U.S. objectives in Syria have narrowed to a focus on defeating the Islamic State (ISIS) insurgency and increasing humanitarian aid, according to Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump justified military involvement in the conflict to stop Syria’s natural energy reserves coming back under the control of Bashar al-Assad’s regime or its Iranian allies.
However, Stein said current U.S. President Joe Biden had different geopolitical priorities, including less of a focus on the Middle East, where the emphasis would instead be on a return to the Iran nuclear deal.
“The Biden administration has re-tethered American policy to the defeat of ISIS and has stripped from U.S. goals any notions of protecting oil facilities or countering Iranian proxies in regime-held areas,” the analyst said.
Trump ordered the withdrawal of U.S. troops from northern Syria in October 2019, precipitating a Turkish military assault on the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), before rapidly reversing his decision amid international and domestic outcry.
Questions have since remained over the future of the U.S. presence in the region. Russia successfully filled the military vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal in several areas, leading to a complex and often tense situation.
But Stein said Biden had signalled an intention to remain in Syria alongside the SDF, which provided the ground forces for the U.S.-led international campaign to defeat ISIS and continues to wage a counterinsurgency against the jihadist group.
Turkey considers the SDF a security threat over historic links to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), which has been partner to an internal conflict with the Turkish state since the 1980s.
Biden would seek to manage relations with Turkey over Syria through a concurrent focus on humanitarian aid, Stein said.
Russia, a key ally of Assad, has limited United Nation assistance to parts of Syria not governed by Damascus. Areas in the northwest of the country under control of Turkish-backed rebels are at risk of being cut off from aid when the current U.N. mandates expires on July 10.
Stein said the Biden administration would seek to use differences between Ankara and Moscow to reach “a compromise on aid deliveries between Turkish- and regime-controlled areas”.
“This compromise would satisfy some of Russia’s desires, without compromising U.S. efforts in the northeast and northwest of the country,” he said.