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Abdullah and Biden
President Joe Biden, King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Al Hussein Bin Abdullah II of Jordan walk along the Colonnade of the White House on Monday, July 19, 2021, to the Oval Office.

The Biden administration is facing a general crisis of credibility concerning its commitment to the broader middle east, following the withdrawal from Afghanistan.  The U.S. military posture in Syria is particularly concerning, with regional experts Neil Quilliam and Fred Hof warning of a pullout. Contacts with Arab and Israeli leaders during recent travel to the region reinforce those authors’ assertions regarding doubt in the administration’s staying power.

Nevertheless, in view of the international outcry about the conduct of the American withdrawal, and new need to show steadfast grit against terrorists, especially the Islamic State (IS), the U.S. is unlikely to pull out of Syria. Over the last decade, the situation in Syria has deteriorated into one of the most serious internal conflicts in the region along with Afghanistan. Meanwhile, increasing sobriety about rapprochement with Iran, which is acting as aggressively on the ground in the region as on the nuclear file, suggests a more active role for Washington in Syria is needed. Consequently, there is growing awareness that the U.S. must do more to demonstrate resolve.

This passivity, which is confusing to its partners, strengthens suspicions that American troops in Syria might be the next force withdrawn. 

Although, at present, there is a de facto ceasefire in most of Syria, its centrality, and the presence of troops from five outside states rubbing shoulders with Syrian government and opposition forces, indicate that it may not stay calm for long. Up to now the administration has been oddly passive on Syria in contrast to the major efforts led by the last two administrations. This passivity, which is confusing to its partners, strengthens suspicions that American troops in Syria might be the next force withdrawn. But in reality, a more active role there has long been justified on its own terms, given the dangerous intervention of those outside states and the catastrophic humanitarian situation. That justification is now coupled with Washington’s need to demonstrate decisive strength.

An opportunity to do just that has been raised by Jordanian King Abdullah. During his first Washington trip under the new U.S. administration in July, he proposed a new international effort, enlisting a group of states involved, to pitch a compromise settlement through the Russians. U.S. officials praised the idea in principle but have not run with it beyond facilitating Jordanian electricity transfers through Syria to Lebanon. King Abdullah has just traveled to Moscow to push the idea with Putin. If pursued intelligently, the King’s initiative could help stabilize the Syrian conflict without an overly central American role, but will require clear support from the White House.

Despite questions so far about Washington’s reaction, the King and his top advisors will continue to push the initiative. That makes sense for Amman. Jordan has absorbed over a million Syrian refugees at great national cost but cannot take more if new fighting spills over. It faces IS and Iranians on its border with Syria and urgently needs refugees to return and economic life in Syria to resume. Jordan understands it can’t drive a deal with Moscow alone, and thus seeks to work through a group of states whose pressure on Assad blocks any return to the “normalcy” which he and Putin would see as a victory.

Those states hold considerable influence in the proposed settlement. 30 percent of Syrian territory is controlled by the U.S. and Turkish armies and their Syrian allies. Israel routinely strikes Iran’s strategic weapons in Syria. The U.S., EU, and Israel choke the regime’s economy through sanctions, holds on reconstruction assistance, and maritime interdiction. The Arab states deny Assad diplomatic recognition in the Arab League and bilaterally. All these levers can be held against Assad until he cooperates with the UN-led peace process under Security Council Resolution 2254.

But, in return for step-by-step relaxation of the pressures on Assad, Damascus and Moscow could compromise on Syria issues important to those nations exercising the pressure.

As the Jordanians see it (as did the last two American administrations), this broad pressure campaign creates leverage for a quid pro quo compromise. The Jordanians recognize that the international community cannot press for maximalist goals such as Assad’s departure or Russia relinquishing its military position. But, in return for step-by-step relaxation of the pressures on Assad, Damascus and Moscow could compromise on Syria issues important to those nations exercising the pressure.

Those issues include: the removal of Iranian strategic weapons; change in Assad’s policies towards his own people sufficient to encourage return of the twelve million refugees and IDP’s (i.e., half the population); mobilization against IS; and termination of Assad’s chemical weapons program. Furthermore, better Syrian government behavior could promote the reintegration of armed opposition forces including America’s ally, the Kurdish-led Syrian Defense Forces (SDF), which would assuage Turkey’s concerns about the PKK and other foes on its borders. This whole package could be incorporated into the UN peace process.

With at least three more years of President Biden, Moscow, saddled with the carcass of Syria, might not wish to wait out yet another administration.

The Russians turned down similar U.S. approaches before, probably because they believed that in the waning Trump and Obama administrations, with both Presidents notoriously irresolute on Syria, the U.S. might cave. Yet while Moscow itself has not conceded on its maximalist Syria “victory” goal, neither have the U.S. and the other states yielded on their pressure. With at least three more years of President Biden, Moscow, saddled with the carcass of Syria, might not wish to wait out yet another administration.

Key to Jordanian success, however, will be a more active American role enlisting other countries’ support for Amman. Washington can’t prioritize its immediate Syria interests – fighting IS and humanitarian aid – and ignore those of Israel, Turkey, the SDF, Jordan, and other Arab states. Rather it should ensure that pressure on Assad from itself and others continues until it can work out such a new role. In doing so, Washington must finally grasp that Iranian and Russian strategic success in Syria, coming on the heels of the Afghan pullout, would endanger the decades-old American regional security system and the general security which it has provided.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center.

About the Author

James F. Jeffrey

James F. Jeffrey

Chair of the Middle East Program, Distinguished Fellow;
Former ambassador to Iraq and Turkey, and Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more