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Trump, Biden and the Syrian ‘Red Line’

Trump, Biden and the Syrian ‘Red Line’

Friday, 13 November, 2020 - 07:45
US forces patrol oil fields in Syria, Oct. 28, 2019. (AP)

The latest American sanctions against Syrian individuals and entities had been prepared weeks ago. Those overseeing this file decided to postpone their implementation until after the US election.

They believe that the American policy on Syria will not change with the change in administration and that the Republicans and Democrats are in agreement over this file. Is this true? What are the differences and similarities between the approach of US President Donald Trump and President-elect Joe Biden?

The latest sanctions tackle figures and entities linked to Syria’s oil industry, official security and military figures and members of the National Defense Forces, and political officials and members of parliament. They are the fifth list of sanctions that have been released since the Caesar Act went into effect in June. The bill has so far targeted over 90 individuals and entities and US officials state that the sanctions and pressure will continue and the policy will remain unchanged with the arrival of the Biden administration. There are no differences over how this issue should be tackled because the Caesar Act was approved by Republicans and Democrats.

The Act is one of many tools at Washington’s disposal to use against Damascus. It also boasts its military presence east of the Euphrates River, the al-Tanf military base and the support of the Syrian Democratic Forces that are deployed in oil-rich regions. The US is also exerting pressure against Arab and European normalization of relations with Damascus and is depriving it of necessary funds to rebuild the war-ravaged country. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin have repeatedly declared that Washington will continue to exert economic pressure on the Syrian regime and its backers.

As part of these efforts, Washington had pressed Arab and European countries against taking part in the Russia-organized two-day international conference in Damascus on the return of refugees that was held on Tuesday. The conference was consequently boycotted and Arab League officials were reportedly quoted as saying that “no Arab consensus is in place for restoring Syria’s membership. Damascus must take the first step by requesting help so we can help it.”

What is the US seeking to gain from all this? It wants the permanent defeat of the ISIS terrorist group, the withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria and implementation of a political solution based on UN Security Council resolution 2254.

American officials have gone so far as to “advise” the UN mission in Syria of the need to be “more transparent” in pointing blame on sides responsible for obstructing the work of the Constitutional Committee. It should also exert more efforts in ensuring the implementation of resolution 2254 that calls for a comprehensive ceasefire, holding UN-monitored elections, resolving the issue of prisoners in Syrian jails and carrying out confidence-building measures.

The Biden administration will not alter any of these goals, but the observers believe that the priorities will change. They believe that with the new administration, the military presence east of the Euphrates will be more stable and deeper coordination will be introduced between local allies in the SDF and among the Europeans, specifically Britain and France. In other words, incidents that leave officials red-faced will be avoided, such as when western envoys allied with Washington visited Qamishli to discuss new projects there were taken off-guard by Trump’s decision to withdraw from the region.

At the same time, it is unlikely that the Biden administration will comply with the demands of Turkey on Syria. It is doubtful that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan will be able to extract from Biden similar pledges he extracted from Trump over the withdrawal of American forces to pave the way for the Turkish military and its allied Syrian factions to deploy in the “Peace Spring” region. All signs indicate that Biden leans closer to the Kurds than Turkey.

Ultimately, with the new administration, Washington will seek to invest in pressure cards, such as the Caesar Act, its military deployment and promises of normalization and reconstruction. It will seek to exert more pressure on Ankara and Damascus and hold negotiations with Moscow and Tehran. The Syrian file will be more closely linked to regional and international developments.

As for Iran, Biden wants Washington’s return to an amended nuclear deal that addresses its malign meddling in the region, including Syria. Turkey wants to weaken the Kurds and expand in the region – including in Syria - in rivalry and cooperation with Russia. Israel, which has signed normalization deals with Arab countries to counter the Iranian regional threat, wants to prevent Tehran from entrenching itself in Syria.

In all likelihood, Biden will encounter his first Syrian test with the launch of negotiations to determine the fate of missing American journalist Austin Tice, who disappeared in Syria in 2012. This will be an opportunity to determine whether the time is right to kick off peace negotiations between Damascus and Tel Aviv.

Observers believe that Biden will lead the policy of a “third Obama administration” in the region, after all he was there when the former president declared his so-called “red line” in Syria back in 2013. He famously never followed through with his threat and many believe that the “shadow” of the red line still looms large over Washington.

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