Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Assessing the Biden Administration’s Interim Syria Strategy
Assessing the Biden Administration’s Interim Syria Strategy

Assessing the Biden Administration’s Interim Syria Strategy

After taking office in January, the Biden administration began a review of American policy in Syria and the ongoing civil war there. This review sought to turn the page on Trump administration policies, which shifted U.S. priorities in Syria from the narrow goal of fighting the Islamic State to expanding the mission to counter Iran and to safeguard Syrian oil from Bashar al-Assad. The Trump-era policy stemmed from the administration’s own idiosyncrasies, where the personnel whom Trump empowered to oversee policy resisted his efforts to withdraw American forces. The Biden administration has re-tethered American policy to the defeat of ISIS and has stripped from U.S. goals any notions of protecting oil facilities or countering Iranian proxies in regime-held areas.

This policy shift is a pragmatic reflection of the administration’s overarching goals. The United States has shifted its priorities from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, while trying to mend frayed relations with much of America’s closest allies in Europe. The main U.S. priority in the Middle East is reaching an agreement with Iran on a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and how to sequence the lifting of Trump-era sanctions. The Syrian civil war is also a priority, but the administration’s policy is no longer linked to broader regional ambitions, such as the Trump team’s effort to topple the Iranian regime with sanctions or to prevent U.S. Arab partners from updating their own policy through outreach to Damascus.

The Syrian regime is fragile and incompetent, but it has the backing of Russia and Iran. It has also withstood the opposition-led rebellion for ten years. The regime does not control the entirety of the country, but the opposition is too weak to mount offensive operations to take back territory. The country is faced with economic catastrophe, stemming from the collapse of the Lebanese banking sector, the impact of COVID-19, American sanctions, a severe drought that has reduced agricultural yields, and the destruction of infrastructure. U.S. interests are now linked to two twin aims: increasing humanitarian assistance and retaining a U.S. military presence to combat ISIS.

The first priority is linked to deliberations at the United Nations Security Council and the mandate governing cross-border aid delivery to opposition-controlled areas. The 2014 agreement allowed for four crossings, but that number has decreased to one, owing to Russian and Chinese opposition. The mandate for the final crossing point expires on July 10, and, without an extension, Syria’s northwest risks getting cut-off from the last crossing with Turkey. The Russian position is that Damascus is the sovereign government of Syria, and therefore, the United Nations should only deliver assistance through the country’s capital.

After taking office, the Biden administration released $50 million in stabilization assistance, which had been frozen during the Trump administration and which is primarily spent in Syria’s northeast. This funding is in addition to $600 million for humanitarian funding for all of Syria, including the refugee populations in neighboring countries. The Biden administration also decided to retain ground troops and U.S. Air Force assets to support the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the partner force that has taken the lead in the fight against ISIS, which is the administration’s second priority. The U.S. ground presence relies on two interlinked deconfliction mechanisms, which manage U.S. and Russian aerial and ground operations. These mechanisms had used the Euphrates River as a boundary, with a few carve-outs afforded to each side. The situation changed after the Turkish invasion of northeast Syria in October 2019, which led to a hasty U.S. withdrawal from the border areas and a Russian move to replace U.S. positions. Americans and Russians are now close to each other, in ways that differ considerably from the pre-October 2019 environment.

The Biden administration has overtly signaled to Moscow that it intends to stay in Syria, sending a high-level delegation to meet with the SDF leadership to relay U.S. policy decisions. This effort also includes considerable outreach to Turkey, which is important for U.S. efforts to increase stabilization assistance. This outreach recognizes that Turkey and Russia have their own separate relationship in Syria, built around the Astana Process. The Astana Process is focused on reforming the Syrian constitution, but it has also served as a mechanism for Ankara and Moscow to manage tensions and compromise on major issues. The Biden administration has sought to take advantage of this relationship, particularly on the stabilization assistance issue and finding a compromise on aid deliveries between Turkish- and regime-controlled areas. The basic formula, it appears, is to offer “more aid for continued access.” This formula would increase U.S. total assistance to the UN, which would necessarily include more aid delivered via Damascus. This compromise would satisfy some of Russia’s desires, without compromising U.S. efforts in the northeast and northwest of the country.

Moscow remains committed to Assad and has maintained a consistent Syria policy. This policy focuses on training and equipping the Syrian Armed Forces, providing air and special operations support, and protecting the regime diplomatically at the UN and other international bodies. This effort has paid dividends, particularly on the battlefield. The regime is secure, even if the country is in a ruinous state and mired in economic collapse. The opposition to Assad is bottled up in Idlib, under de-facto Turkish protection and unable to launch offensive operations. From the Russian perspective, Moscow prevented state collapse of a regional partner. 

The United States is not directly negotiating with Russia, but it is signaling that it could revive more forthright and productive diplomacy if Moscow were to show some good will. This approach is detached from the broader Biden administration approach to relations with Russia, but it fits with the overarching effort to make relations more predictable and centered on areas where the two sides can manage tensions. The United States and Russia are expected to discuss the Syrian civil war at tomorrow’s bilateral summit in Geneva. With U.S. and Russia troops in such proximity, it serves U.S. interests to limit negative interactions in a peripheral conflict like Syria. A Russian de-facto compromise on the stabilization issue could open up an avenue for quiet talks about the war, giving the two countries some space to deepen understanding about the other’s longer-term interests. This forum may not lead to concrete outcomes, but could be used to manage divergences, or even serve as a backchannel to float proposals to formalize a nationwide ceasefire.

The Biden administration has narrowed U.S. goals in Syria, leaving behind the overly broad and legally tenuous policy that the Trump team pursued. This new policy suggests an open-ended U.S. presence in the northeast to ensure that that ISIS is still targeted in the country. The administration also seems firmly committed to providing funds for stabilization assistance, in an access-for-access arrangement that wins Russian support. The Assad regime is ensconced in power, and Washington has signaled that it will not take action to unseat it and that it wants a more predictable relationship with Russia in Syria. The ball is in Moscow’s court, but the Biden administration has made clear that it will retain forces in the country and that it is prepared to increase U.S. assistance to manage the catastrophe.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.