Can Biden Solve Obama’s ‘Syrian Regret’?

The new year of 2021 has dawned. After Joe Biden’s inauguration as the 46th president of the United States on Jan. 20, the new U.S. policy toward the Middle East will be in full swing. It raises many questions about how the Biden administration’s policies toward the Middle East will unfold. For example, we are curious about the change in the Syrian policy, which has been pushed out of the Trump administration’s priorities.

Syria’s civil war, which broke out in 2011, created the worst humanitarian crisis. The death toll is estimated to have exceeded 500,000 people. It is estimated that 12.5 million Syrians, more than half of the population, fled home and abroad. More than 90% of Syrians are suffering from poverty. What’s wrong? One of the various causes is the failure of the Barack Obama administration’s strategy, which pushed forward without a fierce analysis of the situation in Syria.

In the wake of the Syrian civil war, Obama appeared hesitant to intervene, advocating what he called “strategic patience,” a reflection of fatigue from the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, Obama warned Syrian President Bashar al-Assad not to cross the red line, that if the Assad regime used chemical weapons, it would face stern military intervention.

In August 2013, a chemical weapon attack in the city of Ghouta, south of the Syrian capital Damascus, killed a number of civilians, including children. When the red line set by the United States was crossed, the world’s attention was focused on President Obama. Washington demonstrated conflicting policy confusion and failed to punish. Later, as Islamic State expanded its power, in September 2014, Obama began a full-fledged military intervention to defeat the Islamic State group in Syria. However, the U.S. strategy to fight the Islamic State group in Syria has been criticized for weakening anti-government forces and strengthening Russia’s influence. One way or another, the Obama administration’s response to Syria makes it hard to give a generous score.

Obama also seems to admit that his policy judgments were wrong. In an interview with the German NTV broadcast in November 2020, Obama confessed, “The tragedy in Syria continues to cause me real pain.” From this point of view, I wondered how Obama’s memoir, “A Promised Land,” addressed Syria. Despite the 768-page volume of the book, there were few mentions of Syria. In his memoir, which ranked first as a best-selling book during its publication, Obama said, “Our options were painfully limited.”

Watching Obama’s reflective agony, I felt that Biden was not free from criticism. Didn’t the vice president directly or indirectly affect the Obama administration’s policy decisions? As such, shouldn’t Biden also feel responsible for the difficult reality that Syrians are experiencing? Sure enough. In November 2020, Biden’s transition team called in James Jeffrey, special envoy to the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, to focus on the Syrian issue.

Based on the analysis of the situation in Syria, what kind of policy response will Biden prepare? During the presidential campaign, Biden also mentioned the Kurdish issue in Syria, criticizing the decision of the Trump administration to withdraw troops from Syria. For this reason there is a possibility that the U.S. may pursue policies that contribute to resolving the Kurdish problem in northeastern Syria while restoring its political influence.

Above all, more than 600 U.S. troops remain in Syria despite significant troop cuts. Therefore, there is great interest in the extent to which the Biden administration will maintain the size of U.S. troops and whether changes in military strategies to block the possibility of the Islamic State group rebuilding will emerge. In addition, it is important to note whether the diplomatic process for the establishment of peace in Syria can be successfully implemented while coordinating conflicts with Russia on the international stage. We hope that the Biden administration’s new Syria policy will relieve Obama’s worries.

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