The next US president must work towards resolving the Syrian crisis

Whether Biden or Trump, the president must revive stalled peace talks and leverage the Caesar sanctions

A Kurdish fighter stands in front of a convoy of trucks at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, transporting women and children suspected of being related to Islamic State (IS) group, after being released from the camp to return to their homes, in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria, on October 28, 2020.   / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN
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American policy in Syria has over the past decade been chaotic, bumbling and tragic in equal measure. From an early reluctance to call on President Bashar Al Assad to step down, to absurd attempts to back the opposition with just enough arms to maintain a stalemate without doing anything to protect civilians from the destruction, and America's failure to act on its own chemical weapons red lines, the US policy on Syria helped seal the ultimate defeat of the rebellion.

That lack of coherence in America's regional strategy manifested under former US president Barack Obama, when he negotiated a nuclear deal with Iran, while attempting neither to tame its regional ambitions nor the proxy militias that were unleashing havoc in Syria.

Washington’s focus on counter-terrorism – through a narrow campaign to defeat ISIS – without trying to address the violence and power vacuum that led to the rise of the group’s depraved ideology, gave carte blanche to Mr Al Assad and his backers to violently subdue his own populace.

Even Mr Obama’s vaunted deal to strip Damascus of its chemical weapons arsenal, after the latter used it to kill over a 1000 people in the towns of Eastern Ghouta in 2013, did not prevent other chemical atrocities in Khan Sheikhun and Douma, as well as dozens of chlorine attacks.

Donald Trump did more than his predecessor to punish Mr Al Assad through limited strikes after chemical attacks and through wide-ranging sanctions, but his tweet-based foreign policy and impulsive troop withdrawals ensured that Washington had little capacity to influence peace negotiations, which were dominated by Russia, Iran and Turkey. This resulted in a deadlock.

The next US president has the opportunity to revive these stalled peace talks and leverage the broad and tough Caesar sanctions, which the US imposed earlier this year, to push for a political resolution. Failing to do so risks perpetuating a frozen conflict and heaping further misery upon Syria's beleaguered people.

US involvement in Syria began with a call in October 2011 for Mr Al Assad to step down, followed by non-lethal aid for the Syrian opposition. Separate CIA and Pentagon programmes were set to arm Syrian rebel groups, but only succeeded in providing a little weaponry to carefully vetted rebel groups that had little influence on the ground, and certainly no arsenal that could have allowed them to shoot down Mr Al Assad's warplanes.

Kurdish fighter stand guard as Syrian child, suspected of being related to Islamic State (IS) group fighters, waits at the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp, before being released along with women and children to return to their homes, in the al-Hasakeh governorate in northeastern Syria, on October 28, 2020.   / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN

These programmes eventually descended into farce when the campaign against ISIS began, as the US insisted that those weapons should be used to combat terrorist groups rather than the regime, and were eventually cancelled.

Despite declaring chemical weapons a red line, the US dithered when they were used, allowing the Assad regime to continue to wage its campaign that killed hundreds of thousands of civilians with impunity.

The US focused its military efforts to defeat ISIS after the group declared its false caliphate. Washington backed Kurdish militias that spearheaded the assault on the terrorists' strongholds, alienating Turkey, which saw the strongholds as a national security threat.

The next US president also has an opportunity to undo a decade of damage

The lack of a clear strategy was manifest in Mr Trump's sudden decision to withdraw American troops from Syria, a surprise to most diplomats, analysts and his own military, prompting the resignation of his defence secretary and abandoning his Kurdish allies, who were forced to seek a rapprochement with the Assad regime.

American involvement in Syria is not necessarily altogether good, but at the very least it counters the influence of Russia and Iran, that have aided Mr Al Assad’s worst excesses. And Turkey, which is primarily interested in prosecuting its conflict with the Kurds, and building a sphere of influence along its southern border, rather than striving for a comprehensive peace.

The Caesar Act offers a useful leverage point for the next US president to push for tangible political reforms in exchange for lifting the sanctions, which are primarily aimed, at least publicly, at holding accountable Syria’s war criminals.

Inadvertently, Mr Trump has created conditions – through the Caesar Act and the wide-ranging sanctions against Iran – for the US to force a re-examination of the peace process and to offer incentives to Mr Al Assad's staunchest backers to come to the negotiating table and seriously discuss ways to end the war.

But the next US president also has an opportunity to undo a decade of damage that Mr Obama’s craven policies and Mr Trump’s term have done – not just in Syria but to international norms at large.

The effects of the Syrian conflict have been felt beyond the country’s borders. It triggered a refugee crisis that reshaped politics in Europe. It also eroded customs against bombing hospitals, starving civilians to death and using chemical weapons. Allowing war crimes such as these to continue enshrines barbarity instead of decency.

The next US president, whether it is Joe Biden or Donald Trump, must work seriously towards solving the Syrian crisis. The rejuvenation of a decrepit entity we call the international community depends on it.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National