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Opinion Biden’s Iran envoy will complicate his Syria approach

Robert Malley with then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015.
Robert Malley with then-Secretary of State John Kerry in 2015. (BRIAN SNYDER/AFP via Getty Images)
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This piece has been updated.

Washington is buzzing about the controversy surrounding the selection of ex-Obama administration official Robert Malley to be President Biden’s Iran envoy. The fight between Malley’s supporters and detractors is a proxy battle for the upcoming war over Iran policy. But Malley’s return to government also has huge implications for Syria, sowing potential discord among Biden’s team right from the start.

The public fight over Malley began when Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) tweeted last week that the expected appointment was “deeply troubling” because of Malley’s supposed “long track record of sympathy for the Iranian regime & animus towards Israel.” Familiar factions of the foreign policy establishment have lined up for or against Malley. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rallied to his defense, as did several former Obama administration officials and the antiwar group Code Pink. Iran hawks have been joined in their rejection by prominent members of the Syrian opposition, who worry Malley might undermine Biden’s promises to fix President Barack Obama’s failed Syria policy.

Former Obama administration officials told me that while he was a White House official, Malley opposed supporting the Syrian pro-democracy movement and resisted punitive measures against President Bashar al-Assad, in part to protect the Iran deal negotiations. In a 2018 interview, Malley criticized U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition and said, “We were part of what fueled the conflict rather than stopped it.”

The concern among many Syrians is that Malley will again internally oppose enforcing sanctions on Assad and helping the Syrian opposition. They further worry that his efforts to negotiate with Iran on the nuclear deal could once again push the Syria file to the back burner and cause the Biden administration to play down Iran’s other malign activities, including its efforts to prop up Assad, its participation in atrocities committed in Syria and its continuing transfer of missiles to Hezbollah.

“There is some reason for concern that his nomination signals an intent to proceed very much along the lines of the Obama administration, and if it does happen that would be a significant lost opportunity [for Syria],” said Steven Heydemann, director of Middle East studies at Smith College.

Malley’s views on Syria run counter to those of other senior Biden administration officials, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken. During the campaign, Blinken told me that the Obama administration “failed” in Syria and that the issue was something the new team would “need to act on” by strongly enforcing the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act, which is meant to address Assad’s worst atrocities, including mass torture, mass murder, mass detention of civilians and crimes against humanity.

In 2019, Blinken penned a Post op-ed with Robert Kagan in which they argued the opposite of Malley’s Syria position. “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little,” they wrote.

Further complicating the Biden administration’s Syria strategy is the appointment of Brett McGurk as National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, Malley’s previous job. During the Obama administration, McGurk was a key U.S. official leading the fight against the Islamic State. He focused U.S. attention and resources on an alliance with the Kurds while shunning large parts of the Syrian Arab opposition and alienating the Turks.

In 2019, McGurk published an essay in Foreign Affairs that also runs counter to Blinken’s promises to increase U.S. engagement in Syria. He argued that the United States should encourage the Kurds to make a deal with Russia and the Assad regime. He also wrote that “Washington must now lower its sights” to focus on only two interests in Syria: the Islamic State and Iran’s threat to Israel.

Inside the administration, there’s a rumor that Blinken is considering former State Department official and U.N. diplomat Jeffrey Feltman as his special envoy to Syria. This week, Feltman, writing with the Carter Center’s Hrair Balian, published an article arguing that the United States should offer Assad some sanctions relief in exchange for limited concessions.

“My belief is that Assad won’t do it, and for anybody who still needs proof that he’s the primary spoiler in Syria, it would be further evidence,” Feltman told me.

Some former officials believe there’s no use trying to do anything anymore in Syria. Former U.S. ambassador to Syria Robert Ford told me there’s no hope that sanctions or pressure will get Assad to change his behavior and there’s no appetite for a new U.S. push large enough to make a difference. “We lost,” he said. “It’s not what I wanted to happen, but it is what it is.”

Unfortunately, as Blinken clearly recognizes, the United States cannot afford to just abandon Syria and trust Moscow and Tehran to handle it. Without a real political solution that provides millions of Syrians with some basic dignity, safety and justice, the conditions that caused the uprising 10 years ago will only get worse, not better. That means more refugees, more extremism and more instability in the region and beyond.

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