Tucked away in a little-noticed corner of the $900 billion coronavirus relief bill is an allocation of $40 million in “non-lethal stabilization aid” for Syria, with the proviso that none of it should be used to strengthen Iran and its militias, Russia or the government of Bashar Al Assad. This detail of one of the most important recent pieces of recent U.S. legislation illustrates the American conundrum over Syria that will soon be inherited by the new Biden administration.
Years of neglect have left the U.S. with very limited leverage, but Syria remains the epicenter of three key concerns: combating the destabilization of the Middle East, containing Iranian hegemony, and fighting still-potent terrorist groups like the Islamic State and Al Qaeda. Joe Biden will inherit a considerable mess.
President Barack Obama, never understood the importance of Syria, and the U.S. is still struggling to recover from his folding over the “redline” on use of chemical weapons. President Donald Trump made matters worse in attempting to withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria — upon being told soldiers would be required to secure Syrian oilfields, he agreed to a small presence, thereby maintaining some American leverage.
For a decade, skeptics have maintained it’s too late to achieve anything in Syria. But that was never correct.
What’s required is a middle ground between overly-ambitious goals and avoidable pitfalls, a strategy focused on accumulating limited achievements.
This does not require many — perhaps not even any— additional U.S. troops on the ground. But it requires a robust American re-engagement with Syria with clear objectives: weakening the grip of the Assad dictatorship, squeezing Iran and its proxies to the margins and ultimately out of the country; and preventing Turkey from crushing loyal U.S. allies against terrorism.
Biden should maintain pressure on the Assad dictatorship through sanctions. The Caesar Act sanctions which went into effect this year communicates that the reconstruction and international reintegration of Syria cannot be pursued under Assad and his clique. They’ve killed, tortured and displaced too many people, and a reconciliation with them is out of question. There’s room for much tougher sanctions against key regime cronies, institutions and businesses.
But the sanctions must be targeted in order to isolate the regime and its key backers, without punishing or weakening Syrian society. This can be achieved by providing humanitarian assistance exclusively through entities that aren’t manipulated by the regime and focusing aid in areas not under its control.
Biden should not reduce the small U.S. troop presence in Syria. These highly concentrated forces are among the few remaining obstacles to the creation of an Iranian-controlled military corridor arcing through the northern Middle East, from the Islamic Republic to Lebanon’s Mediterranean.
They also have a crucial counterterrorism role. The Islamic State and Al Qaeda are not yet defeated, despite Trump’s claims, and their ambitions remain centered in Syria.
The U.S. should reengage the diplomatic process with other external players, such as Russia and Turkey. The goals should be to isolate terrorist groups and prevent their resurgence, and to ensure that Iran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, don’t emerge as the big winners from the Syrian war.
Russia has operated in partnership with Iran in Syria, but since the main part of the civil war died down, after the fall of Aleppo to pro-regime forces in early 2017, Moscow and Tehran have found themselves pursuing different, and at times contradictory, goals. Moscow seeks calm in the areas of Syria it cares about, to secure its military bases and maintain growing ties to Gulf countries and Israel, while Iran pursues a path of broader confrontation, viewing Syria and Lebanon as assets in its agenda to expand its regional influence by leveraging confrontation.
One of Washington’s key early goals should be to convince Russia that its gains in Syria are threatened by the broader Iranian agenda for the region. In the long term, Tehran wants complete political control of Damascus, not shared influence with Moscow.
Assad himself is not keen to be under the thumb of from Iran and Hezbollah, and would prefer to be primarily a Russian client. Russian goals are limited and not in conflict with Assad’s agenda, while Iran demands far more of him and plainly views Syria as a potential battleground with Israel and other regional powers.
Washington and Moscow do not share many aims in Syria but there are some important areas of commonality, including combatting the Islamic State and Al Qaeda, and easing Iran out. Those goals are even shared with Assad, so progress on those fronts is possible even as the Damascus dictatorship remains sanctioned and stigmatized.
Finally, Washington should be very clear with Turkey that there are limits to President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s hegemonic agenda in Syria. Biden would do well to recommit to Kurdish allies who fought so well against the Islamic State and have been targeted by the Turkish invasion in the north.
Biden must make it clear that while the U.S. recognizes Turkey’s need to protect its own territory, it is not free to occupy large chunks of Syria indefinitely or attack American allies with impunity. Curbing Turkish adventurism in Syria, the eastern Mediterranean, Libya and elsewhere requires a strong message to Ankara that it must decide if it wants to remain a partner to the U.S. and a NATO ally. Rearming and supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces is key to this, and to almost all U.S. goals in Syria.