Move away from the arena of eternal wars – the “Greater Middle East”?
Since taking office, the Biden administration has begun revising U.S. foreign policy. Central to this is the desire to move away from the “Greater Middle East,” the arena of eternal war. Afghanistan is the clearest example of this shared momentum. From there, the United States has already withdrawn its troops. On Iraq, the decision has been made: the Americans will complete their combat mission there by the end of the year, but some of them will remain for training and consulting the Iraqi military.
The time has come to decide what to do with the military presence in Syria.
During its first months in power, the Biden administration approached Damascus with extreme caution, which experts have often called “neglect.” In particular, it was indicated that Washington did not appoint an envoy for Syria, refused to receive representatives of the Syrian opposition, and did not react to the violation of anti-Syrian sanctions by Arab states. Only after 10 months of Biden’s presidency, at the end of September, his administration returned to Syrian politics.
On September 20, 2021, Ethan A. Goldrich took over as Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Middle East Affairs, in charge of Syria and Lebanon. Negotiations were immediately held with a delegation of the anti-Assad coalition, which is located abroad. The Syrians were accompanied by staff from the American Institute for the Middle East.
In negotiations of this format, specific decisions are not made, therefore, the opposition was promised to pursue a policy towards the Assad regime, which will be determined by the “three no”: “No normalization, no lifting or reduction of sanctions, no money for reconstruction until a political solution is found.”… The opposition would like President Biden to publicly reaffirm these three “no’s,” but so far they haven’t succeeded.
And before the talks, it was clear that Washington would not normalize relations with the Assad government. As far as sanctions are concerned, American assurances are at odds with real policy. America appears to be easing pressure on Syria’s neighbors, and Damascus’s isolation is beginning to crack.
Recently, the ties of the Arab countries with the Assad government have begun to be restored. On September 19, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayub visited Amman for the first time since 2011. Jordan reopened its main Jaber-Nassib border crossing and announced the resumption of commercial flights between Damascus and Amman. There was a reason to say that the US mild response to sanctions violations was like tacit approval. Or, rather, again, to “disregard” the Syrian affairs.
It was not without embarrassment, pointing to the uncertainty in the US Syrian policy. The State Department’s press service first welcomed the decision to resume flights between Syria and Jordan, and then dropped the welcome announcement a few hours later. As a result, Jordan’s decision to resume flights between the capitals was canceled.
At the same time, the Biden administration did not even try to cancel the earlier decision to resume natural gas supplies from Egypt to Lebanon via the Arab gas pipeline, which runs from Egypt through Jordan and Syria to Lebanon. Yes, the implementation of the project is complicated by the US sanctions against the Syrian government, but Washington made an exception at the request of Lebanon. The plan, which the Egyptian minister said will be implemented soon, is part of a US-backed effort to address Lebanon’s electricity shortages. And this plan also helps the Americans to contain Iranian influence in Beirut.
Amid the crisis, the Tehran-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah has announced that it will supply fuel oil from Iran to alleviate the electricity shortage in Lebanon. Iranian fuel enters Lebanon from the Syrian port of Baniyas, where it is transported by Iranian tankers. Hezbollah offers institutions, schools and orphanages in need a month’s supply of fuel for free. The growing popularity of Hezbollah creates the risk of upsetting the political balance in Lebanon in favor of Iran. Therefore, Washington went to negotiations with Egypt, Jordan and the World Bank to help find a solution to the crisis in Lebanon with the participation of Syria.
It is believed that this shift in US policy is a reflection of the Biden administration’s understanding of the current situation in Syria. Not recognizing the Assad government, Washington cannot but take into account that with the support of Russia and Iran, Damascus has been successfully resisting the uprising for a decade. So far, the Assad government does not control the entire country, but the opposition has become much weaker. As the fighting continues, Assad’s opponents are less likely to win this war.
Russia’s military assistance focuses on training and equipping the Syrian armed forces, providing air support and conducting special operations. On the part of the Russian Federation, Syria has diplomatic protection at the UN and other international organizations. After the outbreak of the civil war in 2011, Russia vetoed 16 Security Council resolutions related to Syria. On many of these votes, Moscow was backed by China, which vetoed 10 Security Council resolutions. It is hard to deny that Moscow prevented the collapse of the state in Syria.
Bashar al-Assad has now secured a fourth seven-year term in office by winning the May 26 elections. The Assad regime is entrenched in power, and Washington is making it clear that it will not take action to overthrow it. At the same time, the Biden administration is considering options to continue supporting its local partners in the north-east of the country and increasing assistance for stabilization in Syria as a whole.
In the early months of Biden’s presidency, the US provided $ 50 million in aid. The United States pledges almost $ 600 million more in aid to Syria, but insists in the UN Security Council on the restoration of all cross-border routes. The 2014 agreement allowed four cross-border crossings, but this number was reduced to one. When discussing this issue in the Security Council, Russia and China have objections. Moscow’s position is that the UN should only deliver aid through Damascus, with full respect for the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in cooperation with the central authorities.
As for the American military operation in Syria, it has not changed, and, apparently, thousands of American troops will remain in the country for the foreseeable future.
After seven years of the American military presence in Syria and two attempts by Trump to withdraw American troops, the Pentagon argues that the Biden administration has no plans to make any changes to the size of the American military contingent. Confirmation of this appeared after Biden and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Qadimi announced the end of the American military mission in Iraq, but agreed to leave US troops in the country.
Experts point to a direct connection between such a decision by Biden and Washington’s desire to retain 9,000 American troops in Syria. This is explained by the fact that the main route of access to American forces in northeastern Syria runs across the border with Iraq. The Pentagon says the withdrawal of troops from Iraq could negatively affect the Syrian US military mission, forgetting that Congress never authorized the sending of American troops to Syria, let alone support Kurdish separatists. Nevertheless, the Kurds have become the most important allies of the United States, receiving military support from Washington. The Foundation for the Defense of Democracies has boasted that Joe Biden will be the most “pro-Kurdish” US president ever.
Biden’s support for the Syrian Kurds is fraught with serious costs for the United States. The problem is not limited to Syria. A long-standing desire for an independent Kurdish homeland inspires Kurds in Iraq, Iran, Turkey; the governments of these countries are determined to thwart Kurdish independence.
As for Damascus, the presence of American troops prevents the Syrian government from gaining access to the oil fields and agricultural resources of northeastern Syria. For Tehran, the US military mission in Syria is hampering the goal of creating a geographic corridor connecting Iran with Lebanon and the Mediterranean.
The United States’ approach to ending the Syrian conflict over the past decade has failed at all levels. Currently, about 6.7 million Syrians have fled their homes, 13 million are in need of humanitarian assistance, and 80% of the population lives in poverty.
However, the United States has not-so-limited interests in Syria. Using the influence the Americans have over Kurdish forces, the Biden administration expects to contain the growing influence of Russia and Iran and continue to put pressure on Damascus, supporting the separatist aspirations of the Kurds.
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