President-elect Joe Biden's Syria policy could become proactive, but first, they would need to undo the Trump administration's mistakes.
Although Syria won’t be high on Biden’s agenda, a new approach by the US to the war-fatigued country may affect the lives of millions. While some details hint towards a ‘more of the same’ approach, statements by the incoming US Secretary of State Blinken suggest that the US may take a more courageous and active role in the conflict.
However, if the new administration can create a 4-R (re-evaluation of the Trump decision, restructuring the US partner force in Syria, the realignment with allies, and not repeating old mistakes) approach, it can gain much with little; for itself and the people of Syria.
More of the same?
Despite Trump’s disinterest in Syria, the US has maintained a policy with five overarching goals: Defeating Daesh and supporting the YPG-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as the US’ local partner in Syria, preserving US presence at Al-Tanf to block a mainland route of Iran from Tehran to Damascus, supporting Turkey by diplomatic means to ensure relative calm in Idlib, denying access for the Assad regime to crucial economic tools and increasing pressure by the means of economic sanctions and, lastly, preventing other states and regional actors to re-normalise with the Assad regime. With this, the US aims to enforce a political process to resolve the Syrian conflict.
Biden supporters in Washington DC, as well as bureaucrats, seem willing to continue on this course. There seems to be a relatively low appetite to do more, and a general assumption that less is not an option. This approach by a new Biden administration would be in short a continuation of the Trump era.
While Trump in person would advocate one thing, in reality, US officials would do another. This was revealed when the retired US Special Envoy for Syria, James Jeffrey, stated that they have misinformed Trump about the number of US personnel operating in Syria.
However, the pre-election statement by Blinken gives hope that a more courageous US policy is possible. He said: “The last administration has to acknowledge that we failed, not for want of trying, but we failed. We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent the massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees. And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days. It’s something that I feel very strongly.”
Gains with little spent
The Biden administration can change the dynamics in Syria. The general attitude that the ship has sailed in Syria is wrong. In reality, the current situation can be transformed into a hopeful political process to resolve the almost decade-long conflict with very little. For that, the Biden administration has only to follow the ‘4-R solution’ mentioned earlier.
Re-evaluate. The Biden administration has to re-evaluate the decisions taken by Trump. While most associate Trump and Syria with his decision to leave the country, in reality, other decisions his administration took had far-reaching effects. Most importantly, Trump cut significant humanitarian aid to civilians, stopped US support for Syrian civil society, and ended the US vetting of anti-regime armed groups in Syria. These decisions have facilitated military victories for Russia and Iran, enabled radicals to gain ground in Idlib, and exacerbated the humanitarian crisis in the country.
Restructure. Since the de-territorialisation of Daesh, the US has claimed to be working on eliminating the terror group. However, the US partner force in Syria is neither capable of doing so nor willing. The YPG has been using Daesh as a source to generate legitimacy for itself. While the terror group has a genuine interest in fighting Daesh, it does not want to eliminate it – because its own usefulness would go down with it.
Recent reports show that the YPG has cooperated with Daesh, hasd released Daesh fighters, and suffers from lack popular support in Arab-majority areas. US support for the YPG has resulted in minority rule over a majority in Syria.
In the past, due to the ongoing fighting, the US had little interest in intervening in the internal decisions of the SDF. However, this has to change. Due to its huge dependency on the US, the latter can enforce a restructuring away from the PKK towards independent local Arab and Kurdish forces in their respective areas. Such a move would not only increase the efficacy of the US in Syria but also help to bridge gaps with Turkey.
Realignment. In the early stages of the Syrian conflict, the US managed to bring together its allies under the ‘Friend of Syria’ banner, but today most of them are either not interested in the conflict or have divergent positions in the conflict.
Most importantly, two of the main four actors in the Syrian conflict are NATO partners, but they do not work together. If the US can manage to form a joint Turkish-American approach, this leverage can lead to a real political process in Syria.
Don’t repeat past mistakes. The incoming Biden administration has to learn from the mistakes of the Obama and Trump administrations. The US has to be firm on the potential use of chemical weapons as well as the indiscriminate killing of civilians. Moreover, the Biden administration has to end the biggest mistake of all in Syria: The gap between Washington and CENTCOM officials in Syria. A new Biden-administration has to signal that policymaking is the duty of politicians, not soldiers.
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