| 30 May 2024, Thursday |

US: Syria is not a priority on Biden’s agenda.

When he was vice president under Barack Obama, US President Joe Biden advocated a stricter US policy in Syria, disagreeing with the former president when he backed away from enforcing a red line on chemical weapons in 2013 and advising caution in arming rebel groups.

But as the Syrian conflict enters its 11th year, there are no signs that Syria will be anywhere near the top of Mr Biden’s Middle East agenda, or that he will become involved militarily beyond retaliatory and counter-terrorism strikes in the country.

While the previous two US administrations appointed a special envoy to Syria, Mr Biden has not yet done so, although he has assigned special envoys to Yemen and Iran.

Instead, the Biden team has kept Aimee Cutrona as acting special representative for Syria engagement and has for the most part run the file from the White House, as well as desk officers at the State Department and the Pentagon.

Charles Lister, senior fellow and director of the Syria and Countering Terrorism and Extremism programs at the Middle East Institute think tank, describes the first two months of the Biden policy on Syria as a continuation from Donald Trump’s administration.

former US ambassador Jeffrey Feltman sees a need for more flexibility from the US on the issue of sanctions.

“US policies over the last 10 years have not helped the Syrian people build a better future in their own country,” Mr Feltman, now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute think tank, told The National.

The former US diplomat and UN undersecretary general for political affairs says the new administration has to “look forward and backwards at the same time”.

It should “look backwards, in terms of keeping up the pressure for accountability for the deaths and destruction of Syria, and forwards in terms of what the United States could do to try to reduce additional suffering”, Mr Feltman said.

“Syria is probably not at the top of the list of US foreign policy priorities. But it is a subset of many that do appear high on that list, from terrorism to Iranian policy to security to Israel to human rights, and thus cannot be ignored.”.

Mr Feltman is calling for a new approach that uses sanctions to force the regime to offer concessions. “The economic situation is spiralling downward, creating different types of existential pressures on the Assad regime.

“Yes, the Iranians and Russians bailed [Bashar Al] Assad out militarily. But I can’t see them willing or able to take on the long-term task of bailing him out economically.”

He proposes publicly setting out a list of tangible steps for the Assad regime to take in return for the temporary suspension of sanctions.

Those steps would be co-ordinated with the Russians and could include prisoner releases, greater respect for human rights, political reform – including decentralisation – and good faith participation in the UN’s Geneva process.

Mr Feltman is not putting the onus on the Assad regime, with which whom he tried to negotiate with good faith measures in the past.

What has changed now, he said, is the economic situation, with the Syrian lira at historic lows, and possible Russian pressure, especially if such a proposal is tied to the cross-border issue at the UN in July.

“[Mr Al Assad] might refuse,” Mr Feltman said, which would “demonstrate – as if more proof was needed – that he remains the primary obstacle to a brighter future for Syria”.

At the State Department, a US official was not willing to discuss sanctions relief or any rapprochement with the Assad regime.

“The extremely dire humanitarian crisis in Syria is a direct result of the Assad regime’s blocking of life-saving assistance, systemic corruption and economic mismanagement,” the official said.

He called on “the regime and its supporters to engage seriously in political dialogue and allow humanitarian assistance to reach communities in need”.