The Biden administration is mulling over America’s role in Syria’s ongoing conflict as the U.S. tries to break away from Middle East wars, but Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat already has been busy on the ground, trying to win support for a Syria approach that could establish Russia as a broker of security and power in the region.
The new U.S. administration has yet to say how it plans to handle Syria, which is now fragmented among a half-dozen militaries — including U.S. troops — owing to a war that has killed and has displaced millions. The conflict includes al-Qaida affiliates, 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 starvation to crush what had started out as a peaceful uprising. The conflict just entered its 11th year.
Dealing with Syria's war will test the Biden administration's determination to focus on Asia and not the Middle East. If the United States diminishes its presence, Russia and other hostile U.S. rivals are poised to step in and boost their regional stature and resources.
Hence Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's Middle East tour this month.
Lavrov stood by as the foreign minister of a Gulf state generally friendly to Washington, the United Arab Emirates, delivered a message in line with Moscow's position: U.S. sanctions on Syria's Russia-supported 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 Syria war is over, Assad has won, Assad will be in power as long as he is breathing oxygen," said Frederic Hof, who served as a U.S. Syria adviser and envoy in the Obama administration.
Hof said there was an unstated part of the message: Russia plans to be on hand as “Syria is built from the ashes,” benefiting from any international reconstruction resources coming in, and positioning itself as the broker to manage the security threats that Syria poses to the region.
Hof and James F. Jeffrey, a career diplomat under Republican and Democratic administrations who served as President Donald Trump’s Syria envoy, argue for the United States to remain a significant presence in the country, citing Russia's ambitions.
“If this is the security future of the Middle East, we’re all in trouble,” Jeffrey warns. “That’s what Putin and Lavrov are pushing.”
The Biden administration is reviewing whether it should consider Syria as one of America's most important national security problems.
It's shown no sign yet of doing so. Notably, where President Joe Biden has spelled out some other Middle East problems as priorities — including Yemen’s war and Iran’s nuclear program, for which Biden appointed envoys — he and his officials have said and done little publicly on Syria.
In Congress, Syria is at the heart of a congressional debate over whether to reduce or end the authorities given to presidents to conduct military strikes in the aftermath of 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 member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Congress has sidelined itself in some of the most important decisions that a country can take.”
One of Biden’s few public mentions of Syria since taking office came last week, when he listed it among international problems that the U.N. Security Council should do more on.
Marking the 10th anniversary of the start of the Syrian conflict last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken in a statement with European counterparts emphasized the need for humanitarian aid for Syrian civilians and accountability for the Assad regime.
U.S. troops are helping protect an opposition enclave in northeast 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 leverage” in negotiations over the international handling of Syria, rather than an ongoing force.
Spokespeople with the National Security Council and State Department declined to answer specific questions on Biden's Syria policy, including whether the administration sees the Syria conflict as a major national security threat or plans to appoint an envoy.
Biden follows Obama and Trump in seeking to minimize the United States’ military role in the Middle East and shift the focus of U.S. foreign policy to Asia, where China has been increasingly aggressive.
But the Middle East's conflicts and the United States' own strategic schemes have a way of pulling Americans back. Biden last month became the sixth consecutive U.S. president to bomb a Middle East target, hitting an Iranian-allied militia in Syria that had attacked American and allied personnel in neighboring Iraq.
Some current and former U.S. diplomats for the Middle East have argued Syria is not a top security threat for the United States.
Robert S. Ford, an Obama administration ambassador to Syria with years of diplomatic experience in the region, concluded in a Foreign Affairs article last year that Washington should move toward pulling its troops out of northeast Syria, arrange for Russia and others to deal with jihadist fighters, and put the United States' money toward helping the war's refugees.
But Hof and Jeffrey, two others who dealt with Syria for past administrations, argue against withdrawal.
“If I were an ISIS leader now trying desperately to organize an insurgency to come back” in Syria, “I would pray that that advice be taken,” Hof said. For the Islamic State group, “if you can have as your enemies the (Syrian) regime, the Iranians and the Russians, it doesn’t get any better than that.”
A test of Biden administration intentions is looming, as Russia seeks to use its U.N. Security Council position to shut down a humanitarian aid route into part of Syria not under control of the Russia-supported Syrian government, notes Mona Yacoubian, senior Syria adviser for the U.S. Institute for Peace think tank.
Maintaining or bolstering the U.S. footprint in Syria will be important, Yacoubian said — not just as leverage in political negotiations, but also to shape the rules of the game for Russia's presence in the Middle East. And other immediate goals for the international community remain: making life “more manageable and less miserable for Syrians,” she said.