Joe Biden's victory in the recent US presidential election brings a degree of unease to many Syrians. They are concerned that the incoming administration will repeat the flawed foreign policy pursued by the Obama administration towards their war-ravaged country between 2011 and 2017.
President-elect Biden, who will be sworn in on January 20, has made it clear that he wants to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, which Barack Obama had signed in 2015 and which his successor Donald Trump walked out of two years ago. This then begs the following question: will the Syrian people pay the price for US-Iran rapprochement once again?
Mr Obama's handling of the Syrian conflict was poor, to say the least. His "red line" threat did little to deter President Bashar Al Assad, who used chemical weapons against his own civilians. Mr Al Assad's military operations went on to displace millions of ordinary Syrians – thereby creating one of the largest humanitarian crises since the Second World War – and his regime destroyed much of the country. He also turned a blind eye to ISIS' expansion across the region. Even as American influence waned in parts of the region, the Assad regime was propped up by Iranian and Russian military support.
Mr Obama also used the Kurdish Workers' Party (PKK) – which neighbouring Turkey considers a terrorist organisation – for the purpose of defeating ISIS in north-eastern Syria. This helped further destabilise the region, as the PKK was also involved in a conflict with the Arab populations living there. Mr Obama's strategy would have been more effective had he partnered with local Kurdish and Arab populations who had suffered ISIS' terror.
All this happened at a time when the Obama administration was engaging with Iran and negotiating a deal over its nuclear programme. The message to the American public – and to the foreign policy establishment in Washington – was that the agreement was tailored to deter Tehran's nuclear ambitions but did not preclude confronting the regime on other issues, including its destabilising activities in countries such as Syria. However, the reality was completely different. In order to make this deal materialise, the president made geopolitical concessions, allowing the regime to expand in Syria and turning a blind eye to Mr Al Assad's atrocities. He also provided little support to Syrian grassroots groups that were essentially demanding dignity, human rights and democracy – core American principles.
In contrast, the outgoing Trump administration considered Syria to be within Iran's sphere of influence and used it as a lever to apply pressure – albeit haphazardly – on Tehran. It curbed Iran's regional influence and imposed costs by way of economic sanctions on the Assad regime and its backers. Israel, meanwhile, carried out military attacks on Iranian facilities inside Syria.
These campaigns have left the Assad regime's backers under enormous military and economic pressure. These backers have also failed to rally the international community to aid Syria's reconstruction, which would have eased their own financial burden and helped normalise the Assad regime in the eyes of the world.
Mr Biden's position on Syria is ambiguous. His team has released two documents devoted to foreign policy. But they shed little light on America's approach towards the Assad regime or with regard to the ongoing refugee crisis, which has had a ripple effect across the globe. These documents, however, do articulate a clear policy vis-a-vis Iran – and that includes re-engagement with Tehran with the purpose of securing a new nuclear agreement.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic and its economic impact in the US, domestic affairs will be of greater priority for a Biden administration, at least in the early days. However, with the Iranian regime also unlikely to engage with the US until after its own presidential election in June, it would be prudent for the new president to deal with Syria in the interim.
The incoming administration certainly needs a different approach to the Syrian crisis. A clear strategy will reassure Syrians, and Arabs more broadly, that the US is looking to lead by example again. It should be clear that it will not tolerate human rights abuses or violations of international law, both of which have come to define a decade of conflict. A strong response vis-a-vis Syria will also send a signal to members of the so-called Astana Process that the US is serious about the country's future, and that they will all need to come to the table to support a negotiated political settlement to the conflict.
Furthermore, the incoming administration should be clear with Iran that no new deal will be signed at the expense of Syria's future or that of its displaced people.
I hope the Biden team builds on the Trump administration's aforementioned achievements in Syria, while making a push for the implementation of the UN Security Council resolutions pertaining to the country and using them as pre-conditions for reconstruction. Economic sanctions on – and the political isolation of – the Assad regime must remain in place. The new administration should also demand the withdrawal of the various armies and militias operating in the country, and hold the Assad regime accountable for the crimes it has committed against civilians.
Finally, and most importantly, I hope the new administration will work closer with the UN, the European Union and all the region's stakeholders to empower those Syrians living outside the regime-controlled areas of the country, and in neighbouring countries. Empowering the Syrian people is the only way for the world to confront extremists and opportunists, as well as standing up to Mr Al Assad's policies, which have, fuelled extremism and sectarianism in the country.
Bassam Barabandi is a former Syrian diplomat