Biden Needs a Syria Policy to Fix Trump and Obama Mistakes

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The 10th anniversary of the Syrian uprising has come and gone with scarce acknowledgment from the Biden administration. The president and his foreign-policy mandarins, so righteously vocal about Yemen, the Middle East’s second-largest humanitarian catastrophe, have had not much to say on the much larger and longer-lasting calamity 1,500 miles to the north.

It is tempting to chalk up this relative silence to a sense of shame. After all, many in Biden’s foreign-policy team were in the Obama administration, which did little other than talk as Syria’s dictator Bashar al-Assad unleashed horror upon horror on his opponents. Antony Blinken, then a member of Obama’s national-security team and now Biden’s Secretary of State, has even acknowledged that the policy failures led to calamities “that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

Yet on Monday Blinken could only bring himself to release a pro forma statement of reproach and remonstration for the Assad regime. What’s more, it was a joint statement, co-signed by his German, British, French and Italian counterparts. Apparently, the Biden team’s remit of restoring American leadership in the world doesn’t run to Syria.

Blinken has called out Trump for taking away “any remaining leverage in Syria” by shrinking the U.S. military footprint there. Yet he and Biden seem sanguine about maintaining the bare minimum of American troops on the ground, alongside Trump’s sanctions against regime figures under the Caesar Act. The most significant military action Biden has authorized on Syrian soil was designed to send a message to Iran and its proxy militias in Iraq, not to the government in Damascus.  

Biden may not be as blunt as Trump, who described Syria as a land of “sand and death,” but there is nothing to suggest the president differs from his predecessor on assessing the country’s strategic significance. In a reflection of the new administration’s foreign-policy priorities, Biden has not named a permanent envoy on Syria, whereas he has appointed Tim Lenderking to perform that role for Yemen and Rob Malley for Iran.

But Syria’s geopolitical importance, like its humanitarian tragedy, is too great to be ignored or wished away. The passivity of Obama and Trump allowed the likes of Russia, Turkey and Iran to expand their influence in the war-ravaged country, and Biden may find that his actions — or inaction — in Syria will have a bearing on his dealings with Moscow, Ankara and Tehran.

More generally, Syria will challenge the sincerity of the president’s pledge to root his foreign policy “in America’s most cherished democratic values,” including the defense of freedom and human rights.

There will be important tests ahead. In the next couple of months, Assad plans to hold a presidential election, its outcome preordained. In July, Russia will again brandish its veto in the United Nations Security Council to block cross-border aid into Syria; Moscow wants the assistance to be channeled through Damascus, which would allow Assad to starve any opposition to his regime.

There are also military flashpoints to come. The regime, with Russian backing, is limbering up for a fresh assault on the opposition’s stronghold of Idlib, reprising last year’s hostilities with Turkey. And there are worrying signs of an ISIS resurgence, with the terrorist group taking advantage of the U.S. military drawdown as well as the impact of the coronavirus on Syrian security forces.

To deal with these challenges, the Biden administration will need to quickly rebuild its leverage. This may require bolstering the American military presence and restoring support for the Kurdish allies who helped defeat ISIS but were then left unprotected against a Turkish advance into northern Syria. In turn, this will mean facing down Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whom Biden regards as an autocrat but who is nonetheless a NATO ally.    

The administration will also need to corral international support to head off Assad’s political maneuverings at the pass. If the dictator goes ahead with the charade of a presidential election with the support of Russia and Iran, the U.S. must ensure that the results are roundly rejected. It will need to build more pressure on Assad and his patrons to comply with a 2015 Security Council resolution stipulating presidential and parliamentary elections under UN supervision.

And Biden will need to overcome his personal aversion to red lines to draw one of his own: Assad has to go. A president committed to democratic values simply cannot allow the man responsible for the 21st century’s worst carnage to remain in power. Allies minded to mend fences with the regime, such as the United Arab Emirates, must know that this will put them on bad footing with the White House. 

These are challenges of a high order, and the problems of Syria are much more complex than, say, those of Yemen. But the Biden administration may have more leverage than Blinken lets on. Ten years of war have left Syria’s economy at the point of collapse, and Assad’s partners-in-crime, who have economic worries of their own, will struggle to bail him out. Anybody inclined to try can be dissuaded by the imposition of sanctions under the Caesar Act, which can be deployed against foreign investors, whether they be Russian, Chinese, Iranian — or indeed Emirati.

A robust application of sanctions and the appointment of a Syria envoy would send important signals of Biden’s resolve to rectify the failures of his predecessors. They might even give his Secretary of State something salutary to take with him for the rest of his days.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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