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Will the Regional Initiatives Work with Damascus?

Will the Regional Initiatives Work with Damascus?

Tuesday, 28 September, 2021 - 07:15
Charles Lister
Charles Lister is a senior fellow and Director of the Countering Terrorism and Extremism Program at the Middle East Institute

Nine months after the arrival of President Joe Biden into the White House, a new American foreign policy “philosophy” for the Middle East is beginning to emerge. Several previous administrations have sought to “pivot away” from the Middle East, but in doing so, they have disengaged too quickly and too much. The Biden administration is subtly different – it too wants to “pivot away” and focus its attention and resources elsewhere, principally towards a great power competition with China, but it understands that it cannot detach altogether from the Middle East.

From the Israeli-Palestinian question, to conflicts and instability in Yemen, Syria, Iraq and elsewhere, the Biden administration is pursuing a policy of delegated stabilization, whereby US allies in the region are being encouraged to negotiate, mediate and resolve regional issues with limited and distant US oversight. In other words, unlike President Trump, the Biden administration no longer wants to be the “policeman,” “judge” and “mediator” and this is being realized through a series of burden-sharing arrangements.

In some cases, devolving local mediation and diplomacy to local actors is a strategically smart and well-timed move. For the first time in many years, there is an Israeli government in Jerusalem that might potentially be interested in exploring small but meaningful moves towards de-escalation with the Palestinians and an enhanced relationship with the Palestinian Authority. While the US could coax both actors in the right direction, there is little need for direct US involvement. A similar dynamic is in place in Iraq, where the US remains an important diplomatic and military partner to Baghdad and Erbil, but not the determinant of internal or regional decision-making.

In Syria however, the Biden administration’s current approach promises neither stability nor sustainability. From early-on in Biden’s time in office, Syria policy was narrowed down to two primary priorities: humanitarian aid and countering ISIS. To give the administration its well-earned credit, a determined diplomatic effort in the United Nations successfully achieved a 12-month cross-border aid extension and both the State Department and Department of Defense have signaled clearly and consistently that there is no intention to withdraw troops from Syria’s northeast. But on the diplomatic front, the administration has done little if anything to advance the political process and until now, has shown little interest in appointing an influential figure to the Special Envoy’s still empty seat.

With the US markedly absent from any serious diplomatic push, Syria’s regional neighbors have understandably stepped forward to arrange their own localized resolutions. Jordan and its monarch King Abdullah have emerged as the most visible leader in this new dynamic – recently mediating a regional plan to supply Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon, via Jordanian and Syrian soil. Multiple ministerial-level visits have been exchanged between Amman and Damascus. Most recently, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Ayyoub visited Jordan – the first such visit in 10 years – to discuss countering terrorism and drugs smuggling. That the Syrian regime is both a narco state of global proportion and remains the most potent driver of violent extremism in Syria makes such a visit painfully ironic.

Nevertheless, encouraged by the Biden administration’s hands-off approach and clearly signaled disinterest in driving forward Syria diplomacy, the trend towards regional re-engagement with Assad’s regime is clear and unlikely to reverse. Although Jordan’s various engagements and initiatives are entirely understandable in the current circumstances, they are not premised on a strategy that is aimed towards long-term stability.

The persistent instability and crisis seen in Daraa should be a wake-up call for those who believe that simply engaging Damascus will bring the fruits of relationships that existed before 2011. Two-and-a-half years later, the regime has violated virtually every condition of Daraa’s “reconciliation” agreement and exacerbated all the root causes of Daraa’s 2011 uprising. Having previously lent its tacit acceptance to the regime’s takeover in mid-2018, Israeli officials now express deep concern and some regret about their previous assessment that Assad could or would stabilize southern Syria. Absent a major change, Daraa now looks destined for years of chronic instability, humanitarian suffering and in all likelihood, future terrorist activity. Daraa is also a key epicenter of a Hezbollah-linked weapons and drugs smuggling operation with regional reach.

During his visit to Washington in July, King Abdullah was right to ask for clarity from the Biden administration on what its demand for “behavioral change” from Assad’s regime amounted to, and to demand US action in achieving it. It is unfortunately true that Assad appears to be here to stay, but that should not result in his neighbors nor the international community at large merely gifting him a free hand. If the nations of the Middle East want Syria to cease being a source of deadly instability, organized crime and terrorism, then they must mobilize in unison to demand meaningful changes that will ameliorate the many root causes of the crisis still in place today. Should such an initiative gain steam, it might just be enough to stimulate the US and its European allies to push it towards the finishing line.

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