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What direction will Biden take on Syria?

November 16, 2020 at 1:27 pm

US President-elect Joe Biden in Wilmington, Delaware, on 9 November 2020 [ANGELA WEISS/AFP/Getty Images]

As Joe Biden is declared President-elect of the US, it is clear he has many matters to tackle. From containing coronavirus and managing the economic fall-out, to working to unite the country and begin to heal race relations after the spotlight on systemic racism earlier in the year, there is an awful lot to do. Unsurprisingly in this context, foreign policy did not play a significant role in this year’s election. And any mention of Syria was brief and rarely followed up with any commentary or analysis. Biden cannot ignore Syria however and from past actions and current context, it is worth considering how he will tackle a crisis that is fast approaching a decade.

A change of president doesn’t necessarily indicate a wholesale change in foreign policy. One of the best examples is US policy towards Palestine which changed very little between Democrats and Republicans as Congress, the Senate and intelligence agencies can play a part as well as the executive himself. Trump is possibly the only exception to the above as he moved the US embassy to Jerusalem for example and denigrated NATO. The Syrian people view the Democrats with understandable suspicion after the red line catastrophe in 2013 which signaled to them that Obama had in a way left the Syrian issue for Russia to handle.

The Democrats are akin to a broad coalition within US politics. They include centrists who would be considered “conservative” in other states and left-wingers who identify as “Democratic Socialists”. During Obama’s term in office, it was reported that Hilary Clinton was more pro-intervention than Joe Biden who felt let-down after the disastrous invasion of Iraq and was far more hesitant. That being said, interviews with senior campaign aides and foreign policy advisers have been clear that Biden has expressed a level of regret with how matters transpired in Syria post 2016, and his presidency would be an opportunity to “seek redemption”.  With a plethora of competing challenges, this of course remains to be seen.

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Donald Trump’s term in office did little to aid the Syrian cause beyond largely token gestures. He viewed Syria from the lens of counterterrorism when he gave it any thought at all. His airstrike in April 2017 in retaliation to chemical attacks perpetrated by the regime was symbolic. And the fact that Trump wasn’t aware of the Assad regime’s impending assault on Idlib until a Syrian doctor had paid for the privilege to sit next to him at a Republican fundraiser showed how out of touch Trump was and how he was impulsive in his decision making to the extreme. If there is one thing we can be sure of, it’s that Biden’s long career on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will mean he will properly understand the nuances of various foreign policy issues and any decision he makes will be pre-planned and considered.

The little commentary that has taken place on foreign policy with regards to the election has revolved around Russia and the Iran nuclear deal. On Russia, it’s clear that Donald Trump has had something to hide from before he was even elected as the Russian interference on behalf of Trump proved. Trump has said very little in public to critique Russian President Vladimir Putin and to stand up to him, including on Syria. Veto after veto was tabled by Russia at the United Nations Security Council which Trump did little to resist. Joe Biden has already spoken of the need to be firmer and hold Putin accountable, and this includes Syria too. With regards to the Iran nuclear deal, Trump has been outspoken against it and withdrew America from it. Biden has committed to working on resuscitating the deal as long as Iran agrees to its terms and can be held accountable by it. And whilst there are benefits to ensuring that there is a comprehensive deal in place that stops an unpredictable Iranian regime from obtaining nuclear weapons, there is an understandable perception issue amongst Syrians that any easing of sanctions will allow Iran to once again intervene on Assad’s behalf. Any revision of the Iranian nuclear deal will have to include a guarantee of some sort that Iran does not intervene in Syria.

Biden’s tasks on the 20th of January are growing, and he will surely be kept busy with domestic concerns and repairing international alliances with other Western powers in his early days. It would be a surprise however, if there is no speech or policy initiative on Syria within the first 100 days of his presidency. With the Syrian people long concluding that the international community has abandoned them, Biden has an opportunity to extend an olive branch and be clear that the Syrian regime should be held accountable and Assad should not be allowed to stand in any future election in Syria while his hands are full of the blood of civilians.

Millions of Syrian refugees will not return to their homes to rebuild their country before they see real political change. They view the conference held in Damascus last week and supported by Russia which aims to plan to bring refugees back as a big joke.

Shocking stories are still being published about the situation in Syria showing how people are essentially living in an open air prison. Syrians who fled the Assad regime’s brutality are not prepared to return until they see his removal. Assad’s reign as president cannot continue.

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The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.