The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden has abdicated U.S. leadership on Syria to Russia and Iran

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, center, in Aleppo, Syria, on July 9. (Syrian Presidency/Facebook/AP)
5 min

President Biden’s trip to the Middle East last week showed that his administration has abandoned any pretense of U.S. leadership on addressing the crisis in Syria. That policy of neglect undermines U.S. and regional interests — and threatens to leave the region’s security in the hands of Russia and Iran.

Biden never mentioned Syria publicly during his four-day trip, which was billed as a demonstration of U.S. engagement in a region where powers such as Russia and China are making inroads. The president didn’t come up with any new ideas for solving the Syrian political crisis. He didn’t offer any public admonishments to the Gulf countries that have been slowly but surely ending the pariah status of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who continues to perpetrate mass atrocities on his people. In Biden’s Post op-ed explaining the rationale for his Middle East trip, he only mentioned Syria to tout a U.S. mission that killed a terrorist there.

During his candidacy, Biden heavily criticized President Donald Trump for not doing more to prevent Turkey from attacking U.S.-allied Kurds in Syria’s northeast. But as Turkey prepares for another such incursion, Biden has said nothing about it. That has left the diplomacy in the hands of Russia and Iran, who are meeting with Turkey this week on Syria, with the United States not at the table.

Meanwhile, Moscow and Tehran are now expanding the military partnership they forged in Syria to the war in Ukraine. Russia is using the weapons it tested on Syrian civilians to kill Ukrainian civilians. Russia is also now attacking the United States’ allies in Syria — local forces who have been helping U.S. troops fight the Islamic State.

Many Syrians see the Biden administration as missing in action. During a June 29 hearing at the U.N. Security Council, Omar Alshogre, who spent three years imprisoned in Assad’s dungeons, called out the United States for breaking its promises.

“The United States, recently your government has been very limited to empty statements, no actions,” he said. “You’re supposed to be the leader of the democratic world. I don’t even see you in this global arena anymore.”

Alshogre called out the leadership of Jordan for closing its borders to Syrian refugees. He also criticized the United Arab Emirates for helping to welcome Assad back into the good graces of the diplomatic community, including by hosting him for a visit in March.

“The United Arab Emirates, don’t you have any respect for the people who have been suffering for years, for everyone who died under torture in Syria, for every mother who lost her kid? Normalizing Assad is a crime.” he said. “Shame on you.”

A National Security Council spokesperson told me that Syria “is a regular topic of conversation” with U.S. partners in the Gulf region and the administration has been “constantly engaged in quiet diplomacy on Syria.” The spokesperson pointed out that Syria was mentioned in official statements issued after Biden’s meetings last week with the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq.

“We continue to raise Syria with our Gulf partners to urge against any actions that would legitimize the Syrian regime, and we ourselves have not lifted sanctions imposed on Syria,” the spokesperson said.

While it is true the Biden administration has not lifted any sanctions on Assad, neither has the Biden team implemented any of the sanctions called for in the law known as the Caesar act, which stipulates sanctions for any country or company that does business with the Assad regime. In fact, the administration has looked the other way while Assad profits from a new regional gas deal.

The one place the Biden team has been active on Syria is at the United Nations, where the U.S. delegation fought to preserve the one remaining humanitarian aid corridor that provides vital food and medicine to millions of Syrians living outside the regime’s control in Idlib province. Even there, the United States acceded to a Russian version of the resolution that limited the aid route extension to six months.

Administration officials argue that maintaining relatively low levels of violence and focusing on aid and terrorism is about the best the United States can hope for in Syria. But the violence levels only seem low if one ignores the fact that Russia and Assad are intentionally starving millions of innocent people and torturing tens of thousands of civilians in custody.

So long as Assad’s partners in Moscow and Tehran are dominating the diplomacy, Syria will never achieve a sustainable peace. Without a new U.S.-led diplomatic push, Syria will continue to be an exporter of refugees, terrorism, narcotics and instability. Before taking office, Biden’s officials acknowledged that.

“We failed in preventing a tragic loss of life as well as millions of people made into refugees or internally displaced, and that’s something that we all have to live with,” candidate Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken, now secretary of state, told me two months before the 2020 election. “This is one of the things that we are looking hard at, and then, if we are given the responsibility, it’s something we will need to act on.”

Biden now has the responsibility and he needs to act. The United States can’t be a leader in the Middle East while leaving the Syria crisis to endlessly fester and leaving the Syrian people to endlessly suffer.