Syria Insight: What to expect under the Biden administration

Syria Insight: What to expect under the Biden administration
After Joe Biden's election win, Syrians are waiting for signs that he will take a more considered approach towards the country's civil war.
9 min read
22 November, 2020
Biden will become the US' 46th president on 20 January [Getty]
Speaking this week about his upcoming autobiography, Barack Obama solemnly confided with his interviewer that he is "still haunted by the tragedy of Syria".

"That's going to be discussed mostly in volume two of the book because it primarily happens in my second term… I'll have to make sure people buy the second volume," Obama chuckles with the reporter.

His abrasive wisecrack did not go down well with Syrians, many already believing the former president's suspicions of the Syrian revolution was a major factor in its bloody unravelling from a peaceful uprising into the soul-wrenching horror show it is today.

Obama's lack of steel or vision during his time in office left Syrians at the mercy of a brutal regime that would stop at nothing to stay in power.

He reportedly blocked Secretaries of State Hilary Clinton and John Kerry - even Joe Biden - calls for a tougher line against Bashar Al-Assad, even after the regime crossed his "red line" with chemical attacks in Eastern Ghouta in 2013.

Many believe that a tougher line from the US then - such as enforcing a no-fly-zone - might have convinced Assad to ease the brakes on his bloody military campaign against opposition areas.

Obama didn't, and around half-a-million Syrians have been killed since the start of the uprising in 2011, mostly from regime bombing, torture, chemical attacks and other barbaric massacres.

Obama 2.0

The sequel to the Obama administration is set to play out after the recent election win of Biden, Obama's deputy at the time and viewed by some as another Syria "dove".

It has left some Syrians and Syrian-Americans lukewarm about the prospect of a Biden government with fears that the 46th president's rush towards a detente with Iran - one of Assad's two principle international backers - could see him take steps towards the normalisation of the Assad regime.

Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the All4Syria media network, has met Biden and his team virtually during the election campaign as part of meetings organised by the Arab or Christian communities. He believes that the Biden administration will not depart significantly from the current US policy on Syria, which is primarily concerned with counter-terrorism issues, not the political roots of the conflict.

"The Syria issue was not something he or anyone of his entourage wanted to hear about. They were campaigning to win the election but had no answer that would please both sides on the Syria debate and so nobody, including Biden, tied themselves to a hard position," he told The New Arab. "There was no good answer to the question of Syria."

Syria will be collateral damage for the JCPOA
- Ayman Abdel Nour, director of the All4Syria media network

Abdel Nour said many of Biden's associates were also part of the Obama administration and some carry the burden of this period when the Assad regime escalated the conflict into a full-scale assault on civilian areas.

"They know they made mistakes, regarding Syria, some of them admit and some don't. But they take responsibility that they should have done more, or better, during this period," said Abdel Nour, regarding the US' apathetic approach to the conflict.

"If you have a good heart then you should apologise. If you are just a politician then you should say 'we should have done better, this is haunting me, and we will go back and do a better job', but none of them had a clear answer."

Iran sanctions

One regional policy issue Biden has more clearly articulated is Iran, which has been the subject of harsh US sanctions under Donald Trump's presidency.

Biden has stated he would like to see Washington return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) - better known as the Iran nuclear deal - which would see Tehran recommit to curbs on its nuclear programme in exchange for sanctions relief.

With Iran's huge commitment to Syria, there are fears that Biden could turn a blind eye to Iran's continued efforts to help Assad defeat the opposition, now confined to Idlib province.

Abdel Nour believes that sanctions on Iran have served to weaken its overseas operations, including in Syria, and easing them could bolster them.

"Syria will be collateral damage for the JCPOA. They need to pick between one of two options: reinstate the deal, which is bad for us, or renegotiate the deal, and then we can put the issue of Syria and Iran's outside activities as a condition," said Abdel Nour. "This will depend on the make-up of the new cabinet."

When Biden was asked by The Washington Post whether he would reopen diplomatic relations with the Assad regime, he gave a typically opaque response to the question.

"It remains important to end the war in Syria, which continued to produce grave humanitarian suffering, and the United States should be engaged diplomatically with all sides to the conflict toward that end," he told The Washington Post, before going on to focus his response on the threat of the Islamic State group.

The preoccupation with counter-terrorism issues and rhetoric about "talking to all sides" - a path the Assad regime has repeatedly blocked and squandered - indicates that Biden will not depart from either the Obama or Trump administrations priorities in Syria.

Kamala Harris, Biden's running mate, failed to respond to the question, but did back retaliatory strikes on Assad after the Khan Sheikhoun chemical attack and has denounced former Hawaii representative Tulsi Gabbard is an Assad apologist. Gabbard was the only Democrat leadership contender who responded positively to the prospect of re-opening diplomatic ties with the Syrian regime and met with Assad in 2017.

One potential nominee for Secretary of State is Antony Blinken. He commended Trump for his response to the 2017 nerve gas attack - which included strikes on air fields - but also called for him to follow up with "smart diplomacy" with Assad-backer, Russia.

He also called on Trump to maintain the pressure on Assad, who he described as "a tyrant", in a The New York Times opinion piece at the time

"The real test for Mr. Trump is what comes next. He has shown a total lack of interest in working to end Syria's civil war," he wrote.

"Now, the administration has leverage it should test with the Assad regime and Russia to restrain Syria's air force, stop any use of chemical or biological weapons, implement an effective cease-fire in Syria's civil war and even more toward a negotiated transition of power - goals that eluded the Obama administration."

Trump failed to maintain the pressure on Assad who launched further chemical attacks, notably in Ghouta, April 2018, and continued with his "conventional" bombing campaign on opposition towns.

Trump did, however, implement tough, targeted sanctions on key regime figures, in response to hard evidence of mass torture and killings in Syrian detention centres, smuggled out of the country by former prison photographer "Caesar".

Abdel Nour said that the Caesar sanctions are having a real impact on the Syrian regime and will be vital to forcing it into a political solution to end the war, which would ultimately involve Assad leaving office.

Certainly it will be beneficial to have someone who is familiar with the Syria file
- Dima Moussa, a member of Syrian political opposition

While the Caesar Sanctions are subject to the authority of Congress and not the president, Abdel Nour fears Biden that could "reduce their speed and effectiveness" by cutting the number of employees coordinating efforts, currently believed to be five.

"They might slow the implementation of new sanctions on the regime, which currently numbers around one every month, in exchange for 'acceptable behaviour' from the regime," he said.

He also believes Biden might rush into a negotiated, carrot-and-stick solution to the war, which could keep Assad in power.

The US could demand the release of detainees release of some detainees in exchange for step-by-step concessions, such as reconstruction or allow more Gulf states to send ambassadors to Damascus.

Political solution

Dima Moussa, a member of Syrian political opposition, hopes the Biden administration will commit to a political solution to the war according to UNSC 2254, which would see a transition towards UN-monitored free and fair elections in Syria.

"We hope that the US will continue to support the Syrian people's aspirations of life with freedom and dignity, in a Syria in which there is rule of law, and where the people freely elect their government and serve them, not the other way around," Moussa told The New Arab.

"This means we do want to see a greater push for the full implementation of UNSC Resolution 2254, which is the sure way to have a real political solution leading to transition for Syrians."

Syrian opposition representatives in the US have attempted to reach out to the Biden ahead of his first term in January.

"Once the new administration gets in office, we will establish contact to get a clearer idea of the policy towards Syria and to lay out our position and how we see the US role," Moussa said.

"Certainly, it will be beneficial to have someone who is familiar with the Syria file, which was one of the main issues during the last six years of his time as vice-president. The situation has changed since January 2017, when [Obama's] second term ended, but there are some fundamental issues that are still the same, so that can definitely be advantageous in engaging with the new administration."

The Biden administration will not only have to learn from the mistakes of the Obama-era but also Trump's confusing and fragmented Syria strategy.

The past four years has since the Assad regime win back more opposition territories and seen outside powers - such as Turkey and Israel - play a more direct role in the conflict.

Ultimately, Biden has a lot to learn from the mistakes made during the Trump and Obama administrations

"I wouldn't say that Trump had a strategy regarding Syria, but his administration took some measures that made it harder for Iran, the Assad regime, and the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), to advance their goals there," Dr. Ali Bakeer, political analyst and researcher at the Ibn Khaldun Center at Qatar University told The New Arab.

"Russia, Iran and the Assad regime might have benefited from the absence of a US strategy in Syria, during Trump's years in office, and his desire to withdraw troops… and the Biden administration shouldn't make the same mistakes."

The main concerns for the Biden government toward Syria will be the US military presence in the northeast of the country and Idlib, the last opposition stronghold which is subject to a Russian, Syrian regime siege.

Bakeer said that Biden will have to work with Turkey to contain Russia and Iranian influence in Syria. A recent uptick in Israeli strikes in Syria are also viewed as a message to the president-elect about Tehran's presence there.

"Ultimately, Biden has a lot to learn from the mistakes made during the Trump and Obama administrations. But whatever he decides to do he must focus on the core of the problem in Syria, which is the Assad regime."

Syria Insight is a regular feature from The New Arab. To get Syria Insight in your inbox each edition, sign up here.

Paul McLoughlin is a news editor at The New Arab. 

Follow him on Twitter: @PaullMcLoughlin