A top diplomat of the Syrian Democratic Council, Sinam Sherkany Mohamad, participated in a discussion on the future of US-Syria policy under the incoming presidential administration with two highly influential US officials. The Biden Administration inherits a complex US-Syria relationship with a broad array of interests acting in the region, in a conflict that is largely thought to be a great power competition playing out in the heart of the Middle East.
“We call on the Biden Administration to recognize North and East Syria,” said Mohamad during the discussion. The incoming administration is expected to consider formal recognition for the region of North and East Syria, as a peaceful, stable, and democratic region encompassing one-third of Syria and four million people. “We have a model that will inspire all the people of the region,” she said.
Mohamad, Co-Chair of the US Mission Syrian Democratic Council, joined Ambassador James Jeffrey and former DOD official Michael Mulroy for a discussion hosted by the JINSA organization, called “Geopolitical Fulcrum or Endless War: Options for US-Syria Policy in the Biden Administration.” Until November 2020, Jeffrey served as the US Department of State’s Special Representative for Syria Engagement and the US Special Envoy to the Global Coalition To Defeat ISIS. Jeffrey has now been selected as the head of the Middle East Institute at the Wilson Center. Mulroy is the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, and co-founder of the Lobo Institute.
Continuing a theme of his service as US Special Envoy, Ambassador Jeffrey underscored that there are many factions and factors in Syria, creating a logjam of interests that will be difficult or impossible to reconcile in the Biden Administration. Jeffrey outlined three possible but unlikely scenarios that he believes have the potential to break the logjam: Turkey could launch further attacks against the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF); Russia could attack Turkey in Idlib, creating an unwinnable conflict for Turkey; or the Biden Administration takes a hands-off approach to Syria. Jeffrey re-emphasized that Turkey is a strategic partner who we need for various reasons, but also that US withdrawal from North and East Syria would be a “disaster.”
Mulroy continues to favor a pragmatic approach on US policy toward the region, suggesting that the Biden Administration work closely with US military commanders to determine how best to move forward in the Middle East. He emphasized that the US military presence serves other strategic interests besides counterterrorism. He indicated that the US should be helping with ISIS detainees, including support for education programs for the children of ISIS members, to truly ensure the enduring defeat of ISIS.
Jeffrey and Mulroy briefly discussed the feasibility of achieving stated US objectives in Syria. These three main goals, articulated by new US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Joel Rayburn, during a December 9, 2020 Congressional hearing, and re-stated by Jeffrey during the discussion, are: the enduring defeat of ISIS and al-Qaeda; the withdrawal of all Iranian command and forces from Syria; and a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict consistent with UNSCR 2254.
The US “approach” that Rayburn outlined in the Congressional hearing had three components that tracked closely with these goals. First, he said, the US must “implement a political process and nationwide ceasefire as outlined in UNSCR 2254.” Second, the US must continue its counterterrorism campaign and preserve the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS. Third, said Rayburn, “We must press for the withdrawal of foreign forces not present in Syria before 2011.”
Mulroy questioned whether all US objectives in Syria were achievable. Jeffrey agreed that these objectives would be difficult to achieve, but that these “maximalist positions” are useful as a starting point for negotiations. For his part, Rayburn had indicated at the hearing that, “It is my assessment that each of our major goals is within reach, and I also assess that our leverage is growing over time.” He had further stated, “I think 2020 has been the year where we’ve seen the leverage that our adversaries have in Syria has hit a ceiling, while our leverage has grown.”
In her final words during the discussion, Mohamad emphasized that formal recognition for North and East Syria would support US interests as well as the interests of the Syrian people. “It helps us to end this war, and to end this war in Syria, we need a lot of support,” she said. “The international community has a moral obligation toward the Syrian people.”