A Short-Term Diplomatic Agenda for the Syrian Puzzle

Charles Thépaut
Content Type
Policy Brief
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy
If Biden wants to create additional leverage before attempting difficult negotiations with Russia, he will need to display strategic patience by partnering with allies on ten preliminary issues. The Syria policy of President-elect Joe Biden’s incoming administration remains relatively mysterious. Five contradictory factors may frame it. First, Syria has never really been a U.S. policy priority in the Middle East, and renewing the international framework to halt Iran’s nuclear program seems to be Biden’s top regional goal. In addition, the repeated pledge to “end endless wars” has created broad American consensus against a bigger footprint abroad, and the coronavirus pandemic will further reduce the White House’s bandwidth for Syria. Second, the United States has lost significant leverage in Syria due to the policies of the Obama and Trump administrations. For instance, when faced with a Turkish cross-border operation in the northeast late last year, U.S. troops partially withdrew, thus blurring the previously stable frontlines between Russian, Turkish, and American forces. Third, Biden has praised the light U.S. force posture in northeast Syria. Contrary to other prominent Democrats, he argues that the “by, with, and through” strategy employed against the Islamic State remains a good model for American military action in the Middle East. This may indicate a willingness to keep a small contingent on the ground to support local partners. Fourth, key figures in Biden’s campaign—including Tony Blinken, his current nominee for secretary of state, and Jake Sullivan, his nominee for national security advisor—have publicly reflected on mistakes made in Syria during the Obama administration. Notably, Blinken has stated that he cannot imagine a policy of reengaging with Bashar al-Assad. Fifth, when U.S. legislators passed the Caesar Act last year, they built in mechanisms that were intended to resist change by future administrations. Therefore, economic sanctions targeting the Assad regime are likely here to stay. At first glance, these factors do not seem to leave much room for a particularly new Syria strategy, suggesting that the status quo policy will persist. Yet Washington has more leverage than it realizes, so long as it is willing to abandon the self-defeating logic of recent years.
Civil War, Diplomacy, Conflict, Syrian War
Political Geography
Middle East, Syria