Biden’s options in Syria
US forces are building up military reinforcements in the Deir ez-Zor governorate in eastern Syria. Their moves have not been ordered by US President-elect Joe Biden, but are a prelude to the incoming president’s next steps on a crisis that is approaching the end of its first decade with no political solution in sight.
The reinforcements followed the escalation of ISIS operations east of the Euphrates River. Whether orchestrated by Damascus and its allies or not, a new limited war on terror is looming on the horizon there and may shape Biden’s policy in Syria during his term in office.
The reinforcements also came after tensions eased between the government’s National Defense Forces and the Asayish forces in Qamishli.
For Biden, anyone who takes up arms against the Kurds is a terrorist and must be chased. The US president-elect considers the Kurds to be allies who must be protected.
This is especially true when the terrorist is backed by Russia, Iran or even Turkey. The US president-elect does not seem concerned about Ankara’s wariness about the possibility of the establishment of a Syrian Kurdish region that would represent an extension of neighbouring Iraqi Kurdistan and would lend inspiration to adherents of Kurdish nationalism in neighbouring countries.
The idea of partition may be tempting to Biden, who has supported the option since it was proposed during the US invasion of Iraq.
Biden was only a member of the Senate then. Today, he is president-elect of the United States. Conditions also seem to favour partition in the two countries. Biden may proceed with his project, which has been postponed for nearly three decades.
Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, has left a valuable legacy. The wills bequeathed by former US envoy to Syria and the international coalition against ISIS James Jeffrey are what must be taken into account.
Jeffrey called on the new White House administration to continue Trump’s approach to dealing with the Syrian crisis.
Trump’s most prominent achievements in the crisis over the past four years include destroying ISIS’s self-proclaimed caliphate, obstructing other countries’ normalisation with Syrian “President” Bashar Assad, granting free land to Turkey in the northern part of the country and supporting the establishment of an independent Kurdish province east of the Euphrates.
These accomplishments may seem somewhat contradictory, but they give the incoming White House flexibility on how to deal with the crisis according to US interests.
In his call for Biden to adopt Trump’s approach to the Syrian crisis, Jeffrey leaves the president-elect with three options that Trump has laid the groundwork for and according to developments in the region and in light of his country’s relationship with Iran, Russia and Turkey.
The first option is to restore legitimacy to Assad after he carries out internal reforms, including implementing Resolution 2254, cooperating with the United States in combating terrorism, getting rid of chemical weapons he still possesses, holding accountable the perpetrators of war crimes that have taken place over the decade-long crisis and ensuring a “free” and “dignified” return for refugees and displaced people.
The second option was presented during a recent press interview with Jeffrey. It does not call for overthrowing the regime, but dividing Syria into several parts.
No one can deny that this is an option. It is what drives most international and local protagonists to delay resolving the crisis — either they prefer this option and hope that with time it will become the only viable solution, or they are taking advantage of the paranoia about partition to intimidate and push their opponents and competitors towards implementing their proposals and plans to resolve the country’s crisis.
The former US envoy said that there are an estimated tens of thousands of Turkish troops in Idlib that, with the support of the Americans and Europeans, can prevent the province from falling again into the hands of ISIS.
With Washington’s recognition of the occupied Golan’s annexation by Israel, its expansion of support for the Kurds east of the Euphrates river, economically, politically and militarily, in addition to its acceptance of Russia’s permanent military presence in Syria, one can conclude that the project to partition Syria could go forward. Even if the US publicly claims otherwise, it has not written off this option.
With the previous considerations taken into account, the exit of Israel, the United States, Turkey and Russia from Syria seems unlikely, leaving only Iran, with which Biden wants to conclude a new agreement and reach reconciliation once he enters the White House.
The incoming president will not allow the Khomeinists to build up a military force in southern Syria similar to Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. But he will not fight their militias that have infiltrated Syrian society in thought, in the economy and in politics, especially if Tehran agrees to US controls on its nuclear and missile programmes.
Jeffrey knows that Iran will not leave the Arab countries under its domination without a war that forces it to.
Since he does not know if the region is really waiting for war or is instead on the verge of a new deal between his country and Tehran, Jeffrey has suggested a third option to the new US administration — to suspend Middle East crises indefinitely.
This means continuing to clip the wings of the Khomeinists outside their borders even after the conclusion of an agreement controlling their nuclear programme, which is the opposite of what former President Barack Obama did in the Lausanne Agreement in 2015.
Because many priorities are high on Biden’s foreign policy agenda, Jeffrey’s third option could be the most realistic, especially as he has avoided dealing in detail with the crises in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Lebanon during his election campaign.
In doing so, he seemed to be saying that his administration will not seek Middle East stability if the winds blow in an opposite direction to the desires of the Democrats in implementing an American agenda that reformulates the country’s alliances and international agreements to suit its aspirations in the region and the world.