(Analysis) Too Little Too Late? President Biden’s Syrian Policy and Regional Security Implications

Jonah Brody
Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman shakes hands with newly reinstated Syrian President Bashar al-Assad ahead of the Arab League Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, May 19, 2023. Source: Reuters

Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria is undergoing a diplomatic revival. Nations that ostracized Assad after the outbreak of the nation’s civil war in 2011, such as Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), have all agreed to normalize relations with him. Assad was also reinstated as a member of the Arab League on May 9 after twelve years of suspended membership.

While Assad is enjoying his diplomatic resurgence, American President Joe Biden is facing growing criticism for not doing anything to prevent it. Since taking office in January 2021, Biden has balked at carrying out his stated policy on Syria and failed to follow American legislation dictating how to react to normalization. Whether Biden decides to follow through with established policy or to accept normalization remains to be seen. Notwithstanding, his decision of whether to act or not could significantly impact the regional security environment for the foreseeable future.

The Biden Administration’s Syria Policy

During his campaign for the 2020 presidential election, Biden promised to create a more comprehensive approach to marshal the international community to act on Syria and hold Assad accountable. Officially speaking, the Biden Administration has laid out four policy priorities for ending the conflict in Syria: continuing the campaign against the Islamic State (ISIL), supporting local ceasefires, expanding humanitarian access, and pressing for accountability and respect for international law while promoting human rights and nonproliferation.

However, it is clear that the Biden Administration is not “pressing for accountability” as Middle Eastern nations reestablish diplomatic relations with Assad. Nor is he enforcing American law related to Syria. According to the 2019 Caesar Act, the US is supposed to prevent any normalization with the Assad regime. As such, the federal government would have to sanction any nation, whether friend or foe, for opening to Assad.

As the Biden Administration continues to take a passive approach toward curbing normalization, political leaders in Washington are more openly voicing their discontent. In January 2022, the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate and House Foreign Relations Committees wrote that they “urge [Biden] to utilize the robust, mandatory deterrence mechanisms” under the Caesar Act “to maintain the Assad regime’s isolation.” They followed this up again in March 2023, highlighting their apparent frustration with the “disappointingly slow pace of sanctions under the Caesar Act” while also arguing “more can be done to ensure that perpetrators of atrocities in Syria face consequences for their actions.” Despite this vocal opposition to Biden’s inaction, officials insist that the administration’s Syria policy “remains unchanged.”

Assad’s Earthquake Diplomacy

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad greets people affected by the earthquake in Aleppo, on February 10, 2023. Source: Le Monde/AFP

While Arab states were quick to break relations with Syria in 2011, a slow thawing of relations has brought back the Assad government into the regional fold. American allies have notably been at the forefront of this shift. In late 2018 and early 2019, the UAE and Bahrain restored formal ties with Assad. In the summer of 2021, Jordan decided to do so as well.

More recently, Assad has been capitalizing on tragedy to bolster his standing with other states in the Arab world. On February 6, earthquakes struck northern Syria and southern Turkey. The impact was worse on the Turkish side, but 6,000 Syrians are believed to have lost their lives, and some estimates envision around $5 billion will be needed to rebuild the affected areas. Assad has taken advantage of this event to generate sympathy for the victims, normalize relations with others, and influence international opinion on sanctions in what some call “earthquake diplomacy.”

Since the earthquake, Assad has received the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers and visited the UAE and Oman. More crucially, Saudi Arabia has joined the fold of warming up to Assad since the natural disaster. In early March, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud argued that attempts at isolating Syria were not working and that engagement with the Syrian government was needed. After increased dialogue between Syrian and Saudi officials throughout March and April, Riyadh decided to reestablish diplomatic relations on May 9.

Rationale for Normalization

Renewed relations between Arab states and Syria have three primary causes. The first of which is the acceptance that Assad is here to stay. By recent estimates, he has expanded government control over Syrian territory from 20 percent in Spring 2013 to 70 percent. Foreign attempts to oust Assad from power, notably the American “maximum pressure” approach, have seemingly failed. The only chance of Assad leaving power appears to be by resigning, which he has refused to do on multiple reprieves, and all indications point to the fact he will not abandon his position any time soon. As such, Arab states recognize it is best to work with whoever is in power if they are here to stay.

The second reason is Arab states want to prevent the total collapse of Syria, and they will have to work with whoever is in power to do just that. Many analysts have classified Syria as a failed state, but the situation could continue to worsen. The Syrian economy is currently at its weakest point since the outbreak of the civil war. These Arab states could fear that if they do not work with Assad and extend an economic lifeline, renewed violence against the regime could recommence and spill into the wider region.

The third reason is that working with Assad could serve as a mechanism to weaken Iranian influence in the country and the wider Arab region as a whole. Iran and Syria have long enjoyed a close relationship, which Tehran has exploited to expand its influence beyond its border and encroach on Arab states. As Tehran inches closer to acquiring nuclear weapons and the American footprint in the region continues to dwindle, there is an apparent sentiment that the balance of power is tipping toward Iran. As such, opening to Syria could serve as a way to undermine Iran. Tempting Assad with assistance and normalization could remove Damascus from the grasp of Tehran.

Biden’s Possible Policy Options and Security Implications

President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Source: Bloomberg

How the Biden Administration responds to normalization will have significant ramifications on the security environment of the Middle East. If Biden continues his de-facto passive approval for normalization or moves to embrace it openly, there is a chance Arab states could weaken Iran’s influence in Syria. Reports are circulating regarding a potential multilateral Arab deal whereby regional states will recognize Assad, send billions of dollars of aid for Syrian reconstruction, and pressure the US and Europe to rescind the sanctions against Syria. In exchange, Assad will commit to meet several conditions, including his agreement to reduce the Iranian presence in Syrian territory. Weakened Iranian influence in Syria would be welcome news to Arab states who feel surrounded by Tehran and to the United States, whose troops in Syria face attacks from Iranian-backed militias.

However, normalization comes with immense humanitarian and security risks that could outweigh this benefit. First, normalizing Assad would prolong Syrian suffering. Syrian refugees have indicated they feel unsafe returning to Syria as long as Assad remains in power. Recent reports have highlighted the abuses committed by Syrian security forces against returning refugees. The trend toward normalization showed nations were already forcing refugees to return home. As normalization expands, the pressure to return refugees will grow throughout the region as states begin to believe the war in Syria is officially over.

Second, normalization with Assad would strengthen the position of Russia in the region. Assad and Russia maintain close ties, with the former allowing the latter to have a military presence within its controlled territory. Normalization would ensure Russia could continue this presence for the foreseeable future, which poses a risk to Syrian civilians and American forces fighting ISIL. Russian soldiers in Syria have reportedly committed multiple human rights abuses against the civilian population and have gotten into altercations with American troops.

Third, normalization would reassert the presence and standing of ISIL. Assad has previously relied on ISIL to help squash the Free Syrian Army opposition and for oil. As normalization offers his rule more legitimacy, he may continue to enable and facilitate the continued survival of ISIL “in an effort to paint all of the Syrian opposition as ‘terrorists,’” allowing him to increase the territory he controls.

If Biden chooses to act, his likely move would be to leverage sanctions on nations that have or are beginning to normalize relations with Assad under the Caesar Act. While it may appear counterproductive to sanction allies, evidence shows that allies are more susceptible to sanctions than rivals. For instance, Turkey buckled to American sanctions in 2018 when the Trump Administration sanctioned its NATO ally for refusing to release an American prisoner. Since the United States is the largest weapon supplier to Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, the Biden Administration could leverage the prospect of future weapon sales or parts needed for equipment maintenance. These states might then reconsider their relationship with Assad while others in the region think twice before risking the prospect of American sanctions.

Still, this policy choice is not a risk-free move for the Biden Administration. America’s allies in the Middle East have feared that the United States is no longer concerned with regional affairs. States like Saudi Arabia and the UAE have hedged towards China recently. Arab leaders might feel that, if slapped with American sanctions, the United States no longer has their best interest at heart. Potential sanctions might therefore be the blow that sways the Arab states from the American camp to the Chinese one, effectively installing Beijing as the Middle East’s new security architect. However, the Biden Administration might have to aggravate his regional allies in order for Assad to be held accountable for his crimes.

Suggested Readings:

Yacoubian, Mona. Syria’s Stalemate Has Only Benefitted Assad and His Backers” United States Institute of Peace, March 2023.

Lister, Charles. “We’re abandoning Syria and our D-ISIS policy.” Middle East Institute, May 2023.

Heydemann, Steven. “Syria’s Normalization Signals a New Middle Eastern Order.” Brookings Institute, May 2023.

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(Analysis) Too Little Too…

by Jonah Brody time to read: 7 min