US foreign policy does not change when presidents change, regardless of their party or personality. National interests alone normally determine policy. Ultimately, it is the institutions which govern, not the people in power. Nevertheless, presidents have some room to manoeuvre at home and abroad, which is important to allow for changes of course depending on circumstances but without affecting Washington's major interests.
For example, America's policy on Syria changed when Donald Trump replaced Barack Obama as US President. Obama leaned towards soft diplomacy regarding Iran, which was reflected in a six-party nuclear agreement allowing Tehran to breathe a sigh of relief and reactivate its political and military influence across the region, especially in Syria. Trump pulled the US out of this agreement and reimposed sanctions on Iran. He also gave Israel the green light to intensify its attacks against Iranian forces in Syria.
Moreover, Obama stood in the way of any Turkish move in northern Syria, whereas Trump has allowed Ankara to cross the border between Tal Abyad and Ras Al-Ain. Before that, he turned a blind eye to Turkish activity in Afrin.
Despite having differences with Turkey, Trump backed the Turkish position in north-west Syria, and thus contributed to preventing Russia and the Syrian regime from invading Idlib. Overall, the Trump administration has been very relaxed about Turkey's interests in its southern neighbour.
In 2016, the Obama administration accepted the Russian demand to postpone the vote on the Caesar Act, while Trump insisted that the law be passed in the US Congress. Two military strikes have been directed at the Syrian regime during Trump's term in office. Even though they were limited, they revealed America's red lines, which were blurred during Obama's time in the White House.
So-called "targeted killing" has been adopted, as we saw with the assassination in January of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Qasem Soleimani, who was responsible for killing hundreds if not thousands of Syrians. This suggests that margins are available to US presidents to effect a change, not in the objectives of US foreign policy, but in the tools of its implementation. This cannot be underestimated, as the differences between Obama and Trump in Syria are very obvious. The fundamentals of US foreign policy may not change when presidents change, but there is definitely room for the White House to make changes, no matter who is in office.
Today, the Syrians are divided in their thoughts about Republican Trump and Democrat Joe Biden in the run up to the US presidential election. Some think that Trump's position on Syria is the best that it will get and that Biden's policy will either reflect Obama's — he was Obama's vice president —or try to outdo Trump with a new policy without actually managing to do so. Those who believe this attack Biden's lack of clarity, as was the case with Obama, and cite the fact that Biden has issued two foreign policy documents, the first of which did not mention Syria at all, while the second only mentioned it in passing.
This hesitancy is apparent in the policy on his website in which Biden pledges to support the reconstruction of Syria, despite his approval of the Caesar Act sanctions. However, during a zoom meeting with a group of Syrian Americans he committed himself to stand by the civilians and pro-democracy partners on the ground, without talking about a clear strategy leading to practical political results.
Others believe that Biden is better than Trump and will pave a very different political path towards Syria than Obama did, and will avoid Trump's long-term and useless economic pressure at the strategic level. The belief is that Biden's team, led by Antony Blinken, his chief advisor and possible Secretary of State in a Biden administration, has a clear vision for Syria, despite the fact that the presidential hopeful's real position has not yet been announced.
Even so, Blinken has stressed the need for US troops to remain in north-east Syria and to strengthen Turkish operations in Idlib. This is a clear and public statement about the US desire to cooperate with Ankara. Trump's policy cannot be trusted and is unpredictable, says the pro-Biden camp, as it is based on political leveraging more than advance planning.
The regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, meanwhile, is unequivocal in the need to support Joe Biden to win November's election. Assad hopes to reactivate the previous policy adopted by Obama and the Democratic Party regarding the crisis in Syria.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.