It is no longer a question of if but when Joe Biden will completely abandon Syria. The question also involves the short-term future, as the answer could come in the next few months or even the next few weeks. Recent statements by senior members of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party suggest that the party is approaching the point of returning to Bashar Assad’s fold. Moreover, Moscow’s active mediation in this regard indicates that it is putting the final touches on the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s return and the return of areas east of the Euphrates to state control.
Undeniably, the most significant development is the resumption of nuclear talks between Tehran and Washington at a time of Tehran’s choosing. The Biden administration seems eager to return to negotiations whatever the cost. Meanwhile, the gains that Tehran seeks are dispersed across the four Arab capitals that Iranian officials have boasted of controlling. Tehran wants to secure at least some of these gains during the negotiations as an expression of “Washington’s good intentions” and as confirmation that the nuclear agreement won’t be followed by new pressure or talks regarding Iran’s expansion in the region unless the goal is to acknowledge those issues.
Linking the matter of Syrian, in particular, to negotiations with Iran is nothing new. That was the case with the Obama administration, which began withdrawing from Syria to save Assad, along with “the first secret rounds” of the nuclear talks. The two issues were also strongly linked during Donald Trump’s term in office. Even though Trump wanted to pull troops out of Syria to Moscow’s favor, he changed his mind for fear that withdrawal could benefit Tehran. Subsequently, when the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act of 2019 took effect, it provided Trump with an alternative and inexpensive tool for exerting pressure. The Trump administration enthusiastically and vigorously applied the Caesar Act, whereas the Biden administration seems more interested in limiting its effects.
It’s worth noting that the policy of economic sanctions can neither bring down this type of tyrant nor push him to make concessions. For this reason, the Caesar Act was designed to put pressure on Assad’s partners, who would, in turn, exert pressure on Assad out of concern for their interests. Moreover, the Caesar Act derives its significance and effectiveness from the U.S. military presence in the area east of the Euphrates and the fact that the area’s oil, water and agriculture resources are kept out of Assad’s control.
Armed with the Caesar Act and with fewer than 1,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria, Washington has managed to tighten the noose around Assad at minimal cost as well as gain military access to the Tehran-Dahiyeh* corridor.
Given that control over resources east of the Euphrates is the factor that gives the Caesar Act maximum efficacy, a withdrawal from the area would strip the sanctions of any impact. This is true because these resources – without exaggerating their scale – could save Assad’s collapsing economy and spare Tehran and Moscow the burden of having to provide aid to Assad.
In terms of its impact on morale, a withdrawal from the area east of the Euphrates would be correctly interpreted as a sign that Washington had played its last card and completely abandoned efforts to impede Moscow and Tehran in Syria. In all likelihood, the U.S. government will refrain from further increasing sanctions under the Caesar Act and will suspend any further application of this law beyond this point, lest it send a false signal that could be perceived as U.S. interest in the Syrian issue.
Trump once complained that by abandoning Syria, the Obama administration left him with no options. About two years ago, Congress passed the Caesar Act to arm Trump with the weapon of sanctions. The law provides that the president cannot suspend the Caesar Act unless certain conditions and restrictions are met and evidence of Assad’s compliance is made available. More importantly, the Caesar Act is a statute, and it can only be undone by Congress, not by the administration. The process usually involves several public hearings and ultimately requires a majority vote.
By comparison, Tehran is asking that the Biden administration provide assurance that a return to the nuclear agreement would be determinative, that is, a guarantee that no future president pulls out of the agreement the way Trump did. The only legal mechanism in the United States that offers such guarantees is ratification of the agreement as a treaty by both houses of Congress. However, the Biden administration almost certainly won’t go down that road because there is no majority that supports a nuclear agreement. Accordingly, any nuclear deal will remain an executive order that can be undone without returning to Congress.
It is not inconceivable that Biden would compensate for whatever assurances he cannot provide by offering Tehran concessions at the regional level. This time, however, Biden might offer Tehran bigger and more robust concessions than Barack Obama did, which would make it difficult for any Republican successor to reinstate Trump’s policy or adopt something similar. Such strategy might avoid significant opposition from the centrists within the Democratic Party. At the same time, it would please the progressives in the party who blame Obama for not taking his policy further and imposing it as a fait accompli for the long run. Biden might resort to taking such executive action in order to overcome the legal obstacles he faces, especially as he will be aided by a prevailing mood among Americans that indiscriminately favors noninterventionist policy on issues where national security is not at risk.
This way, Biden could obscure the effects of the Caesar Act using his authority to withdraw troops from Syria, and the diminishing threat of the Islamic State, the reason U.S. troops were originally deployed, provides him with a ready excuse. For the Biden administration, a pullout won’t seem like much of a price to pay, and it could be offered to Tehran behind the scenes of the nuclear negotiations. In turn, Moscow is ready to oversee such a step, from managing the rules of engagement between Tehran and Tel Aviv to arranging for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party’s gradual return to the Syrian fold.
Additionally, the Biden administration won’t have to decide whether or not to withdraw from Syria the way it did in Afghanistan. There is absolutely no comparison between the scale of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and its presence in Syria, and no comparison between America’s objectives in each country.
Most likely, a U.S. withdrawal from Syria will be gradual, and it could start by handing over the oil and gas fields, and having Assad’s forces secure the border with Turkey, something that would please Ankara as it would keep Syrian Democratic Forces militants away from is territory.
There could be a strategy resembling the Daraa offensive at play, but slightly modified so that the Biden administration could delay abandoning the Kurdish autonomous administration until Russia mediates a final agreement between the Kurds and Assad. This would make it appear that the United States supports any agreement the Kurdish stakeholders reach.
It is also not hard to speculate about what will happen to the understandings that will be forged with the Kurdish autonomous administration and its forces. In the minds of the Assad regime, the recent Daraa scenario is ready to be implemented. Similarly, it is also time to shelve the U.S. government’s concern about the situation in Syria, and its not-so-very-strong condemnation of Assad alongside the Caesar Act.
*Translator’s note: Dahiyeh is the southern suburb of Beirut, a Hezbollah stronghold.
**Translator’s note: The Syrian army launched a military offensive in July 2021 to fully recapture the area of Daraa al-Balad, in Daraa province, although the Syrian regime had signed a reconciliation agreement in June 2018 guaranteeing that the area would remain free from the regime’s control.