Syrian opposition figures see cause for optimism in Joe Biden’s election

Some Assad opponents say Syrian regime would benefit from US rapprochement with Iran

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - NOVEMBER 09: President-elect Joe Biden waves to supporters as he leaves the Queen theater after receiving a briefing from the transition COVID-19 advisory board on November 09, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Mr. Biden addressed the media earlier in the day about his response to the COVID-19 pandemic.   Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP
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The Syrian opposition is split over whether a Joe Biden presidency will help to counter President Bashar Al Assad after four years of US policy under Donald Trump that oscillated between engagement and disengagement.

Mr Biden has signalled that he would resume an understanding with Iran, Mr Al Assad’s main backer.

He said he would take a tougher stance against Turkey, which hosts Syrian opposition members and has used Syrian proxies against US-backed Kurdish militias in Syria.

Veteran opposition figure Fawaz Tello said the expected reversal of Mr Trump’s policies towards Iran under a Biden administration would “constitute a lifeline to Iran and the Assad regime that depends financially on Tehran”.

“Congratulations should go to Iran’s clerical rulers," Mr Tello said. "Their candidate won."

But two well-connected Syrian opposition figures said a different approach towards Turkey and Iran might not necessarily translate into a major advantage for Mr Al Assad.

Maan Abdul Salam, who heads Etana, an independent organisation that pushes for a democratic Syria, said Mr Biden’s regard for internal American institutions should bring more coherence to US policy on Syria.

Mr Abdul Salam told The National  that a more streamlined foreign policy in Washington expected under a Biden administration could boost US-led efforts to counter pro-Iranian militias in Syria and elsewhere in the region.

He said “ad hoc and unpredictable decisions taken by Mr Trump regarding Syria gave Russia greater geopolitical leverage in the region".

“We hope that the new administration will have a consistent policy that stands up to Russia in order to achieve a political solution to the Syrian conflict,” Mr Abdul Salam said.

The US government does not have relations with the Syrian government and Congress toughened sanctions on the regime last year by passing the Caesar Act against people and businesses that provide funding or assistance to Mr Al Assad.

But the Trump administration has reportedly been toying with the idea of offering concessions to the regime in return for releasing US citizens believed to be detained in Syria.

The Wall Street Journal  reported last month that Kash Patel, a senior US counter-terrorism official, secretly met regime operatives in Damascus to discuss releasing those held.

It was the first time such a high-ranking US official has met the regime in more than a decade, the paper said.

Vehicles from the US-led coalition battling the Islamic State group patrol the town of Rmelane in Syria's Hasakeh province on June 5, 2018. The leading Syrian Kurdish militia said it would withdraw from Manbij, easing fears of a direct clash between NATO allies Washington and Ankara over the strategic northern town. Manbij is a Sunni Arab-majority town that lies just 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the Turkish border, and where US and French troops belonging to the Western coalition against IS are stationed.  / AFP / Delil souleiman
US military vehicles patrol the town of Rmelane in Syria's Hasakeh province on June 5, 2018. AFP  

Between 2012 and 2014, the rise of anti-Assad militant groups and lack of control by the political opposition over the rebels, as well as differences between Washington and Ankara, contributed to the US choosing the Kurdish People Protection Units (YPG) as its main instrument against ISIS in Syria.

But in the past two years Washington has partly turned its back on its Kurdish allies, giving tacit permission for Ankara to take territory under the control of the YPG in Syria along the border with Turkey.

Syria as a standalone issue barely featured in the US elections, although American troops have remained in Syria in reduced numbers after Mr Trump backed down from a decision to withdraw completely in late 2019.

His aides issued a warning that the vacuum would be filled by Turkey and Russia.

The several hundred US soldiers in Syria are mostly in areas controlled by the YPG in the east – the centre of the country’s oil production.

Syrian political commentator Ayman Abdel Nour said the YPG was poised to benefit most from a Biden presidency, considering the militia was the linchpin of the Obama administration strategy in Syria.

“The second beneficiary would be Iran,” Mr Abdel Nour said from Los Angeles. "The economic pressure on Tehran would ease, freeing up resources to support Assad.”

Mr Biden rarely addressed Syria during his campaign but has made it clear he would re-enter the 2015 nuclear deal with Tehran, if Iran committed to the deal from which the Trump administration withdrew in 2018.

Ahmad Tumeh, head of the Syrian opposition delegation to the Russian-led Astana peace talks, cautioned against rushing judgment about Mr Biden.

“Let us wait and see," Mr Tumeh said. "At the end the US wants a political solution and the regime does not want anything except to restore its repression on every part of Syria.”