Event Summary: Continuity and Change: The Biden Administration’s Syria Policy
On Friday, February 26, 2021, The SETA Foundation at Washington, DC hosted a virtual panel of experts to discuss ‘Continuity and Change: The Biden Administration’s Syria Policy.’ The discussion featured Robert Ford, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute and the Yale University Jackson Institute, Dima Moussa, member of the Syrian National Coalition, and Wael Alzayat, Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute. The panel was moderated by Kadir Ustun, Executive Director at SETA DC.
To begin the discussion, Ford explained that with respect to the Biden administration’s Syria policy, there will be more continuity with the Trump administration than change. The Trump administration increased sanctions on the Assad regime and Ford does not believe that Biden will reduce those sanctions. One area where there may be change is in respect to the treatment of Syrian refugees. In regard to yesterday’s airstrikes, they are a reminder that the Syrian conflict and the problems in Iraq are linked. They have been linked since 2012 when the Iranians were using Iraqi airspace to fly in supplies and equipment for the Assad government. He made it clear that Americans do not have a national security interest in who governs eastern Syria, but it does have an interest in not allowing terrorists to use Syria as a launching pad to conduct attacks against the US or its allies. The Russians are already largely in control of the area to the west of the Euphrates. Ford believes that it should not matter to the Americans whether their own troops or Russian ones control east of the Euphrates. Thinking longer term, the US has a small military contingent in a place where it has really no friends; he is uncomfortable with this reality. Additionally, he added that it is important for the US not to deploy its military in a haphazard way without a clearly defined mission, without the ability to set benchmarks, and without conditions for success which then enable us to withdraw the troops.
Next, Moussa stated that she does not know whether Syria will get its own envoy or if someone will just be responsible for the Syria file like in the Obama administration. She has received reassurances that there is no change in policy, which means that Syria has fallen down on the priority list for American foreign policy. She made it clear that she would like to see a defined policy on what the Biden administration is going to do in regards to Syria which will enable the Syrian National Coalition to have better communication and know how to proceed with the Biden administration. It is unfortunate that the first thing the Biden administration did relating to Syria was military action before stating its actual policy for the country. Moussa added that the solution in Syria is not military but rather political, in line with UN Security Council Resolution 2254. The political process in Syria is again at a standstill and is a reflection of the international community’s inactivity. With what the US has done in Syria, it cannot walk away and expect somebody else to fix it. Anybody who is part of the problem has to be part of the solution. Syrians are ready to sit at the table together. What the US has not done for 10 years is use its leverage after it had taken military presence on the ground. It has not used this for political gains or to push for a solution.
Alzayat continued by saying that despite the best foreign policy planning, events on the ground often dictate US policy. He explained that the telling signs of the Biden administration’s Syria policy are reflected in the people he has appointed. Brett McGurk, for example, wrote in 2019 about the US’s limited options in Syria while pushing to work with the SDF on counterterrorism. This is a possibility for the Biden team but must be updated. In response to the airstrikes in Syria, Alzayat highlighted the fact that the attacks indicate an acknowledgement that the path toward a return to the JCPOA will not be as clear cut as folks had hoped or assumed it would be. It is puzzling that the Iranian government would conduct these attacks right after the administration took office. This forced the hand of the Biden administration. He noted that a big question for the US’s Syria policy will relate to its posture toward Turkey. Some are pushing for further engagement with Turkey in Idlib while others want the Turks to deal with Idlib on their own. Additionally, Alzayat added that US troops are not in Syria to engage in war with any of these actors. They are there as deterrence and leverage. He hopes that the Biden administration will ramp up the diplomatic piece because this is the least politically costly thing to do.