Strategic incoherence continued: US policy towards Syria under Biden

American determination to draw down in the Middle East, which characterized the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, appears likely to prevent the development of any coherent strategy.

U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 16, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
U.S. President Joe Biden participates in a conference phone call in the Oval Office of the White House on Feb. 16, 2021. Credit: Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson.
Jonathan Spyer
Jonathan Spyer

On May 27, 2021, the U.S. administration decided not to extend the sanctions waiver for the American oil company Delta Crescent, related to the company’s activities in northeast Syria. The waiver, issued in December 2020, had enabled the company to trade oil extracted there, in the area of the country controlled by the U.S.-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.

The waiver had been initiated by the Trump administration. The decision not to renew it appears to reflect a desire on the part of President Joe Biden to dismantle policies seen as “holdovers” from the previous administration. Paradoxically, the broader context of the decision demonstrates a certain continuity between the two administrations; namely, their hesitant, erratic and often ambiguous policy regarding Syria. Beyond an inconsistently applied desire to avoid major commitments, there seems to be an absence of any clear strategy regarding Syria.

The effect of this is felt beyond the lands which the Kurds call “Rojava,” their semi-independent zone in Syria. It has implications for the U.S. position regarding Syria as a whole, and for policies in Iraq. Recent events in northeast Syria are part of the broader U.S. lack of strategic clarity in the Levant and Iraq.

The decision regarding the company does not appear to presage a major shift in the U.S. stance towards northeast Syria, or Syria as a whole. That is, ambiguity appears set to remain, while no major U.S. break with the current pattern of deployment in Syria appears imminent. In fact, abandonment of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy towards Iran and its allies appears to further detract from the coherence of U.S. policy in northeast Syria.

The U.S. presence in Syria

At present, the United States has around 900 troops in Syria. About 200 are deployed at the Tanf base in the far south of the country, close to the Jordanian border. The remainder are in northeast Syria, in the area controlled by the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), a Kurdish-dominated body whose armed forces are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This force works in close cooperation with the United States, though Washington does not recognize or have official relations with the AANES.

The relationship with the SDF is the product of notable success for U.S. practitioners of counterinsurgency. The Obama administration in 2014 took a strategic decision to destroy the Sunni Islamist quasi-state established by the Islamic State organization in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). ISIL declared itself as a Caliphate at the al-Nuri Mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Iraq, on June 29, 2014. Having set this goal and wishing to avoid a major ground commitment of U.S. forces, the United States needed a local force with which to partner for the ground campaign which would be necessary to destroy the ISIS quasi-state. The Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) was the partner the U.S. Department of Defense identified for this mission.

Since summer 2012, the YPG has been in control of territories lying directly in the face of the ISIS advance. It was a capable, united, non-jihadi force, as it had established in previous combat against Sunni Islamist insurgents in such areas as Ras al-Ain (Sere Caniye) in 2013. However, the YPG was a creation of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) organization, which is on the U.S. and E.U. list of terror groups, and which is engaged in an insurgency against Turkey.

The U.S. Department of Defense constructed the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 around the core of the YPG, to prevent allegations that it was “allying” with the PKK or the Syrian Kurds. The SDF proved fit for purpose. After a long and bloody campaign, the last territorial holdings of ISIS in the lower Euphrates valley were recaptured by the SDF (with U.S. air support) in mid-2019. That campaign is justly held up as an example of successful U.S. counterinsurgency.

But Islamic State was ultimately not the chief cause of or the main factor in the ongoing instability in Iraq and Syria. Rather, it was a symptom of a larger process in which the states in question have partially fragmented, and no longer maintain the monopoly on violence within their borders. As a result, a series of conflicts are taking place, largely based on forces mustered according to the various ethno-religious elements of the populations of these countries.

Several international actors, who have accurately grasped this dynamic, are conducting coherent proxy strategies within the space in question to acquire power and influence within them. The most significant of these are Iran, Turkey and Russia. All three countries have their clients within Syria. These are, for Iran: the Assad regime and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-linked militias seeded by Teheran during the war; for Turkey, the remnants of the Sunni Islamist insurgency against the Assad regime in northern Syria; and for Russia, the Assad regime and the state structures still left standing. Each of these countries is firmly and openly committed to its clients. They are using the clients to advance their economic and strategic interests.

By comparison, the U.S. relationship with the SDF is partial and incoherent. Under President Donald Trump, the waiver to Delta Crescent appears to have been granted as part of an effort by administration officials to convince the president that a concrete U.S. interest (of the type he could comprehend) existed in Syria. That was control of Syria’s oil resources, 90 percent of which are in the SDF-controlled area. This was to preserve the U.S. presence in Syria, for reasons other than oil.

Officials within the Trump administration clearly saw a value in controlling this part of Syria, as a partial barrier to Iranian advances and to retain some U.S. leverage for any future political arrangement in the country. This is the view also of U.S. allies Israel and Jordan, both of whom sought to prevent the full implementation of Trump’s decisions to withdraw troops from Syria in December 2018 and October 2019.

U.S. relations with the SDF play a similar function to those of other external powers with their clients in Syria. But clarity of purpose and strategic partnerships are lacking in the U.S. case. This derives from the partial and context-specific nature of the partnership, which has now extended beyond its initial context (the war against ISIS), but without being clearly defined.

An unnamed official speaking to The Daily Beast defined the goal of the U.S. presence in northeast Syria as “enduring defeat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict … and the removal of all Iranian-supported forces.” This sounds coherent and entirely positive. But it is not clear on what mandate these goals rest and who decided upon these goals—or even if these views in fact reflect administration policy, never mind perspectives in Congress.

It should be noted that the lack of clarity also reflects the positions of the AANES and its associated bodies. In conversation with this author, sources close to the AANES and SDF said that they were aware of the desire of the previous administration to involve them in a regional effort against Iran, but that they had no desire to be drawn into conflict with Tehran given their precarious strategic situation.

No withdrawal expected

Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria derived from his close relations with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan of Turkey. Biden is far warier of Turkey. Biden appears to have no intention of withdrawing from northeast Syria, and is less likely than his predecessor to suddenly announce major policy reversals. Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood visited northeast Syria, and later defined the current key U.S. goal as ‘“delivery of stabilization assistance to liberated areas to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Some regional media have suggested that the abandonment of Delta Crescent might be part of a quid pro quo deal, by which Russia might remove its current objection to the use of the Yarubiya border crossing from Iraq into the AANES controlled part of Syria. In late 2020, Moscow pressured the United Nations to end funding for programs bringing aid via this crossing without permission from the regime in Damascus. This has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in this area.

Such a rationale would explain the abandoning of the Delta Crescent waiver. Delta Crescent was not a lynchpin of U.S. policy. But the stop-start, erratic nature of U.S. policy leads to wariness on the part of allies, who then tend to hedge their bets by developing relations with adversaries or other forces. For example, the AANES is currently selling oil to the Assad regime and engaging in a major illicit oil trade with elements based in the rival Kurdish autonomous administration in Erbil, northern Iraq. All this takes place either against the will of, or without reference to, the United States.

The Syrian Kurds did not set hope in the Delta Crescent waiver. What they want is a general waiver for their area related to sanctions against Syria, because they believe their rule should not be caught up in policies related to the crimes of the Assad regime. But given the partial and provisional nature of Washington’s support, any such commitment is unlikely to be forthcoming.

The U.S. presence in northeast Syria is positive. Without it, Washington would lose leverage in Syria, and Russia and Iran would have a stronger hand in determining the future of the country, to the detriment of U.S. allies. But the tentative nature of the U.S. commitment, as reflected in the latest decision regarding Delta Crescent, reduces its value.

What is needed is a coherent U.S. commitment to the support of allies and the facing down of enemies (Iran and Sunni Islamists)—across the land space of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The limited commitment in northeast Syria would form a part of any such strategy.

However, the U.S. determination to draw down in the Middle East, which characterized the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, appears likely to prevent the development of any such strategy.

The U.S. presence in northeast Syria made sense as part of Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on both Iran and Assad’s Syria. The survival of the AANES partially blocks Iranian access to Syria and keeps Assad deprived of both oil and wheat resources. But since the Biden administration appears to be abandoning this policy and seeking rapprochement with Iran, policy regarding this area is heading in the direction of greater incoherence.

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is the author of “Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars,” and “The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict.” He is a regular contributor to “Jane’s Intelligence Review,” has published in leading journals and media outlets, including “Middle East Quarterly,” “The Times (of London),” “Foreign Policy,” “The Wall Street Journal” and “The Guardian. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
You have read 3 articles this month.
Register to receive full access to JNS.

Just before you scroll on...

Israel is at war. JNS is combating the stream of misinformation on Israel with real, honest and factual reporting. In order to deliver this in-depth, unbiased coverage of Israel and the Jewish world, we rely on readers like you. The support you provide allows our journalists to deliver the truth, free from bias and hidden agendas. Can we count on your support? Every contribution, big or small, helps JNS.org remain a trusted source of news you can rely on.

Become a part of our mission by donating today
Thank you. You are a loyal JNS Reader.
You have read more than 10 articles this month.
Please register for full access to continue reading and post comments.
Never miss a thing
Get the best stories faster with JNS breaking news updates