Syria in the era of the Biden administration
Jan 21, 2021

Syria in the era of the Biden administration

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US President Joe Biden arrived at the White House carrying the legacy of the Obama administration, which represents a source of concern to the Syrians opposing the Assad regime. They are worried that Biden,, like Obama, will open a new outlet for the Iranian regime and ignore the policies of the Assad regime in the region, specifically supporting the Syrian regime, which caused one of the biggest disasters it mankind has known. in this region. Biden reinforced this concern by appointing former officials in the Obama administration, who were related to the Syrian file, to senior positions in his administration, which largely portends a repetition of the previous experience in Syria.

The main failure of the Obama and Trump administrations in Syria was the failure to recognize the strategic interest of the United States in the stability of Syria, so the two administrations did not prioritise the Syrian file, but rather used this file as a card linked to other files in the region such as confronting Iran and combating terrorism. This failure translated into strategic progress for both Russia and Iran in Syria and the region as a whole.


Below we review the most prominent determinants that the Biden administration will find in front of it, when it deals with the Syrian file; and we analyze these determinants in an attempt to draw the expected lines for the policy of The new administration in Syria.


First: the determinants of the Biden administration's policy in Syria


1) US policy towards Iran

Early after the start of the revolution in Syria, the Obama administration acknowledged Iran's support for the Assad regime by transferring the methods of repression used in Iran[1], and that the collapse of the Assad regime would be the biggest loss for Iran in a quarter of a century[2]. The overthrow of the Assad regime was a strategic US interest in the region, but it has since been linked to the US interest in preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. In August of 2012, President Obama issued his warning to the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons against its people is red line, but after a whole year and a day his threat has not been honoured after the chemical weapons attack by Assad forces on civilians in Ghouta [3]. A month after the inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as president of Iran, Obama made the first contact of an American president with an Iranian president since 1979 [4], in which he expressed his hope that the desired progress in the nuclear file would positively affect other files such as Syria [5]. In fact, Obama has since officially announced that the Syrian file has become a card in the US-Iranian negotiations. This paper was lost in the drawers of the US administration during the negotiations until the signing of the agreement in July 2015 and no one has found it until now. Although the two attacks that President Trump ordered on the chemical weapons facilities of the Assad regime may be read outside this framework, they were improvised strikes [6], especially after documenting attacks by the Assad regime with chemical weapons after the two raids.

During the negotiations with Iran, the Obama administration seemed more willing to reach an agreement than Tehran itself. Therefore, the agreement did not prevent Iran from continuing to support its allies in the region, most importantly the Syrian regime. Moreover, the lifting of sanctions under the agreement gave Iran more resources to pursue regional hegemony. However, the agreement did not live long; because, when President Trump, took office, he accused Iran of violating it, describing it as a disastrous agreement, and he withdrew from it in May 2018. The US administration once again imposed a series of sanctions on Tehran that reached the maximum extent that these sanctions could reach, and European companies left Iran, Several countries cut trade relations with it in response to the US withdrawal from the agreement, and imposed sanctions on Chinese and Russian companies that did not sever this relationship. The Trump administration has intensified its cyber and military attacks on the Iranian regime, and has made it imperative to lift sanctions on Iran and impossible without making tangible concessions. These pressures, however, did not translate into a strategy to reduce Iranian hegemony in the region [8]


2) US policy towards Russia

President Obama's Syria policy led to Russia's strategic progress in Syria and the region. Trump's policy in this regard has resulted in the continuation of the Russian advance in other arenas in the region, such as Libya [9]. President Trump's relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin; however, remains the most mysterious relationship. Democrats were unable to prove the collusion of Trump's 2016 election campaign with Moscow, despite the evidence of the US intelligence services of a Russian penetration of the electoral process. This file has recently reappeared. It was described as the largest electronic penetration involving 18,000 US agencies, including US government agencies [10].


3) US policy towards Turkey

American relations with Turkey have been built on an institutional basis [11] since World War II. Turkey benefited from American support in the context of the Marshall Plan, joined NATO in the early fifties, participated alongside the United States in the Korean crisis, and then gained its strategic position an important place in the American efforts to confront the expansion of the Soviet Union. The United States has developed its military relations with the Turkish army from the establishment of the strategic Incirlik base, which has so far housed American nuclear bombs, to providing military support to the Turkish army and to the defense industry sector in Turkey, which began manufacturing F-16 planes since the eighties of the last century, and having Turkey as a partner to the joint fighter plane development program of the F-35 fighter. The institutional framework of the relationship between Washington and Ankara included cooperation at the military level on top; so that the US Department of Defense, through the US military command in Europe, and the State Department intervened in the management of this relationship. This relationship; however, extended to the economic aspect in the past decade with the “Justice and Development Party” taking power in Ankara, making Turkey 28th among the countries importing American goods, and thirty-third among those exporting to the United States [12].

The relationship between Washington and Ankara has become more complicated over the past decade after a disagreement over what Ankara saw as a threat to its national security. The Syrian side of its southeastern border, represented by the establishment of the “People's Protection Units”, is an entity that seeks autonomy and whose goals are shared by the anti-government Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). From the American point of view, and in particular the US Department of Defense, such an entity is a partner in the war against ISIS. However, President Trump, based on his non-institutional approach to the conduct of foreign policy, emphasised that he did not intend to maintain the American commitment in northeastern Syria indefinitely by declaring his intention to withdraw forces [13]. Also in this sense, President Trump procrastinated in dealing with the warnings of the US Department of Defense against the Turkish government's purchase of the Russian S-400 missile system, but he decided during the presidential transition to impose sanctions on Ankara for this reason.

US relations with Turkey have also been marred by differences due to the “Justice and Development” Government's policy towards Iran and Israel. Regarding Iran, economic circles close to the Turkish government created a loophole in the US sanctions imposed on Iran during the past two decades, through which they were able to provide Tehran with financial liquidity, which angered Israel and the United States. The remnants of this case are still there until now against the Turkish bank “Halkbank”, for which the Trump administration has created a legal way out to make the Turkish bank avoid legal condemnation by paying a heavy tax and by admitting some violations [15]. As for Israel, The Turkish government adopted a hard-line stand towards Israeli settlement policies, and towards moving the American embassy to Jerusalem. Add to that, the recent conflict over energy resources in the eastern Mediterranean has fueled the dispute with Israel.


4) Combating terrorism and the justifications for the US military presence

Combating terrorism was the main gateway for US forces to enter Syrian territory, through the international coalition against ISIS. Achieving the goal eliminating ISIS, raised questions about the justifications for the presence of US forces in Syria. Th hat required ensuring the elimination of the organization and the support of the partners chosen by the United States for this purpose, « the Syrian Democratic Forces », which are controlled by the « People’s Protection Units ». Moreover the Americans had to maintain their presence in the Al-Tanf base, which is strategically located near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders on the corridor between Tehran and Damascus [17] [18].

In 2020, ISIL's attacks in Syria and Iraq have increased markedly, demonstrating the organisation’s ability and willingness to regain control of territory and resources. With the spread of the Covid-19 epidemic, which reinforced the American administration’s regression to managing the Corona virus crisis locally, in addition to the retreat of the American forces in Syria, the security gaps widened, allowing ISIS elements to move more freely, attacking prisons to get their members out. At the same time, calls increased not to limit US policy in the region to Iran, and to pay attention to the important file of combating terrorism.

urgent [19].


5) Reality on the ground

With the conflict in Syria entering its second decade at the inauguration of the Biden administration, the balance of power has changed, with Russia and Iran leading the conflict on the ground in the Syrian regime’s control sites, which represent most of Syria’s regions from the south of the country to Idlib governorate in the northwest, and most of Aleppo governorate in the north of the country. Under control are also parts of Raqqa in the north and north-east of the country. The exception is the border area surrounding the American al-Tanf base in the southeast of the country, which is controlled by the American forces and the Syrian opposition forces. The regime still has an administrative and military presence in Al-Hasakah Governorate. Opposition factions also control Idlib governorate in the north of the country, and parts of Aleppo, Hama, Raqqa and Hasaka. While the Syrian Democratic Forces control the area where they are located, American forces control the northeast of the country, which includes the province of Hasaka and parts of the provinces of Deir ez-Zor, Raqqa and Aleppo [20].


6) Defenders of Iran and the Assad regime in the Democratic Party

This category includes the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which represents the ideas of the « Western left » towards the revolutions of the Arab Spring. The Western left supported the Arab dictatorial regimes, including the regime of Bashar al-Assad, in the face of what it described as Western imperialism under the leadership of the United States [21]. Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris; however, do not fall into this category. Harris criticised Tulsi Hubbard, the Democratic front-runner in the recent presidential run-off, calling her a "defender of Assad"[22]. This wing is rising in the ranks of the Democratic Party, and it will represent a challenge to Biden's policy toward Syria.

In the same context, the presence of some employees who are classified as defenders of Assad, in Biden's election campaign, aroused the ire of Syrian opponents. Among them is Stephen Simon, one of the campaign advisers on Middle East affairs who was an official in the Obama administration; and after leaving his position he traveled to Damascus in 2015 on a secret visit to meet Bashar al-Assad, who was seeking to build relationships in Washington that would enable him to gain more influence [23]. Biden campaign officials said he is one of 100 advisers, and that his views do not reflect those of Biden’s or the campaign. Simon recently argued against increasing pressure on Assad by imposing more sanctions [24]. They also include a Biden campaign volunteer, a pro-Assad Syrian Christian activist and opponent of US support for the Syrian opposition on social media. Although the campaign reprimanded her for her social media posts, she kept her position in the campaign. The presence of these people raised many questions about the position of the new administration towards Syria. In one of its statements, Biden's campaign said that it intends to urge other countries to support the reconstruction of Syria, which directly means that there is no seriousness in enforcing the "Caesar Law" that imposed the largest economic sanctions on the Assad regime. In the end, the final position will appear after the chaos of the electoral campaign ends and the arrival of the administration to the White House [25]


Advantages in favour of the Biden administration

Building a comprehensive strategy for US policy in Syria will not be easy, but the Biden administration has an advantage over its predecessors regarding the conflict in Syria. After years of mismanaging the economy and ignoring many aspects of running the country in favour of financing the army, the Assad regime itself dug the grave of the Syrian economy, sowing the seeds of financial collapse and reaping its fruits. This collapse led to unrest in the political base supporting the regime and even within the Assad family itself. Finally, the Biden administration will have ten years of experience of dealing with Syria that distinguishes it from its predecessors[26]


Second: The Syrian file between Trump and Obama

Since taking office in early 2017, President Trump has faced repeated criticism for his lack of a foreign policy. There was no policy cohesion towards Syria, and there was his apparent contempt for traditional diplomacy [27]. Criticism of Trump is similar in one way to what faced former President Barack Obama, who also lacked a coherent policy toward Syria [28].

Although the Obama administration welcomed and sympathised with the demands of the Syrian opposition to support their efforts against the Syrian regime, Obama refused to intervene on their side and was keen to avoid entering into the conflict on the ground, and his attention remained focused on efforts to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, so that his response would serve as a green light for the Syrian regime and its Iranian and Russian supporters. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Syrians were killed and arrested, millions more were displaced inside and outside Syria, and more than 80% of those who remained inside were suffering.

Syria is living below the poverty line, and more than 50% of the vital infrastructure has been destroyed.

Obama administration distanced itself from entering into the conflict in Syria, but it maintained lines of communication and support for the Syrian opposition on the ground, especially after the establishment of the Al-Nusra Front in 2012 as an official branch of the Al-Qaeda organization in Syria. At that time, the Obama administration began concrete efforts through programs to support what was described as the moderate Syrian opposition affiliated with the Free Syrian Army. In 2013, the administration tasked the Central Intelligence Agency with managing annual support estimated at $1 billion in non-lethal support [29]. Since April 2014, the agency has delivered small amounts of weapons to a limited number of Syrian opposition militants, such as TOW missiles that arrived in the hands of the Hazm Movement fighters [30]. In July 2014, the US Special Forces, in cooperation with Jordanian forces, carried out a failed rescue operation of American elements believed to have been with ISIS [31].

In September 2014, the administration launched a program to train and equip Syrian rebels against ISIS [32]. But President Trump has canceled all of these programs and ended the support. Despite Trump's assertion since taking office that his foreign policy differed from that of his predecessor Obama, he converged with him that the outcome of his policy toward Syria was in favour of Iran and Russia. Trump announced his intention to withdraw from Syria more than once, and ordered the withdrawal of part of the US forces from northeastern Syria because he did not want a long-term military commitment, despite the fact that his national security team advised him to keep the forces for a little longer.

Trump's policy has been compared to President Obama's withdrawal of 10,000 US troops from Iraq in 2011 [33], which is believed to have left a vacuum that gradually led to the return of al-Qaeda in a more brutal way, namely, ISIS, which seized vast areas in Iraq and Syria and posed a threat to Western countries. It was also likened to President Obama's ignoring of his advisors' advice for a greater intervention in Syria three years before the Russian intervention, and for the human, material and strategic damages of the Iranian and Russian military intervention in Syria. Trump's withdrawal would have benefited Iran and Russia, just as Obama's retreat from the warning given to Assad, as well as his lack of desire to challenge the Iranian and Russian presence there.

Trump demonstrated his distinction from Obama by his willingness to take two bold decisions to launch a military strike on the Assad regime in response to its use of chemical weapons. Obama declared that Assad's use of chemical weapons against his people is a red line, but he backed away from punishing Assad for fear of consequences that Trump proved he was not afraid of, and in this sense also, he ended the nuclear agreement with Iran, and ordered the assassination of a leader

The Quds Force, Qassem Soleimani, and the deputy commander of the Popular Mobilization Forces, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis [34] [35].

In fact, Trump's policy in Syria was best described by Trump himself when he said that he did not want to get involved in the Syrian file, which the United States lost when Obama abandoned it years ago when he did not activate his red line, leaving only "death and sand" in it. Trump clearly said that American support for the Kurds was what helped them fight on the ground, and that the United States fought ISIS on behalf of Russia, Iran and the Assad regime [36]. Therefore, Trump abandoned the Syrian opposition by canceling the training and equipping program for Syrian rebels [37], stopping the US State Department’s programs in northern Syria [38], and suspending the financial support that the United States had pledged to stabilization efforts in Syria [39], even canceling the admission of Syrian refugees. Until further notice [40]. The administration that advances his personal interest made him not hesitate to make attempts to negotiate with the Assad regime to release American prisoners[41], and recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights [42]


Third : The Syrian file is on Biden's table


1) The Syrian opposition..anxiety and anticipation

Biden and his deputy, Kamala Harris, tend to blame Iran and Russia for the state of affairs in Syria, without looking for excuses for the Syrian regime, as does the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. In Syria in particular and the region in general, in contrast to the spontaneous and unexpected administration of President Donald Trump. From this point of view, the new administration, in cooperation with Ankara and the Syrian opposition, is likely to support the fragile ceasefire in Idlib governorate and prevent the Syrian regime forces and its allies from controlling it without US military intervention.

Biden's accession to the presidency itself was a concern of a large segment of the Syrian opposition. The Syrian opposition fears that Biden's renewal of the nuclear deal will open a new channel of financial support for Iran and the Assad regime, on which it depends economically. Biden's chosen secretary of state, Tony Blinken, recently asserted that the "Caesar Act" that Congress passed and imposed the most severe economic sanctions to date on the Assad regime, is a "very important tool" for trying to limit the Syrian regime's ability to fund its repression of Syrians, and pressure it to change its behaviour. In Caesar's law; however, there are caveats related to its exception to the humanitarian support that arrived in previous years through the official channels of the United Nations to the Assad regime, which acquired and distributed it on the basis of loyalty. There is also ambiguity about the law's position on cross-border trade exchanges between regime-controlled and non-regime-controlled areas.

The Syrian opposition also fears that the Biden administration will take a tougher stance towards Turkey represented by the Justice and Development Party government, which is the most prominent remaining international ally of the Syrian opposition. Turkey hosts a large part of the Syrian opposition and its main bodies outside the country, and has a military presence in the last Syrian provinces outside the control of the Syrian regime or the People's Protection Units. One of the opposition's main concerns is the increase in US support for the People's Protection Units to ensure that it strengthens its grip on northeastern Syria, despite signs of instability in that region due to administrative errors on the one hand and the attacks of the Syrian regime and ISIS on the other. This support reached thousands of loaded trucks during the Obama era, according to the Turkish government's account with weapons [43].

It is likely that President Biden is distinguished from Obama by being more decisive in making decisions regarding the Syrian file, and from Trump by being more interested in the file [44]. Therefore, it is expected the return of an international consensus similar to the international coalition of the Friends of Syria, especially with the new administration dusting off previous international alliances that the Trump administration has ignored and many of which have left. This consensus will be more inclined to revive a political process on Syria within the frameworks of the United Nations, but it will face the challenge of understanding with Turkey, and putting pressure on Russia to push the Syrian regime to accept a political transition. What is important herein is to anticipate all these assumptions when the administration ignored the Syrian opposition during negotiations with Iran, as the Obama administration did.


2) Biden's foreign policy team

In his choices for his administration officials, Biden tried to balance between a return to the international arena and caution about intervening in more military conflicts. The two best examples to illustrate this are the appointment of the Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, who will be the most senior officials besides the President on foreign policy. While Blinken's presence may be a catalyst for a righting wrong in Syria, having Austin on the same team may dampen enthusiasm for any more positive Syria policy. Therefore, it was correct to call this team “the right team at the wrong time.” The administration of President George W. Bush at the beginning of the last decade needed parties in the administration capable of restraining the hawks in it, but now this balance may lead to a reluctance to intervene in Syria again.

The appointment of Anthony Blinken as Secretary of State indicates the Biden administration's intent to return to a liberal approach that promotes democratic values ​​in foreign policy while recognising past mistakes. Although Biden avoided talking about Syria, Blinken acknowledged the Obama administration’s mistake and called for the support of US partners in northeastern Syria, to maintain pressure on the Assad regime, and to engage in a diplomatic path to a solution [45]. But this appointment may also indicate Biden's intention to repeat Obama's experience. Blinken was a member of the foreign policy team throughout Obama's presidency, when he rose through positions from National Security Adviser to the Vice President, to Deputy National Security Adviser to the President, and then to Deputy Secretary of State. So there is no doubt that Blinken played a role in shaping the policy towards Syria, which was described as a fiasco, as he himself admitted that, but there is another appointment that may be more frustrating for the Syrians, which is the appointment of Lloyd Austin as Minister of Defense.

As commander of US Central Command, retired General Austin planned and executed the military campaign that eliminated ISIS. It is likely; however, that his reading of the Syrian scene was one of the reasons for the American reluctance to intervene to reduce the tragedy of the Syrians. In a famous hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2015, and in response to the committee chair, the late Senator John McCain, Austin emphasized that he did not recommend imposing a no-fly zone in Syria to stop the Assad regime’s devastating barrel bombs on Syrians, nor did he advise creating a buffer zone Refugees resort to it. At the hearing, McCain described the response of Austin and his other colleagues from the Obama administration as the most detached answer he had ever heard in such hearings, and described the Obama administration's policy in Syria as a terrible failure [46]. But there is a belief that Austin does not bear a large part of Obama's legacy in Syria due to his quiet nature away from the limelight and his tendency to carry out orders rather than propose and dispute policies. Austin shared Biden the reservations about keeping US forces in Iraq in 2011, and on intervening to eliminate ISIS in Syria in 2014. [47]

Biden's policy toward Syria faces another determinant, which is placing the Syrian file in the context of "endless wars"[48] increasingly in Washington recently, which makes it difficult to develop a concrete and effective policy. With the advance of the anti-war forces and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, reservations about talking about a leading American role in international politics increased. Therefore, the new administration in the White House faces a challenge not limited to the Democratic House of Representatives and the Republican Senate, but extends to its internal ranks who hold differing visions towards foreign policy.


3) The American presence in Syria

The US military presence in northeastern Syria and in the southeast at al-Tanf base, is one of the most important cards in the hands of the Biden administration in dealing with the Assad regime and its allies, who broke every agreement signed with them regarding Syria during ten years. Therefore, it is likely that the new administration will maintain and strengthen this presence further [49]. Biden's assertion of his intention to keep forces in northeastern Syria after his sharp criticism

Trump has withdrawn some of these forces from the few declared positions of Biden on Syria in the past few months [50].


4) Biden's policy towards the Kurds

Biden has maintained a supportive position for the Kurds during the past four decades, since his criticism of President Bush's complacency in the early 1990s, which led to the Iraqi forces regaining control of predominantly Kurdish areas in northern Iraq. In 2002, Biden, in a statement before the Iraqi Kurdistan Parliament, affirmed his support for the Autonomous Administration of Erbil, saying: "The mountains are not your only friend." He also suggested, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, the adoption of a federal model that would ease sectarian tensions and ensure Kurdish self-administration. And in May 2015, Biden informed Massoud Barzani, then-president of Iraq's Kurdistan region, that he shared his hopes for the region's independence when he said, "We will see an independent Kurdistan in our lifetime." In 2019, Biden was a vocal critic of Trump's withdrawal of part of the American forces from northeastern Syria, which allowed the Turkish forces to control the lands in which they were present.

Biden's presence in the White House; however, will limit his personal hopes within the framework of the broader American agenda in the Middle East, as it has limited them as Obama’s Vice President. In 2010, Biden and Obama asked Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to step down in favor of a non-Kurdish president. This request was unreasonable given that the consensus in Iraq is that this position is for the Kurds.

In 2014, Biden supported then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, when he reduced the budget allocated to the region and removed Kurdish elements from the Iraqi army. So, despite his promise to Barzani that he will see an "independent Kurdistan" in his life, Biden is aware of the consequences of this step. In 2007 he warned Kurdish leaders against seeking independence when he said that the Turks and the Iranians would "eat you alive, and attack you, and it would be an all-out war," while stressing that the United States would not be able to support them.

What is to be add to this is the incoming US Secretary of State Tony Blinken's earlier call for US military support for the YPG to be conditional by the units' commitment not to use these weapons against Turkey, handing over the city of Raqqa after its control to local forces, respecting the territorial integrity of Syria, and declaring secession from the PKK. With the Kurdistan Workers’ Party [51], Biden is likely to maintain limited support for the Kurds in Syria that protects them from the periphery, not going so far as to support their independence or their controlling of more lands, and perhaps pressure to reach an agreement with the Turkish side [52].



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