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Strategic Incoherence Continued: US Policy Towards Syria Under Biden

US determination to draw down in the Middle East, which characterized the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, appears likely to prevent the development of any coherent strategy.


On May 27, 2021, the US Administration decided not to extend the sanctions waiver for the American oil company Delta Crescent, related to the company’s activities in northeast Syria.  The waiver, issued in December 2020, had enabled the company to trade oil extracted there, in the area of the country controlled by the US-backed and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces.  

The waiver had been initiated by the Trump Administration. The decision not to renew it appears to reflect a desire on the part of President Joe Biden to dismantle policies seen as ‘holdovers’ from the previous administration of Donald Trump. Paradoxically, the broader context of the decision demonstrates a certain continuity between the two administrations; namely, their hesitant, erratic and often ambiguous policy regarding Syria. Beyond an inconsistently applied desire to avoid major commitments, there seems to be an absence of any clear strategy regarding Syria.

The effect of this is felt beyond the lands which the Kurds call “Rojava”, their semi-independent zone in Syria. It has implications for the US position regarding Syria as a whole, and for polices in Iraq. Recent events in northeast Syria are part of the broader US lack of strategic clarity in the Levant and Iraq. 

The decision regarding the company does not appear to presage a major shift in the US stance towards northeast Syria, or Syria as a whole. That is, ambiguity appears set to remain, while no major US break with the current pattern of deployment in Syria appears imminent. In fact, abandonment of the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” strategy towards Iran and its allies appears to further detract from the coherence of US policy in northeast Syria.  

The US Presence in Syria

At present, the US has around 900 troops in Syria. About 200 are deployed at the Tanf base in the far south of the country, close to the Jordanian border. The remainder are in northeast Syria, in the area controlled by the Autonomous Administration of Northeast Syria (AANES), a Kurdish dominated body whose armed forces are the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). This force works in close cooperation with the US, though Washington does not recognize or have official relations with the AANES.  

The relationship with the SDF is the product of a notable success for US practitioners of counter insurgency. The Obama Administration in 2014 took a strategic decision to destroy the Sunni Islamist quasi-state established by the Islamic State (ISIL) organization in Iraq and the Levant (Sham, in Arabic). ISIL declared itself as a Caliphate at the al-Nuri Mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Iraq on June 29, 2014. Having set this goal and wishing to avoid a major ground commitment of US forces, the US needed a local force with which to partner for the ground campaign which would be necessary to destroy the ISIS quasi-state. The Kurdish YPG (Peoples’ Protection Units) was the partner who the US Department of Defense identified for this mission.  

Since summer 2012, the YPG been in control of territories lying directly in the face of the IS advance. It was a capable, united, non-jihadi force, as it had established in previous combat against Sunni Islamist insurgents in such areas as Ras al-Ain (Sere Caniye) in 2013. However, the YPG was a creation of the PKK (Kurdish Workers Party) organization, which is on the US and EU list of terror groups, and which is engaged in an insurgency against Turkey.  

The US Department of Defense constructed the multi-ethnic Syrian Democratic Forces in 2015 around the core of the YPG, to prevent allegations that it was ‘allying’ with the PKK or the Syrian Kurds. The SDF proved fit for purpose. After a long and bloody campaign, the last territorial holdings of ISIS in the lower Euphrates valley were recaptured by the SDF (with US air support) in mid-2019. That campaign is justly held up as an example of successful US counterinsurgency.  

But the Islamic State was ultimately not the chief cause or main factor of the ongoing instability in Iraq and Syria. Rather, it was a symptom of a larger process in which the states in question have partially fragmented, and no longer maintain the monopoly of violence within their borders.  As a result, a series of conflicts are taking place, largely based on forces mustered according to the various ethno-religious elements of the populations of these countries.

Several international actors, who have accurately grasped this dynamic, are conducting coherent proxy strategies within the space in question to acquire power and influence within them. Most significant of these are Iran, Turkey, and Russia. All three countries have their clients within Syria. These are, for Iran: the Assad regime and the IRGC linked militias seeded by Teheran during the war; for Turkey, the remnants of the Sunni Islamist insurgency against the Assad regime in northern Syria; and for Russia, the Assad regime and the state structures still left standing. Each of these countries are firmly and openly committed to their clients. They are using the clients to advance their economic and strategic interests. 

By comparison, the US relationship with the SDF is partial and incoherent. Under President Donald Trump, the waiver to Delta Crescent appears to have been granted as part of an effort by administration officials to convince the president that a concrete US interest (of the type he could comprehend) existed in Syria. That was control of Syria’s oil resources, 90% of which are in the SDF controlled area. This was to preserve the US presence in Syria, for reasons other than oil. 

Officials within the Trump Administration clearly saw a value in control of this part of Syria, as a partial barrier to Iranian advances, and to retain some US leverage for any future political arrangement in the country. This is the view also of US allies Israel and of Jordan, both of whom sought to prevent the full implementation of Trump’s decisions to withdraw troops from Syria in December 2018 and October 2019.

US relations with the SDF play a similar function to those of other external powers with their clients in Syria. But clarity of purpose and strategic partnership are lacking in the US case. This derives from the partial and context specific nature of the partnership, which has now continued beyond its initial context (the war against ISIS), but without being clearly defined. 

An unnamed official speaking to The Daily Beast defined the goal of the US presence in northeast Syria as “enduring defeat of ISIS and Al-Qaeda, an irreversible political solution to the Syrian conflict…and the removal of all Iranian-supported forces.” This sounds coherent and entirely positive. But it is not clear on what mandate these goals rest and who decided upon these goals – even if these views in fact reflect administration policy, never mind perspectives in Congress.

It should be noted that the lack of clarity also reflects the positions of the AANES and its associated bodies. In conversation with this author, sources close to the AANES and SDF said that they were aware of the desire of the previous administration to involve them in a regional effort against Iran, but that they had no desire to be drawn into conflict with Teheran given their precarious strategic situation.  

No Withdrawal Expected

Trump’s decisions to withdraw from Syria derived from his close relations with President Erdogan of Turkey. Biden is far more wary of Turkey. Biden appears to have no intention of withdrawing from northeast Syria and is less likely than his predecessor to suddenly announce major policy reversals. Assistant Secretary of State Joey Hood visited northeast Syria, and later defined the current key US goal as ‘“delivery of stabilization assistance to liberated areas to ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.”

Some regional media have suggested that the abandonment of the Delta Crescent might be part of a quid pro quo deal, by which Russia might remove its current objection to the use of the Yarubiya border crossing from Iraq into the AANES controlled part of Syria. In late 2020, Moscow pressured the UN to end funding for programs bringing aid via this crossing without permission from the regime in Damascus. This has led to a deterioration of the humanitarian situation in this area.  

Such a rationale would explain the abandoning of the Delta Crescent waiver. Delta Crescent was not a key lynchpin of US policy. But the stop-start, erratic nature of US policy leads to wariness on the part of allies, who then tend to hedge their bets by developing relations with adversaries or other forces. For example, the AANES is currently selling oil to the Assad regime, and engaging in a major illicit oil trade with elements based in the rival Kurdish autonomous administration in Erbil, northern Iraq. All this takes place either against the will of, or without reference to, the US.   

The Syrian Kurds did not set hope in the Delta Crescent waiver. What they want is a general waiver for their area related to sanctions against Syria, because their rule should not be caught up in policies related to the crimes of the Assad regime. But given the partial and provisional nature of Washington’s support, any such commitment is unlikely to be forthcoming.  

The US presence in northeast Syria is positive. Without it, Washington would lose leverage in Syria, and Russia and Iran would have a stronger hand in determining the future of the country according to their will, to the detriment of US allies. But the tentative nature of the US commitment, as reflected in the latest decision regarding Delta Crescent, reduces its value.

What is needed is a coherent US commitment to the support of allies and the facing down of enemies (Iran and Sunni Islamists) – across the land space of Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. The limited commitment in northeast Syria would form a part of any such strategy. 

However, the US determination to draw down in the Middle East, which characterized the Obama, Trump and now Biden administrations, appears likely to prevent the development of any such strategy. 

The US presence in northeast Syria made sense as part of Trump’s policy of maximum pressure on both Iran and Assad’s Syria. The survival of the AANES partially blocks Iranian access to Syria, and keeps Assad deprived of both oil and wheat resources. But since the Biden Administration appears to be abandoning this policy and seeking rapprochement with Iran, policy regarding this area is heading in the direction of additional incoherence.

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.

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Picture of ד"ר יונתן ספייר

ד"ר יונתן ספייר

Dr. Jonathan Spyer is one of the very few Western/Israeli experts to have traveled extensively in Syria, Iraq and the Kurdish areas during the recent years of conflict. He is the author of Days of the Fall: A Reporter’s Journey in the Syria and Iraq Wars (Routledge, December 2017), and The Transforming Fire: the Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2010). He is a regular contributor to Jane’s Intelligence Review, has published in leading journals and media outlets including Middle East Quarterly, Times (of London), Foreign Policy, Wall Street Journal, Guardian, Haaretz, Atlantic, Australian, National Post, Globe and Mail, Jerusalem Report, Jerusalem Post and others; and has appeared on CNN, al-Jazeera, Fox, BBC, Sky, and other outlets. He holds a Ph.D. in international relations from the London School of Economics and an MA in Middle East politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. He is also a fellow at the Middle East Forum.

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