Biden’s team re-evaluates Syria policy but no sign of increased engagement

Key appointments such as Brett McGurk and Colin Kahl could determine US policy direction in Syria

A US soldier stands by a Bradley Fighting Vehicle (BFV) during a patrol in the countryside near al-Malikiyah (Derik) in Syria's northeastern Hasakah province on February 2, 2021.  / AFP / Delil SOULEIMAN

Early signs from the Biden administration suggest the Syrian conflict, which is approaching its 10th year, will not be a priority for the new US team.

But it could be re-evaluated, with time running out on the diplomatic clock, an ISIS resurgence and fragile ceasefires threatening to dissolve.

The administration of President Joe Biden is America's fourth to face the Syrian conflict, which has killed about 400,000 and displaced about 10 million.

Experts and former officials predict continuity in the short term but possible policy changes when the re-evaluation is completed.

William Roebuck, the executive vice president of the Arab Gulf States Institute who was until last year the US deputy special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, expected US policy in Syria to hold for the next few months.

"In the shorter term I expect continuity," Mr Roebuck told The National.

"The status quo will likely remain but there is significant uncertainty on where things are headed for this administration in Syria in the longer term."

It is likely that the Biden administration will maintain a small US military presence in Syria for countering terrorism, while continuing with sanctions imposed on the Assad regime by previous administrations and Congress.

“The military footprint we have now in Syria is adequate for the job that we are doing,” Mr Roebuck said.

The US has about 500 troops in the north-east of the country.

One area that Mr Roebuck could see changing soon is funding for stabilisation in Syria.

The Trump administration froze more than $230 million that had been allocated for stabilising the country in 2018, and it is likely that the Biden team will unfreeze it.

Other questions, such as lifting some sanctions and the future of the US presence in the country, will have to await the re-evaluation by the administration and what Mr Roebuck calls the “bureaucratic design” for the new team.

New Team

Senior officials who worked on Syria in the past joined the administration in the past month.

Brett McGurk, the former US envoy for the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, is now the White House co-ordinator for the Middle East and North Africa.

US sources told The National that Zehra Bell, a State Department career diplomat who worked on the Syria Transition Assistance Response Team, is expected to be the director for the country at the National Security Council.

Mr McGurk is known for giving priority to the fight against ISIS. He resigned from the Trump administration after the president’s decision to withdraw from Syria without consulting the military leadership.

He also supported a transitional leadership structure in the north-east and strengthening the Syrian Democratic Forces, which put him on a collision course with Turkey in the past.

Previous administrations appointed a special envoy for Syria in the past eight years.

Sources told The National that the Biden team will follow this tradition but that any such appointment is awaiting a staff shake-up in the State Department.

Joel Rayburn, the former envoy, left the position when Mr Biden was sworn in on January 20, and the recent State appointments of deputy assistant secretaries did not include Syria.

Sources said that former ambassador Barbara Leaf, who recently joined the National Security Council’s Middle East team, is a top contender for assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Steven Heydemann, director of the Middle East Studies programme at Smith College and a non-resident fellow at the Brookings Institute, said the new team so far suggested a possible return to an Obama-era policy on Syria.

“Seeing Colin Kahl [nominee for undersecretary of defence for policy at the Pentagon] and Brett McGurk in significant roles reinforces concerns that we will end up with Obama redux," Mr Heydemann said.

But he also said there were differing opinions within the administration over handling Syria.

"We have more senior figures like [US Secretary of State] Tony Blinken, who has acknowledged the failure of Obama's Syria policy, and Gen Austin [Miller], whose views on Syria are largely unknown," Mr Heydemann said.

In 2019, Mr Blinken, writing for the Brookings Institution, advocated diplomacy that is "supplemented by deterrence".

“In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little,” he wrote.

Mr Heydemann said the Syrian special envoy position, if filled, “will tell us a lot about the Biden administration's intentions".

"It could well signal more assertive diplomatic engagement, which would be welcome.”

Political progress has been minimal in Syria since the UN Security Council adopted resolution 2254 in December 2015, laying out the political path for a settlement in Syria.

“The US has pushed for implementation of 2254 but hasn't gone much further than that in defining what kind of process or outcome it wants,” Mr Heydemann said.

Lacking such clarity could drag Washington into “finding itself in a reactive position should the current ceasefire collapse or some other crisis erupt in Syria”.

Diplomatic ticking clock

Emma Beals, a non-resident fellow at the Middle East Institute, expressed concern that if US diplomatic inaction continues on Syria, it could mean major setbacks on the humanitarian front.

"A [US] diplomatic surge on Syria can't wait," Ms Beals, who is also an editor at Syria in Context,  told The National.

"With the UN Security Council cross-border resolution extension deadline coming up in July, the confirmations of Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the UN, and [former] ambassador Samantha Power at USAid can't come soon enough,

"Their diplomatic weight will be needed to negotiate an extension with Russia."

She said the deteriorating humanitarian situation across Syria and seemingly intractable issues with the delivery of aid will require immediate US attention and work with allies.

“Securing long-term ceasefires on various fronts must be a priority," Ms Beals said.

"So is addressing the growing instability in Lebanon and the region, particularly as the economic effects of Covid-19 bite and refugee-hosting countries face domestic pressures to return refugees."

Politically, the Syrian regime, backed by Russia, is preparing for another election this year that could assure President Bashar Al Assad’s hold on power for another seven years. The Assad family has been in power since 1971.

“The US will soon have to work with like-minded allies to ensure the governments of Syria and Russia are unable to gain ground with their normalisation narrative in the lead-up to this year's presidential election,” Ms Beals said.

The election would be in breach of the gradual political road map set up under UN Security Council resolution 2254.

Former US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford recently advocated that the US “strike a deal” with Russia on Syria, which would lead to a US withdrawal from the country.

Prior administrations have tried to do the same but hit problems when it came to Moscow's ability to deliver in Syria.

“While working with Russia or Assad via the political process are necessary components of negotiating any solution to the conflict, they are not partners nor can they be trusted to implement or maintain security in line with US interests,” Ms Beals said.

“Russia’s willingness or ability to expend political capital to impact Damascus’s behaviour is also overestimated.

"For example, Russia failed to get the Assad regime's delegation to the constitutional committee to discuss constitutional principles last week, despite their having agreed to do so last year, even after Russia and the other Astana guarantors sent delegations to Geneva during the meeting to try to smooth things over.

"Russia also repeatedly vetoed UNSC resolutions to deliver cross-border aid to Syria."

But it is unclear if the Biden administration has Syria in its top priorities to negotiate with allies and adversaries.

The Syrian conflict has not come up in statements about the Biden administration’s calls to stakeholders in the conflict, including Russia.

Mr Biden’s call to Russian President Vladimir Putin, the statement said, did not include discussion on Syria, nor did Mr Blinken’s call to Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

This week's call between US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and spokesman and chief adviser to the president of Turkey, Ibrahim Kalin, also made no mention of the conflict.

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