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Obama and Trump Have Failed Syria, and now it’s Biden’s Turn to Shift the Trajectory of American-Syrian Relations

The power vacuum in Syria and the influence of rival players urges the U.S. to protect its interests in the region by rebuilding the country’s social infrastructure with very limited violence.

This article was co-authored by Satanai Aloush and Anas Mahafzah

March 15th marked  a decade of the ongoing Syrian Civil War, a tragedy that has killed over 400,000 people, left 6.2 million Syrians internally displaced, and created 5.6 million refugees. After countless failed attempts at removing Bashar Al-Assad, the international community has reckoned with the reality that the Syrian autocrat is here to stay. 

The war arose in 2011 under former president Barack Obama’s administration whose fruitless response has tarnished his presidency. International Relations scholars and government officials have criticized Obama’s reluctance to retaliate after Assad crossed the “red line” by using chemical weapons on his own people. Obama’s reputation is also marked by the airstrikes he ordered, which killed countless Syrian citizens with 12,192 bombs in 2016 alone. Obama’s strategy to limit American presence on Syrian soil has since backfired, as both Russian and Iranian influence have grown. 

Former President Donald Trump was also heavily scrutinized for both his willingness to desert America’s Kurdish allies in Syria after they helped demolish ISIS’ presence and for his role as both an “arsonist and fireman” in the region. According to recent reports by Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, K. T. Macfarland, Trump contemplated the option of assassinating Assad as far back as 2017, but was advised against doing so. Regardless of these claims, America’s disheveled foreign policy since the start of the war reflects a trend of failure as presidents have been unable to militarily strategize an end to the war and aid Syrian civilians.

With the war entering its tenth year, ISIS’ fall creating a power vacuum primed for Russia, all eyes are on the new president, Joe Biden. While American officials initially believed that Syria was not an American priority, the U.S. can only reduce Russian influence in the region by playing an active role in rebuilding the country. Thus, Biden must reexamine the failures of Obama’s isolation and Trump’s often erratic decisions and clear the path for a more comprehensive and coherent U.S. strategy.

Sanctions, as part of the isolationist agenda, must be abandoned due to the humanitarian issues they have caused. Cutting off Syria financially has failed to pressure the Assad regime in line with American requests for peace and has only cut off Syrian civilians from necessary resources. And although Assad’s war crimes are paramount amongst the causes of Syria´s dire economic situation, sanctions significantly contribute to the struggles of impoverished Syrians. 

The Carter Center outlines steps for reintegrating Syria into the global community by lifting sanctions to combat growing socio-economic issues caused by COVID-19. These steps signal a shift away from U.S. sanctions and to focus American resources on expediting the restoration of essential civilian infrastructure damaged during the war. Riveting on the reconstruction of hospitals, schools, and industries will be critical to decreasing the social and political instability emerging in the region while providing a backbone for reintroducing the Syrian government into the world of diplomacy. These reconstructions are crucial in establishing America’s intention in stabilizing the region as genuine rather than simple lip-service to the international community. This approach, when paired with repairing diplomatic ties with Syria, signals a more sustainable approach towards stabilizing the region.

However, given that diplomacy has failed in the past, the question of whether or not Biden should take a more stern approach arises. This includes the continuation of Obama’s bombing of Syria, and a reevaluation of Trump’s promise to depose Assad if he continues to use chemical weapons. Yet, history has proven that U.S. foreign military intervention has caused more harm than good in the Middle East. American intervention fails to target the complex political structure of these autocratic regimes in which productive change only arises from nuanced steps rather than the simple solution of military invasion or attack. The weeds need to be carefully plucked at every level before any significant change can be achieved. Therefore, the idea of eliminating Assad while providing temporary relief does nothing to serve the Syrian civilians disenfranchised by their government. 

Even less efficient are the airstrikes which are allegedly targeted at extremist militants in Syria. Whereas these strikes are justified as liberating the victims from the oppression of terror, their impact radius extends far beyond the intended region. It is the Syrian civilians that are burdened with the weight of rebuilding the country’s infrastructure. With the limited resources provided by local governments and international aid, it has proved to be too difficult of a task. Thus, the continuation of these airstrikes simply paralyzes the Syrian economy and social welfare while doing little harm to those in power. These strikes are a symbol of the failure of U.S. intervention with the pretense of providing relief.

Moreover, these airstrikes are carried out with little thought as to what the ‘endgame’ is. A regime change is deceptively simple and entails more than what the U.S. is providing. It ushers more mayhem and disruption in civil societies that would be impossible to contain, even with the majority of the international community working together militarily- a promise that is already infeasible. 

Overall, whether or not the Syrian Civil War should be a foreign policy priority under the Biden administration has become quite clear. Whereas the notion of interference in the Middle East has grown less popular in the last decade, Syria is likely to be put at the forefront of Biden’s foreign policy agenda. While previous intervention has been justified under the name of ‘democratic peace’, this intervention is compelled by necessity. Most significantly, the political vacuum created in the region has made Syria vulnerable to the influence of U.S. rival nations. Syria found itself in the midst of a power struggle between the U.S. and Russia, Israel and Iran, and Russia and Turkey. This power dynamic necessitates that the U.S. intervenes to protect its interests in the region. However, the question of what this intervention should look like remains unanswered. As previously discussed, if the U.S. is acting in good faith, instead of simply putting a front for the rest of the international community, it must rebuild the country’s social infrastructure with little to no use of violence. It must focus its energy on providing local councils – which are currently the “connective tissue” holding the country together in areas not held by Assad – with the resources needed to birth new democratic institutions that can then be cared for with the help of the international community.

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