforts of some Arab nations to normalise ties with the Assad regime. The State Department was clearly against it, and the US Senate pushed the Biden administration to provide a report on the wealth of the Assad family. US lawmakers enacted the Caesar and Bassam Barabandi Rewards for Justice Acts in the past, which provided the State Department with a solid base to counter the rapprochement efforts.
However, in response to growing rumours that the NSC, behind closed doors, greenlighted the Arab states’ moves, McGurk made a public statement, saying that the US would “never” normalise ties with the Assad regime and didn’t support the efforts of other countries to this end. His remarks came after US lawmakers urged the Biden administration to prevent the rapprochement, and did not mention what the US has, is and will be doing to prevent these efforts.
Another key diplomatic development vis-à-vis the accountability of the Assad regime for its crimes was the deal to reduce the monthly meetings at the UN over the alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria to quarterly meetings. This step has been widely seen as a gesture by the US towards Russia to facilitate the negotiations regarding Syria.
Furthermore, after McGurk resigned over Trump’s decision to partially withdraw from Syria in 2019, his public remarks gave a good insight into his thinking and how much he personally associates himself with the YPG. He openly showed sympathy for a Russia-YPG deal that would both secure the gains of the latter group – and his political career. To facilitate his agenda, Brett McGurk himself led the US negotiations with the Russian side.
The irony was not lost on anyone, that the same man whose disastrous policies in Iraq to support the sectarian Nuri al Maliki facilitated the rise of Daesh was negotiating with Russia over Syria. If his project were to have succeeded, the Assad regime would not have been held accountable for its war crimes, Syria would not find a political solution, and the US would hand over Syria to Russia on a silver plate in exchange for securing a small terror group.
From a personal perspective, as McGurk managed to antagonise Ankara, he would not be part of a potential cooperation with Türkiye over Syria. By prioritising his career and the YPG over American interests, McGurk might have pushed himself into a corner.
Yet, he still has avenues for action. In his position as the NSC Coordinator, McGurk’s best bet for his career is improving relations with Iran. Now that his window of opportunity in Syria appears to be closed, he might, again, become the man who will facilitate Iran in the Middle East as he did in the past in Iraq.
But even that comes with risks. By focusing on the Iran file, it is very likely that he will find a new enemy in Gulf countries. If he also antagonises the Arab allies of the US, in addition to Türkiye, McGurk may soon be declared, symbolically speaking, a persona non grata.
Therefore, the best option for the US in Syria would be to work with Türkiye and re-engage with the Syrian Interim Government. By doing so, the US could balance Russia in Syria and exploit the Russian weakness due to the Ukraine war. Türkiye has closed the Straits and blocked any flights from Russia to Syria. The only Russian supply line to Syria remains the air route via Iran, Iraq and east of Syria. The US enjoys air superiority in the latter two.
The collapse of McGurk’s idea for Syria provides an opportunity for the US State Department and the Biden administration to formulate a new, comprehensive Syria policy that goes beyond sanctions. The US Congress is pressuring the Biden administration to submit a new strategy for Syria. If the Biden administration wants to come up with a realistic strategy for Syria, it has to work with Türkiye, as under the current circumstances, humanitarian aid, economic policies, diplomatic approaches and even military options — all routes go through Ankara.
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