The Democrats and Syria: The Potential for a Regional Grand Bargain if Biden Wins?

By Kevin Amirehsani

With the U.S. presidential election just one week away, the Democrats’ sights are set on taking back the Oval Office. Should they win, they would be wise to quickly pivot to crafting a forward-looking Syria policy. A Biden administration could offer hope for a new approach, one that addresses the Damascus-Tehran alliance while reducing the scope of regional conflicts and maintaining historic relationships with our Gulf allies.

Most observers might agree that the prospects for peace in the Levant are intrinsically tied to the tensions between Iran and its regional proxies and the Gulf monarchies and their American backers. Yet far fewer would hold out hope of Washington reducing them, especially given the prospects of a conservative hardliner winning power in Iran’s June 2021 presidential elections. However, a path to regional stability is possible, but only if the Democrats are willing to rethink their dogma in the Middle East, make tough compromises, and act quickly.

First, Biden needs to reach an accord with Iran during his first five months in power. It’s unclear whether Iran’s fractured reformist movement can survive the next decade after their decision to accept the restraints of the JCPOA backfired when Trump pulled out of it and implemented his policy of “maximum economic pressure” on Tehran. Indeed, the Iranian regime predetermined the results of February’s parliamentary elections, when the reformists were trounced, largely because they were prevented from fielding candidates for 230 of the Majlis’ 290 seats. Still, even if they don’t, and a decidedly pro-Khamenei hardliner comes to power, returning to the JCPOA or entering a similar deal could be at least tacitly enforced by the next Iranian president, since it would be in their interest for the U.S. to remove its crippling economic and financial sanctions on Iran, particularly those on its banking and oil sectors. This could be done in a phased approach, where both sides could claim an early victory, with more substantial progress on other issues (potentially even the issue of Iran’s ballistic missiles and the number of U.S. troops in Persian Gulf bases) delayed until after June.

While clearly not the end-all be-all, doing so would open to the door to more cooperation in the Syrian theater. There are already hints of Damascus losing patience with its Iranian benefactors, as evidenced by Syrian government troops recently taking control of an oil field near al-Mayadin in Deir al-Zour Province following skirmishes with Iranian-backed militias. This occurred not too far from parts of the province where those same militias have come close to confrontation with Russian troops. Moreover, outside of Rojava and Idlib Province, the pro-Assad forces have successfully retaken most of the country with Russian air support, reducing their need for Iranian assistance. Elements in the Revolutionary Guards will be sure to lobby strongly against any Iranian withdrawal from Syria, but given Tehran’s financial straits, reducing their costly foreign excursions is also in their interest, assuming that they have confidence that Assad will remain in power.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2008.

While more difficult, it is not farfetched for Assad to eventually reach some understanding with Erdogan, especially with the backing of Iran. Recent weeks have seen Turkish troops remove a number of their observation posts near Idlib. A Damascus-Ankara détente with Tehran as a participant may be possible due to their shared suspicion of the Kurdish forces who are now in control of Manbij to Kobane, and from Al-Thawrah to Syria’s northeastern borders. While Washington should not abandon our longstanding Kurdish allies, we also should not let the wonks’ hope of an independent Kurdish state in Syria derail a wider regional solution. Face-saving compromises abound, such as a de jure Syrian federation but de facto independent Rojava. This might entail allowing Syrian government troops outposts at Rojava’s border, which Ankara would much prefer in lieu of the PKK-linked Kurdish fighters. It might also mean expanded investment in oil extraction in the Kurdish region of Jazila, coupled with expanding the Syrian government’s refining capacity (which would boost their ongoing refined oil exports to the Kurds). A further swap could be reopening the vital al-Yarubiyah/Rabia border crossing to aid flows (which would provide an economic boost to Rojava) while committing to reduce U.S. forces in the region or relaxing the stringent Caesar Act sanctions.

“[Biden’s] strategy in Syria, including Rojava, should be pushing for a new democratic federal system, in which the rights of all Syrian people [are protected] through a new constitution,” according to Dana Taib Menmy, a freelance journalist from Iraqi Kurdistan.

Of course, the Kurdish question remains one of the thorniest in the Middle East. It’s unlikely that Assad would ever allow a Rojava to emerge as a fully economically independent (and prosperous) as what occurred in Iraqi Kurdistan, which ironically is the model of a Kurdish semi-state that Ankara and Tehran can live with. Yet recent talks between U.S. special envoy to Syria James Jeffrey, the Syrian Kurds, and a pro-Ankara/pro-Erbil Kurdish group suggest that there are already attempts at compromise in the works. The Syrian Kurds could curry favor with Turkey and Iran by embracing the pan-ethnic nature of its SDF army and reducing its linkages with the cross-border Kurdish movements. This might also be done in concert with progress towards increased autonomy for Shia and Turkmen communities within its jurisdictions. None of these strategies on their own would be a game changer in their relations with Damascus, but could help assuage Turkey and convince Iran to pressure Assad to soften his stance towards Rojava.

“The Assad government, the Kurds and Turkey should be able to agree on something like the status quo ante, where the Kurds retain self-defense capacity, but government forces man the border to placate Turkey,” says Benjamin Friedman, Policy Director at Defense Priorities, a Washington think tank. “Any idea of an independent Kurdish state should be squelched, since it would be a source of endless instability and/or demand for U.S. protection, with risks of war we don’t need.”

Finally, although such a rapprochement – even modest in size – would be opposed by some of the Gulf Arab states, there are enough leverage points in their relationship with Syria and Iran to preserve the viability of a deal. For one, the UAE – long seen as one of the staunchest Iran hawks in the region – has since last year reassessed its relationship with the country, contributing to tensions with the Saudi-led anti-Houthi forces in Yemen. This is partly due to Abu Dhabi’s support of Libyan General Khalifa Haftar, which puts it squarely on opposite sides of the battlefield as the Turkish-backed Government of National Accord, and more broadly, its growing regional rivalry with Ankara.

Indeed, the UAE has been training Syrian regime elements since January and is a major player in the country’s reconstruction, suggesting that the gulf state would be among the first of the anti-Iran old guard to temper its opposition to any larger regional deal in the works (provided that Turkey is not perceived to gain an advantage). Similarly, earlier this year Saudi Arabia allegedly began a reconciliation of sorts with the Assad regime (at the same time as it has bankrolled the presence of the U.S. troops in Rojava), an apparent realigning of resources to confront what its Gulf Arab neighbors are increasingly viewing as the main enemy – Turkey and its continued dalliance with the region’s Sunni Islamist movements. Under the right conditions, Washington can both address a number of Turkey’s security concerns outlined above while using the specter of Erdogan’s growing influence to obtain support from the Gulf Arabs for any deal involving Syria, Iran, and the Iranian proxies.

While it’s obvious that several dominos would have to fall before anything approaching a regional grand bargain is reached, there are certainly some alignments of interest, and Washington is well-placed to compensate any “losers.” If Biden wins next week, the Democrats will need to seize this opportunity – it may not last.

Kevin Amirehsani is a Denver-based political and economic analyst with the Colorado Governor’s Office and the Economist Intelligence Unit. He is the former managing editor of the Raddington Report, and his analysis has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, France24, Deutsche Welle, and other publications. Follow Kevin on Twitter: @KAmirehsani

Comments (2)

Joshua Smith said:

Biden has been selected as the 46th president of America. Now let’s see what are his policies towards Iraq, Syria and other Arab nations. But it seems that Democrats have stern policies .

Trump wanted to pull forces from Iraq and Afghanistan but he failed miserable. Now its the Biden’s turn. What can he do and what will he bring to the world is just a matter of time.

November 8th, 2020, 9:24 am


Habib said:

This all assumes the US isn’t itself going into civil unrest.

If so, Syria will be freer to regain complete control of its territories, with no compromises made, as long as they have Russia’s backing.

Putin is probably losing patience towards Erdogan after his dumping of Syrian jihadis in the Caucasus, and would have little reason not to ignore Erdogan’s barking if they choose to clean up Idlib once and for all.

November 12th, 2020, 7:54 am


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