The Biden administration is reflecting on the role of the United States in the ongoing conflict in Syria as the United States tries to break out of the Middle East wars, but Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat has already been busy on the ground, trying to win support for an approach to Syria that could establish Russia as an agent of security and power in the world. region.
The new US administration has yet to say how it plans to handle Syria, which is now fragmented among half a dozen armies, including US troops, due to a war that has killed and displaced millions. The conflict includes affiliates of Al Qaeda, Islamic State forces and other jihadist groups eager to use Syria as a base.
Russia and Iran have intervened to prevent the collapse of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who has wielded chemical attacks, barrel bombs and famines to crush what had started as a peaceful uprising. The conflict has just entered its eleventh year.
Dealing with the Syrian war will test the Biden administration’s determination to focus on Asia rather than the Middle East. If the United States diminishes its presence, Russia and other hostile American rivals are prepared to intervene and increase its regional stature and resources.
Hence, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov Tour the Middle East this month.
Lavrov stood by as the foreign minister of a Gulf state generally friends with Washington, the United Arab Emirates, delivered a message in line with Moscow’s position: U.S. sanctions on the Russian-backed Syrian regime were blocking international efforts to rebuild Syria. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said it is time to welcome Syria back into the fold of Arab nations.
In other words, Russia’s message is “the war in Syria is over, Assad has won, Assad will be in power as long as he breathes oxygen,” said Frederic Hof, who served as US adviser in Syria and envoy in the administration. Obama
Hof said there was an undeclared part of the message: Russia plans to be available as “Syria is built from the ashes,” benefiting from whatever international reconstruction resource comes in and positioning itself as the middleman to manage the security threats it poses. Syria. to the region.
Hof and James F. Jeffrey, a career diplomat under the Republican and Democratic administrations who served as President Donald Trump’s envoy to Syria, advocate for the United States to remain a significant presence in the country, citing Russia’s ambitions.
“If this is the future of Middle East security, we are all in trouble,” warns Jeffrey. “That is what Putin and Lavrov are pushing.”
The Biden administration is reviewing whether it should view Syria as one of America’s biggest national security problems.
Still no sign of doing so. In particular, where President Joe Biden has singled out a few other Middle East issues as priorities, including the Yemen war and Iran’s nuclear program, for which Biden appointed envoys, he and his officials have said and done little publicly about Syria. .
In Congress, Syria is at the center of a debate in Congress over whether to reduce or end the authorities given to presidents to carry out military strikes after the 9/11 attacks.
It was the Syrian war that sparked that debate, when President Barack Obama first considered military strikes there, said Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Congress has stood by on some of the most important decisions a country can make.”
One of Biden’s few public mentions of Syria since he took office came last week, when he listed it among international issues the UN Security Council should do more on.
On the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement with his European counterparts emphasized the need for humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians and the responsibility of the Assad regime.
US troops are helping protect an opposition enclave in northeastern Syria, in an area that includes oil and natural gas. During Biden’s campaign last year, Blinken framed the military role as a “point of influence” in negotiations over Syria’s international management, rather than an ongoing force.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the State Department declined to answer specific questions about Biden’s policy in Syria, even if the administration views the Syrian conflict as a major threat to national security or plans to appoint an envoy.
Biden follows Obama and Trump in their quest to downplay the US military role in the Middle East and shift the focus of US foreign policy to Asia, where China has been increasingly aggressive.
But the conflicts in the Middle East and America’s own strategic schemes have a way of pushing Americans back. Last month, Biden became the sixth consecutive US president to bomb a Middle East target, hitting an Iranian-allied militia in Syria that had targeted American and allied personnel in neighboring Iraq.
Some current and former American diplomats to the Middle East have argued that Syria is not a major security threat to the United States.
Robert S. Ford, an Obama administration ambassador to Syria with years of diplomatic experience in the region, concluded in a Foreign Relations article last year that Washington should move toward withdrawing its troops from northeastern Syria, making arrangements to let Russia and others deal with the jihadists. combatants and used money from the United States to help refugees from the war.
But Hof and Jeffrey, two others who have occupied Syria during past administrations, argue against the pullout.
“If I were an ISIS leader now desperately trying to organize an insurgency to come back” in Syria, “I would pray that that advice is followed,” Hof said. For the Islamic State group, “if you can have the (Syrian) regime, the Iranians and the Russians as enemies, there is nothing better than that.”
A test of the Biden administration’s intentions is looming, as Russia seeks to use its position on the UN Security Council to close a humanitarian aid route to a part of Syria that is not under the control of the Syrian government backed by Russia, says Mona Yacoubian, Syria’s senior adviser to the US Institute for Peace Expert Group.
Maintaining or reinforcing the US footprint in Syria will be important, Yacoubian said, not only as a lever in political negotiations, but also to shape the rules of the game for Russia’s presence in the Middle East. And other immediate goals remain for the international community: to make life “more manageable and less miserable for Syrians,” he said.