The Middle East is unlikely to be a priority for the new U.S. administration, given the pressing tasks of returning the country to its role as a leader and restoring faith in it at a time of internal divisions and a pandemic. Despite Moscow’s gloomy expectations of President-elect Joe Biden, therefore, his review of U.S. policy in the Middle East may result in new opportunities for Russia, as well as new obstacles.
The new president has been fiercely critical of Trump’s policy in Syria, which he says has allowed Russia and Iran to strengthen their positions there. The economic pressure on Syria will most likely be kept up, but it will be made clear to President Bashar Assad what he needs to do to get sanctions against his regime eased.
The relatively small U.S. military contingent in northeastern Syria, which can easily be expanded or decreased through the border with Iraq, will remain. Its mission, which has been unclear since the defeat of Islamic State, will, it seems, get a more strategic footing than simply guarding oil fields. It may now be tasked with limiting Russian influence, protecting Kurdish allies and the local governance bodies they have created, and obliging Damascus to implement the UN Security Council resolution on a political settlement to the conflict. Biden can also be expected to put more emphasis on humanitarian aspects and human rights to exert additional pressure on Damascus.
Washington’s policy on Syria will depend heavily on how U.S. relations develop with Turkey and Israel, whose role in the conflict has grown drastically, as well as on how talks over a U.S. return to the Iran nuclear deal progress. If those talks go well, the United States will grow closer to Turkey, while moving away from Israel and Saudi Arabia, and vice versa if they go badly. Accordingly, this will mean a spike in tensions either in the south (where Israeli and Saudi influence is strong) or in northeastern Syria (where Turkey is influential).
In Libya, meanwhile, since NATO’s involvement in overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, the United States’ position has been to limit its use of force to surgical strikes in response to terrorist attacks. Washington has tried to maintain the balance between internal and foreign forces, and the Americans have supported the unsuccessful efforts to resolve the crisis within the UN, though without laying claim to a leading role in the chaos in Libya.
Now the endless wars in Libya, which have revealed the ineffectiveness of a divided Europe (something of which Russia and Turkey took advantage), could provide Biden with an opportunity to use the prolonged conflict to promote the Democrats’ commitment to democratic values. If international attempts to preserve the fragile balance and hold parliamentary and presidential elections in December 2021 fail, then Washington could resort to coercive measures.
This could take the form of requiring other countries involved in the conflict to adhere more closely to the UN-imposed arms embargo, including through the use of sanctions. Washington may also react more strongly to the involvement of proxy forces, such as the Syrian fighters brought in by Turkey, and Russian mercenaries. Economic pressure will also increase in order to ensure the uninterrupted export of oil and incorporation of the banking system.
In Russia, the upcoming changes in U.S. foreign policy are often presented as hostile, with Biden and his team depicted as proponents of holding talks from a position of strength. The traditional oscillation of Russian attitudes to the United States have caused the pendulum to swing over to the other side: if an unprecedented rapprochement was expected from Trump, the very worst is expected from Biden.
Yet the impending reassessment of U.S. policy in the Middle East can’t definitively be described as good or bad for Russia. In some respects, it will create hurdles for Moscow, though bigger difficulties will be posed by local powers. But new opportunities may also arise: the Biden administration will be less oriented on the Pentagon and the battle between parties in Congress, so will have more freedom to search for compromises.
Of particular importance for Moscow will be the new administration’s policy on Syria, where military personnel from five nations are in close contact. Despite a communications channel designed to help avoid conflict, there have already been clashes between Russian and American troops.
The configuration of forces on the ground means that the United States is unable to use force to apply pressure in Syria. Russia, for its part, has achieved many of its goals in the five years of its successful military campaign in Syria: important gains have been made over international terrorism, and Russia has reaffirmed its status as a world power whose interests cannot be ignored, in addition to shoring up its strategic military position in the heart of the Middle East and Mediterranean. Operations by Russia’s aerospace forces, which prevented the toppling of a friendly regime, have boosted Russian prestige in the Arab world and helped it to forge partnerships throughout the region.
The change in U.S. administration comes at a key moment for Russian policy in Syria. The tasks that could be solved using military tactics have largely been solved, and with the end of the active military campaign, Russia has significantly less room to maneuver—especially given the recent tension with Turkey over the Karabakh war and the prospect of Ankara growing closer to the United States.
In a situation in which Turkish troops are entrenched in northeast Syria, and the Americans hold territory east of the Euphrates, restoring Syria’s territorial integrity—something both Moscow and Washington regularly talk about—is unlikely to be possible without political agreements held in the Geneva peace talks format and based on the UN resolution on a political settlement.
The prospects of talks on a national peace agreement among the Syrians themselves are, however, still doubtful. In the three years since the decision was made to start constitutional reform, there has been no significant advance. It took about two years just to form a representative committee on the issue.
Right now, the main threats to Syria, which is suffering as a result of harsh sanctions and the pandemic, are not so much military as economic. Most Syrians are fighting for survival amid constantly rising prices; shortages of food, medicines, electricity, and fuel; and decimated infrastructure. The economic reconstruction of Syria requires political compromises.
Syrian society is tired of war, and is deeply anxious over the uncertain future. Clear-headed representatives of both the regime and the opposition are ever closer to reaching an agreement on three points: there can be no political solution without Russia; no end to hostilities without Turkey; and no economic reconstruction without the United States. The closer Syrian presidential elections get, the more critically Russia needs a new agenda in Syria, so that having won in war, it does not lose out in peacetime.