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Syria and the Biden Administration: A Midlife Crisis

With Biden halfway through his presidential term and amid the preparations of his administration to back the Democratic Party contesting the Congressional midterm elections, the Biden administration policies on the Middle East don’t seem to be any clearer, offering nothing new under the sun. 

There is almost a universal agreement among observers that the engagement of the Biden administration with issues in the Middle East isn’t beyond “minimal”, particularly if questions are raised about the US vision on Syria and Iraq amid the presence of US military forces supposed to have been deeply engaged in interactions in the two countries for a decade.

Today, the Biden administration seems reluctant to embrace high aspirations, after it has gradually abandoned investing adequate political capital to achieve any breakthroughs, particularly given the fact that the Iraq and Syria crises are clearly linked to counter-terrorism efforts and closely connected with the growing Iranian capabilities in relation to the interests of Washington’s allies, who moved forward with the US for years to find themselves standing alone.

Joe Biden is actually more familiar with the Middle East issues than any other US president in decades, but the picture seems more complicated beyond the realm of knowledge and understanding. Those surrounding Biden say the US policy in the Middle East has changed dramatically over the past years, which many in the region seem to haven’t understood yet –or maybe aren’t willing to believe. Protecting oil wells and its modes of transportation, securing sea routes, and protecting Israel, by forging alliances and establishing regional partnerships is no longer a priority for the United States given the decline of oil as a strategic commodity, the US reaching self-sufficiency in oil, and Israel enjoying regional stability, which makes Israel’s existential dangers a thing of the past. If the relatively stable countries in the region can cope with this US strategic transformation, other countries –primarily Iraq and Syria which aren’t in a position to withstand an Afghanistan-like scenario– remain confused about this transformation that does not seem coherent or careful to put in order the region the US stayed in for decades. 

As for Syria whose file seems more complicated and uncertain, US experts have identified three main goals of the Biden administration on the Syrian file, namely defeating IS, pushing for a ceasefire, especially in western Syria, and ensuring access to humanitarian assistance, particularly to northwestern Syria in Idlib and northern Aleppo. Along with these goals, there are a set of considerations that aren’t any less important. First, the United States does not have as much power – other than the sanctions’ weapon – to urge the Assad regime to make concessions that serve its goals. Second, after years in Syria, the United States has failed to possess a deterrent mechanism for the Russian-Iranian influence and infiltration that affect Damascus’s decision and its resistance to the weak US pressure. Finally, there is Washington’s commitment to its allies in the Syrian Democratic Forces not to withdraw, particularly with the non-opposition of the public opinion to the continued involvement of the US forces in counter-terror operations in the Kurdish areas in northern Syria, to prevent IS from restoring its capabilities in Syria or Iraq.

The US administration is mindful of these considerations, which leaves it with limited alternatives amid fears of withdrawal of its forces from Syria, which threatens dire consequences similar to what happened in Afghanistan which would hurt Biden’s popularity and extend to affect the Democratic Party and its potential candidates. There is a current in the Democratic Party that does not shy away from announcing the US complete failure in Syria, stating that portraying the situation otherwise is aimed at embellishing the image of the current administration that did not receive legacy from the previous administration that might justify these complications. The former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, believes that the idea of the US overthrowing Al-Assad is over, particularly given the fact that Washington is managing the Syrian crisis through incentives and concessions. What is less clear for Ford, as he declared, is how Bashar al-Assad will respond to these concessions and how the Syrian regime will see what the United States permits as regards purchasing and transferring energy and gas across the border. 

This is not distant from recent revelations of contours of the US administration image, which seems more of a “midlife crisis”, particularly it spent its first year in office evaluating the performance of previous administrations in the Syrian file and looking into the existing options, to come out with a modest policy focusing on responding to the humanitarian needs of the Syrian people, supporting the UN settlement, and announcing refusal to support Arab normalization with the Assad regime.

According to psychologists, people suffering could experience a midlife crisis, visible signs of which include severe depression, turning to introversion in the hope of self-control and understanding, sustained criticism of everything, and creating problems due to tense relations with others. Importantly, these signs lead to a feeling of delusional reality that opens the door for blaming one’s self for most of the decisions taken before, making the decision to leave all responsibilities and assign them to others an imagined refuge, in hope of salvaging the remainder of one’s life. Aren’t these signs so obvious on the US administration’s handling of the Syrian crisis as well other files, suggesting a structural crisis that the Biden administration may not be realizing or not willing to admit?

Today, US experts describe Biden’s policy toward Syria as inconsistent and contradictory, and say that the gap between statements of the Biden administration and its policy on the ground harms the US credibility, strengthens the Syrian regime, Russia, and Iran, and cause the West to lose the remaining pressure cards that would enable it to defend the basic human rights of Syrians.

This article was originally published in Al-Watan newspaper on 17 January 2022.

Khaled Okasha
General Manager

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