Biden’s public comments on Syria have been scarce. In primary debates, he said that, if elected, he would keep the small U.S. troop presence in Syria. Last fall, Biden criticized Trump for abandoning the Kurds to a Turkish assault. This week, he called out Trump for failing to respond to Russian troops ramming U.S. troops in northern Syria. Last year, Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), called Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (R-Hawaii) an “apologist” for Assad, revealing the rift inside the Democratic Party on Syria. Many progressives blame the United States for the suffering in Syria, but Biden and Harris blame Assad, Russia and Iran.
Campaign officials tell me that a Biden administration would reengage on the Syria issue diplomatically, raise the pressure on Assad and withhold U.S. support for Syria’s reconstruction until Assad agrees to stop his atrocities and share power. Some Obama administration officials — now working for Biden — see this as their chance for redemption.
“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,” Biden’s foreign policy adviser, Tony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, told me. “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.”
President Barack Obama’s administration made several mistakes. Among them was the decision to advertise a red line it didn’t enforce, trusting Moscow to ensure the removal of Assad’s chemical weapons and arming the Syrian opposition just enough for it to lose the war slowly.
The Trump administration has also committed huge blunders. It struck a crippling blow against the Islamic State in Syria but lost the peace by betraying the Syrian Democratic Forces that helped us and cutting off all stabilizing aid to the area. Trump delegated the diplomacy to Turkey and Russia, conducted two pinprick strikes for show and then announced the withdrawal of U.S. troops twice, reversed himself twice and bragged about stealing oil.
Some Syrian Americans are skeptical of Biden’s promises. They were concerned to learn that former Obama administration Syria official Steven Simon, who has forcefully argued against increasing pressure on Assad, is a member of the Biden campaign’s Middle East advisory team. Simon traveled to Damascus to meet with Assad after he left the Obama White House. Campaign officials said that he is one of more than 100 team members and that his views don’t reflect those of the campaign or Biden.
Another Biden volunteer is a Syrian Christian woman in Ohio who works on Arab American community outreach and took Assad’s side, criticizing U.S. support for the opposition in social media posts. The campaign reprimanded her for the posts but is keeping her on board.
The campaign’s recently released Arab American community Plan for Partnership has also caused confusion by saying that a Biden administration would “mobilize other countries to support Syria’s reconstruction,” which is what Assad wants. This raised questions about whether Biden intends to fully implement the recently enacted Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, the harshest sanctions yet against Assad, his cronies, large Syrian state industries and any international entity that does business with the regime.
Blinken told me that the Caesar Act is a “very important tool” to try to limit the Assad regime’s ability to finance its violence and to pressure it to change its behavior. The act provides exemptions for humanitarian aid, he said, adding that Assad, not the United States, is the source of his people’s suffering.
“As Syrian Americans, we want to know where Joe Biden stands on Syria,” he said. “A campaign that wants to restore American leadership in the world should be staffed with people who believe in democracy and human rights.”
There are no easy answers in Syria, but letting Assad off the hook will not bring peace or keep us safe. Biden’s promise to use U.S. leadership and leverage to force better outcomes there is the correct one to make — and the Syrian people’s only hope.