Intel: Top Adviser Signals Biden Would Keep Troops in Syria as Leverage
May 20, 2020

By: Elizabeth Hagedorn
Al-Monitor, May 20, 2020

Under a Joe Biden presidency, the United States would retain a military presence in northeast Syria as leverage against the regime, the presumptive Democratic nominee’s top foreign policy adviser suggests.

In an interview Tuesday with CBS, Tony Blinken indicated that the hundreds of US troops stationed in northeast Syria to advise partner forces fighting the Islamic State and secure the region’s oil fields would remain there if Biden were elected.

"They shouldn’t be there for the oil,” which he indicated is "as President Trump would have it.” He added, "But they happen to be there adjacent to it. That’s a point of leverage because the Syrian government would love to have dominion over those resources. We should not give that up for free.”

The Donald Trump administration’s policy on Syria has prioritized preventing an Islamic State resurgence, blunting Iranian influence and pushing for a durable political settlement to end the war. On the latter, Blinken accused the current administration of ceding too much influence to Russia and Iran, which back Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and Turkey, which supports the opposition seeking to oust him.

"Right now, what diplomatic process exists? The US is AWOL, we’re not in it.” Blinken said. "I can’t guarantee success. I can guarantee that in a Biden administration, we’d at least show up.”

Blinken also offered a frank assessment of what he perceived as the Barack Obama administration’s failings on Syria.

"This is a little bit personal to me, and any of us — and I start with myself — who had any responsibility for our Syria policy in the last administration has to acknowledge that we failed,” he said. "Not for want of trying, but we failed.”

"It’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days,” said Blinken, who served as deputy secretary of state from 2015 to 2017. 

Why it matters: Blinken isn’t the first former Obama administration official to express regret over not doing more in Syria, where Obama famously drew a "red line” on chemical weapons use that he never enforced with military force.

Trump has taken limited, but direct military action against the regime. The missile attack he authorized in response to a suspected chemical weapons attack on Syrian civilians in April 2017 has been among his better-received foreign policy decisions. The following year, Britain and France joined the United States in another round of strikes on Syrian military targets.

Since running for president, Biden has called for American military force to be used judiciously, but has also described what he views as a "moral duty” to respond to genocide or chemical weapons use around the world.

What’s next: Asked if a Biden administration would consider normalizing ties with the Assad regime, Blinken said it was "virtually impossible” to imagine.

With the war drawing down in all but Syria’s embattled northwest, various regional actors have signaled they will welcome Assad back into the fold. The sanctions-hit Syrian government needs hundreds of billions of dollars to rebuild, and other states and investors stand to benefit.

The so-called Caesar Act could make that difficult. The US measure, which allows for sanctions on governments and private companies that lend financial or other support to the Syrian regime, comes into effect June 17.