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Opinion Biden’s Syria strategy is missing in action

The body of a victim is removed from rubble reportedly caused by artillery shelling by government forces in the village of Iblin in northwestern Syria on July 15. (Abdulaziz Ketaz/AFP via Getty Images)

Half a year into his administration, President Biden has yet to arrive at a new strategy for addressing the horrifying conflict in Syria, now in its 11th year. While the U.S. government dithers, the situation on the ground is deteriorating as Moscow, Tehran and the Assad regime take advantage.

To be fair, the Biden administration has not completely ignored Syria. Just last month, the president himself worked to stop Russia from cutting off the last humanitarian aid route to Idlib, where more than 3 million internally displaced refugees would have otherwise starved to death. And just this week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced new sanctions against eight of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s notorious prisons, where the regime has been torturing tens of thousands of civilians in custody for as much as a decade and continues to do so.

But for Syrians who were heartened by Biden’s and Blinken’s promises to lead a new international effort to protect civilians and advance a real political solution to the conflict, these latest moves seem ad hoc and woefully insufficient. On the ground in Syria, the United States’ presence is barely felt.

Since the humanitarian aid issue was resolved at the U.N. Security Council, the Syrian and Russian militaries have accelerated their violence and aggression against civilians in Idlib, Raed al-Saleh, chairman of the Syrian Civil Defense, also known as the White Helmets, told me during an interview.

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“The U.S. administration presented that as a win, but nobody is focusing on the escalation that the Assad regime and Russia are doing now,” he said. “We do not know what the new U.S. strategy is for Syria. We don’t think Syria is on their list of priorities.”

Russian and Assad regime airstrikes have killed at least 21 children in southern Idlib in the past two weeks, he said. Two members of the White Helmets were also killed in “double tap” strikes that target first responders. Meanwhile, in the southern Syrian city of Daraa, the birthplace of the revolution, Assad has implemented a brutal starvation siege. The people of Daraa had agreed to a truce deal in exchange for assurances of Russian protection, but Moscow reneged.

Several Biden officials told me the administration is focused on the humanitarian situation in Syria and sees the relatively low levels of violence as worth trying to preserve. The Biden team is also cautiously optimistic that there is an opening for further U.S.-Russia negotiations regarding Syria. But officials admit that their diplomatic strategy is still to be determined, pending the conclusions of an internal policy review that is still going on.

“Our policy towards the Assad regime has not changed. We have the same concerns about lack of legitimacy there,” a senior administration official told me. “We felt we had to first focus on alleviating humanitarian suffering . . . and then working with partners and the U.N. to try to come up with a political solution. And we have an ongoing policy review about how all those pieces fit together.”

Blinken has yet to appoint a special representative for Syria, a senior diplomat to manage the portfolio and activate the diplomacy. That sends a clear signal that Syria is not a priority for the administration, said Mouaz Moustafa, executive director of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, an American nongovernmental organization that supports the Syrian opposition.

If the regime succeeds in taking back Idlib by committing war crimes, that will be devastating not just for those civilians but also for the U.S. drive to find any political solution at all, he said. If Idlib falls, Assad will have no more reason to negotiate. And that will mean more atrocities, more extremism, more refugees, more instability and endless conflict.

“Idlib is the final obstacle for Syria, Iran and Russia to secure the military victory they want,” he said. “If they declare victory, that will entrench Syria as the North Korea of the Middle East.”

Biden’s team faces the same question as the president’s predecessors: What are the options — short of military intervention — that could actually change the calculus of Moscow and Assad? More sanctions, targeting all Syrians involved in war crimes and the companies that aid them, would be useful but hardly enough. Biden must make clear that Assad can’t kill his way back into the good graces of the international community.

“It’s essential there should be no normalization of relations with Assad, and we should discourage other countries from doing that as well,” said Stephen Rapp, a former State Department ambassador at large for war crimes. “Assad cannot enjoy the fruits of victory, that needs to be our consistent position.”

There are costs and risks to action in Syria that the Biden administration is surely considering as it proceeds with its seemingly interminable policy review. But inaction is also a decision, one that comes with costs and risks of its own. Hoping that the situation won’t get worse is not a strategy.