In recent weeks, Washington’s Middle East watchers have been abuzz with talk of U.S. President Joe Biden’s ongoing Syria policy review. During its first months in office, the Biden administration’s approach to Damascus has been notably cautious; unlike his predecessors, Biden has yet to appoint a high-level Syria envoy or to sanction a single person or entity connected to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s authoritarian regime. But even though Biden would clearly prefer to pursue other foreign policy goals, Syria will increasingly demand his attention.
The decadelong Syrian conflict began as a popular uprising against Assad’s rule before morphing into a civil war dominated by U.S.-designated terrorist organizations. Today, it has become a truly global battlefield, where military forces from five countries—Iran, Israel, Russia, Turkey, and the United States—conduct operations against different foes in pursuit of disparate goals.
Meanwhile, it has become clear that Assad will stop at nothing to keep his rickety regime in power. His government’s brutal tactics have forced half of all Syrians from their homes: 6.6 million are now refugees in other countries, and an additional 6.7 million are internally displaced and wholly dependent on international aid. Yet the regime’s continued use of chemical weapons (long after its program was supposedly destroyed in 2013), its hosting of Russian- and Iranian-backed forces, and its flagrant, industrial-scale production and trafficking of missiles and narcotics all suggest that Assad has grown comfortable with his country’s transformation into something akin to a North Korea on the Mediterranean. The Trump administration’s response to the Assad regime’s metamorphosis offers valuable insights and lessons that could help the Biden team get better results.
The only plan for resolving the Syria conflict that has won international backing is UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Passed unanimously in 2015 after extensive diplomatic efforts by the Obama administration, the resolution calls for a nationwide cease-fire and a process through which Syrians—including those outside the country—can establish “credible, inclusive and non-sectarian governance,” draft a new constitution, and hold “free and fair elections” under UN supervision.
Instead of pursuing these goals, however, the Assad regime and its patrons in Russia and Iran announced fake cease-fires and used massive aerial bombardments to seize opposition-controlled territory in the name of fighting terrorist groups. In 2016, such tactics led to the dramatic fall of the city of Aleppo, which had been an opposition stronghold. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who at the time was serving as deputy secretary of state, has described that outcome as a U.S. foreign policy failure that “I will take with me for the rest of my days.”
The Trump administration, eager not to repeat its predecessor’s mistakes, carried out its own policy review in 2017. At first, U.S. President Donald Trump signaled that he might give up on Syria altogether. In a late-night tweet he wrote in July 2017, he revealed the existence of a covert CIA program to aid Syrian rebels and derided the effort as “wasteful.” Then, in a November 2017 meeting in Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin negotiated a cease-fire in an opposition-held pocket in southwest Syria adjacent to the Golan Heights. When Assad violated the cease-fire in mid-2018, midlevel U.S. State Department officials negotiated a deal in which the United States would withdraw support for opposition forces in the southwest in return for Russian assurances that those forces would not be imprisoned and that Iranian-backed militias would leave the area. When Russia and the Iranian proxies failed to live up to those promises, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo ordered the implementation of a new policy (originally developed under his predecessor, Rex Tillerson) intended to change the behavior of the Assad regime and the calculations of its Russian and Iranian patrons.
The policy had a number of priorities: defeating the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) by supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and other opposition groups; stabilizing liberated areas and allowing for the safe return of refugees; expelling Iranian-backed forces that had been entering Syria since the conflict began in 2011; and devising a settlement to the war that would strengthen regional security. That would include what the U.S. State Department described as “irreversible progress” on constitutional reform and preparations for free and fair elections in Syria as outlined in the UN resolution.
To achieve these objectives, the Trump administration tried to sanction and diplomatically isolate the Assad regime and deny reconstruction funds to regime-held areas. Washington also undertook military action in Syria in response to chemical weapons attacks, alongside Turkish and Israeli military operations.
Behind the scenes, the Trump administration, like its predecessor, quietly worked with Russia to find a diplomatic solution whereby progress on Washington’s goals would lead to the gradual softening of sanctions and other pressure on Assad. Although some characterized Trump’s strategy as regime change by stealth, the approach was focused only on changing the regime’s behavior. The hope was that the adoption of the UN resolution would improve governance in Syria, return sovereignty over Syrian territory to a representative government in Damascus, and allow foreign forces to eventually withdraw.
Washington successfully defeated ISIS by supporting the SDF, but progress on its other goals was sharply constrained by Trump’s attempts to withdraw U.S. forces from northeast Syria and the administration’s extreme reluctance to extend U.S. stabilization assistance to the Kurdish-dominated SDF. To bridge the funding gap, Washington issued a license to allow the U.S. oil company Delta Crescent Energy to improve Syrian oil fields and introduce mobile refining capacity into northeast Syria. The idea was to make the fight against ISIS self-sustainable and to keep the SDF from trading crude oil with the Assad regime in return for refined product—a practice that remains perhaps the dirtiest economic “secret” of the Syrian war.
As pressure on Tehran and the Assad regime grew, Israeli sources noted a reduction in the presence of Iranian-backed groups in Syria. But Iran did not fully withdraw its proxies from their positions west of the Euphrates River and elsewhere, and Israel continued carrying out strikes on Iranian targets in Syrian territory. Today, Iran remains a major political, economic, and military supporter of the Assad regime.
But Washington and its allies achieved little progress on implementing the UN resolution and changing the Assad regime’s behavior. Assad’s foot-dragging led to the failure of multiple rounds of constitutional reform talks in Geneva. The blatant rigging of the May 26 presidential poll in Syria, in which the regime claimed that Assad won the backing of 95 percent of voters, offers little reason for optimism about Assad’s willingness to allow for political opposition. And the regime and its Russian patrons brand as “fake news” credible reports that Syrian forces continue to use chemical weapons.
Nevertheless, the Assad regime remains extremely fragile. Last year, Assad had a rare open dispute with his maternal cousin, Rami Makhlouf, who has allegedly handled the illicit financing of the regime’s family-controlled businesses for years. Makhlouf was pushed out of the inner circle, with his prior role reportedly going to Asma al-Assad, the dictator’s wife. Asma is a Sunni, and by placing her in charge of such crucial state functions, Assad was introducing for the first time a Sunni into the core of a regime that is dominated by members of the minority Alawite sect. The move led to griping among Syrian Alawite elites, which Makhlouf has attempted to exploit via social media posts.
Meanwhile, U.S. sanctions introduced in 2019 have dramatically increased economic pressure on Assad and have helped lead to a roughly 250 percent decrease in the exchange rate between the Syrian pound and the U.S. dollar since late 2019, the severe depletion of regime coffers, and corresponding cuts in regime subsidies that have exacerbated fuel and food shortages for everyday Syrians. Critics of U.S. sanctions argue that such steps increase the suffering of Syrians, but many Syrians blame the collapse of Lebanon’s currency and banking system, which had serviced Syria for decades, as the primary reason for Syria’s economic woes. Syrians also blame checkpoints that the Assad regime and Iranian-backed groups have set up throughout regime-controlled areas that charge exorbitant “customs” fees. Either way, the Assad regime is more susceptible to economic pressure now than at any time in its history.
During the final year or so of Trump’s term, Assad and his Russian and Iranian sponsors played for time, hoping that Trump would lose the 2020 election and betting that they would get a better deal from Biden. Nearly six months later, a few contours of Biden’s Syria policy are now discernible. Washington is committed to the enduring defeat of ISIS by reaffirming the U.S. military presence and reissuing the stabilization aid to northeast Syria that the Trump administration had cut. It is also committed to alleviating humanitarian suffering in Syria. In March, Blinken delivered an impassioned speech at the UN in support of renewing a resolution that allowed for cross-border humanitarian assistance to flow into areas of Syria not controlled by the Assad regime. Earlier this month, senior administration officials worked hard to stave off a threatened Russian veto of the resolution and to expand the number of humanitarian crossings from one to three. In the end, the resolution was renewed for only one crossing for six months, with the possibility of another six months following a report that the UN secretary-general will deliver on the issue in January 2022.
What Washington was willing to give up to achieve these goals—especially in advance of Russia’s vote on the border-crossing resolution—has been the source of some controversy. Only days after Assad’s sham election victory in May, the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control ended Delta Crescent Energy’s license to operate in Syria. Critics of Delta Crescent say that its operations amounted to little and were unsustainable. But ending the company’s license will constrain the U.S.-backed SDF in northeast Syria, and the group is already struggling to fund its operations thanks to an economic crisis caused by drought, sealed borders, and the 2020 collapse of oil prices. If Delta Crescent can no longer operate in the region, the SDF will have no other option than to continue to trade oil with the Assad regime, which undermines the strategy that Washington has pursued since the Obama administration.
Ending Delta Crescent’s license had been a major Russian demand of U.S. Syria policy. With Delta Crescent out of the picture, a company called Gulfsands Petroleum hopes to make inroads. According to a report published by MEES, a firm that analyzes the energy industry, Gulfsands’ primary shareholder is a Russian investor “believed to have close ties to the Kremlin.” The company has a production-sharing agreement in Syria with a state-owned Chinese company, Sinochem, and the Syrian General Petroleum Corporation. Gulfsands has stated that it plans to develop some of the fields that Delta Crescent is set to relinquish as soon as late August. This has led some critics to speculate about the existence of a quid pro quo, with Washington ending Delta Crescent’s license in exchange for Moscow’s support for continuing to allow humanitarian aid to cross the border into areas of Syria that the Assad regime does not control. (The Biden administration has denied this claim: “The decision not to renew the license for Delta Crescent [Energy] had nothing to do with the Russians,” an unnamed senior administration official told the online news site Al-Monitor. “Humanitarian access is not something we think should be traded for,” the official added.)
Meanwhile, it remains unclear how the Biden administration will deal with Iran’s continued presence in Syria and the Assad regime’s many other illicit activities that pose strategic threats to the United States, its allies, and the global community. It appears likely that Biden will stop trying to isolate the Assad regime. Advocates of that approach believed that Gulf countries would normalize relations with Damascus and offer it reconstruction assistance after Assad’s rigged reelection. Nearly two months after the election, however, that has yet to occur. Other signs, however, suggest that Syria’s isolation might soften. Greece has announced that it will reopen its embassy in Syria, although without an ambassador. And the UN resolution renewing cross-border assistance calls for the first time for progress on “early recovery projects”: humanitarian-related activities that are considered a first step toward reconstruction and that wealthy Gulf countries may now find acceptable to fund.
The best instruments in Washington’s Syria policy toolbox remain sanctions. In its last six months in office, the Trump administration hit 113 individuals and entities with sanctions. But they have had little effect on the regime’s behavior so far, largely because they are still relatively new and the regime hopes to get a better deal from Biden. The Biden administration must use sanctions much differently if it hopes to achieve a different result. Broad-based sanctions on individuals should be reserved for crises. To limit the impact that economic warfare has on people simply trying to eke out a living in the misery of the Syrian conflict, and to make sure that humanitarian activities can proceed, the administration should expedite licenses to international nongovernmental organizations providing aid throughout Syria. This could include licenses for NGOs in regime-controlled areas, as long as the Assad regime and Russia continue to allow for international humanitarian access outside regime-controlled areas. Licenses and waivers that allow for crucial humanitarian work can be renewed; those abused by the regime and its supporters can be eliminated.
A new Syria policy must be carefully calibrated to avoid getting mired in bureaucracy and competing interests. The Biden administration should appoint a special envoy for Syria charged with developing what the Trump team never did—a coherent political strategy, supported by the U.S. intelligence community, to isolate Assad and his regime’s facilitators and limit the malign influence of Iran and Russia. Without such a strategy, it will be impossible to achieve a viable diplomatic settlement to the Syrian war. Washington will continue to struggle with threats emanating from Syria for years to come, and Syrians will lose another generation to the conflict.