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Rivals are jockeying for position as Biden considers a strategy for the Syrian conflict.



Rivals are jockeying for position as Biden considers a strategy for the Syrian conflict.
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Rivals are jockeying for position as Biden considers a strategy for the Syrian conflict.

Rivals are jockeying for position as Biden considers a strategy for the Syrian conflict.


As the Biden administration considers its place in Syria’s ongoing conflict as it seeks to distance itself from Middle East wars, Vladimir Putin’s top diplomat has already been on the field, trying to win support for a Syria strategy that could position Russia as a regional security and power broker.

Due to a war that has killed millions and displaced millions, the new US administration has yet to say how it wants to tackle Syria, which is now divided among a half-dozen militaries — including US troops. Al-Qaida affiliates, Islamic State forces, and other jihadist groups willing to use Syria as a base are all involved in the fighting.

Russia and Iran have intervened to keep Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, after he used chemical weapons, barrel bombs, and hunger to put down what began as a peaceful uprising. The war is now in its eleventh year.

Dealing with Syria’s war would bring the Biden administration’s commitment to concentrate on Asia rather than the Middle East to the test. If the US reduces its influence in the region, Russia and other aggressive US adversaries are poised to step in and increase their regional power and wealth.

As a result, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov is touring the Middle East this month.

Lavrov stood by as the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, a Gulf state that is traditionally friendly to Washington, delivered a message that echoed Moscow’s position: US sanctions on Syria’s Russia-backed regime were impeding international efforts to rebuild Syria. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan said that it is time to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world.

In other words, Russia’s message is that “the Syria war is over, Assad has won, and Assad will be in power as long as he is breathing air,” according to Frederic Hof, a former Obama administration Syria advisor and envoy.

According to Hof, an unspoken part of the message is that Russia intends to be present as “Syria is rebuilt from the rubble,” benefiting from any foreign reconstruction funds and positioning itself as the mediator to handle the region’s security challenges posed by Syria.

Hof and James F. Jeffrey, a career diplomat who served as President Donald Trump’s Syria envoy under both Republican and Democratic administrations, argue that the US should maintain a substantial presence in the region, citing Russia’s ambitions.

“If this is the Middle East’s security future, we’re all in trouble,” Jeffrey warns. “Putin and Lavrov are pushing for that.”

The Biden administration is debating whether Syria should be considered one of the country’s most pressing national security issues.

It hasn’t shown any signs of doing so yet. President Joe Biden has made other Middle East issues a priority, such as Yemen’s war and Iran’s nuclear program, for which he named envoys, but he and his officials have said and done nothing publicly about Syria.

Syria is at the center of a congressional controversy on whether or not presidents should have the authority to launch military strikes in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

The debate began with President Barack Obama’s consideration of military strikes in Syria, according to Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat and member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. “Congress has taken a back seat in some of the most consequential decisions a country can make.”

Last week, Biden made one of his few public mentions of Syria since taking office, when he mentioned it among international issues on which the United Nations Security Council could focus more.

Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken issued a statement with European counterparts commemorating the tenth anniversary of the start of the Syrian war, emphasizing the need for humanitarian relief for Syrian civilians and transparency for the Assad regime.

In northeast Syria, where oil and natural gas are found, US troops are assisting in the protection of an opposition enclave. Blinken framed the military position as a “point of leverage” in negotiations over the international handling of Syria during Biden’s campaign last year, rather than a permanent power.

Officials from the National Security Council and the State Department refused to address detailed questions about Biden’s Syria strategy, such as whether the administration considers the Syrian conflict to be a significant national security concern or whether an envoy will be appointed.

Biden is following in the footsteps of Obama and Trump in attempting to reduce America’s military presence in the Middle East and change the country’s foreign policy emphasis to Asia, where China has become more assertive.

However, the Middle East’s wars, as well as the US’s own diplomatic plans, have a way of drawing Americans out. Last month, Biden became the sixth president of the United States to bomb a Middle Eastern target, striking an Iranian-backed militia in Syria that had targeted American and allied troops in Iraq.

Syria, according to some current and former US Middle East diplomats, is not a top security threat to the US.

In a Foreign Affairs article last year, Robert S. Ford, an Obama administration ambassador to Syria with years of diplomatic experience in the region, concluded that the US should begin pulling its troops out of northeast Syria, arrange for Russia and others to deal with jihadist fighters, and devote US funds to aiding the war’s refugees.

However, Hof and Jeffrey, two other former administration officials who dealt with Syria, argue against withdrawal.

“I would pray that that advice is pursued if I were an ISIS leader now desperately trying to coordinate an uprising to return to Syria,” Hof said. “It doesn’t get any better than having the (Syrian) government, the Iranians, and the Russians as your enemies,” the Islamic State group says.

According to Mona Yacoubian, senior Syria advisor at the US Institute for Peace, a test of Biden administration intentions is looming, as Russia tries to use its U.N. Security Council role to shut down a humanitarian aid route into parts of Syria not controlled by the Russia-backed Syrian government.

Maintaining or bolstering the US presence in Syria would be critical, according to Yacoubian, not only as leverage in diplomatic talks, but also to form the rules of the game for Russia’s Middle East presence. Other immediate priorities for the international community remain, she said, making life “more manageable and less miserable for Syrians.”

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