Can Russia Help Joe Biden Get the U.S. Out of Syria's 10-Year War?

As Syria's deadly civil war marks a grim 10-year milestone, Russia is opening the door for potential cooperation with a new U.S. administration struggling to reorient after a series of mission shifts has left Washington outpaced by other foreign powers active in the country.

"There is an urgent need for the international community to put aside politically motivated aspirations and join efforts to help the Syrians rebuild their country heavily damaged by the war," the Russian embassy in Washington told Newsweek. "There is always room for cooperation between Russia and the U.S. in Syria."

To do so would necessitate overcoming a rivalry that dates back to the Cold War and remains rife with bad blood over opposing interests and dueling accusations of wrongdoing at home and across the globe.

Washington and Moscow have previously found common ground in Syria in the multinational battle against the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), which the two powers fought as part of separate campaigns. Advancing any joint efforts today, however, would mean identifying additional areas of mutual understanding.

Moscow sees three.

"We would only welcome collaboration with Washington in providing humanitarian assistance to those in need, countering terrorism and pushing forward political process with a common goal to achieve peace," the Russian embassy said.

It would also entail reconsidering the approaches pursued by Biden's predecessors, who sought to leverage U.S. economic and military pressure against the Syrian government and its longtime leader, President Bashar al-Assad, in response to widespread war crimes allegations.

Moscow sees these punitive actions as merely adding to the miseries of everyday Syrians while undermining the sovereignty of a nation suffering from conflict, financial crisis and COVID-19.

"We sincerely hope that the new administration will try to rethink previous strategies on Syria," the embassy said. "It is important to cease the cruel sanction campaign against the Syrian people and put an end to illegal military presence in the Arab Republic."

us, russia, military, flag, east, syria
U.S. soldiers stand along a road across from Russian military armored personnel carriers, near the village of Tannuriyah in the countryside east of Al-Qamishli in Syria's northeastern Al-Hasakah province on May 2, 2020. U.S. and Russian troops have repeatedly run into one another operating in the country's northeast, where both the Moscow-supported government and Pentagon-backed Syrian Democratic Forces operate. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Syria's war broke out a decade ago after security forces cracked down hard on anti-government protests, which then evolved into an armed uprising that expanded across the country from the southern city of Daraa. Scores of loosely affiliated rebel groups began to emerge, some backed by the U.S. and its regional partners, and some with close ties to jihadi ideologies that would consume the insurrection, especially with the rise of ISIS in 2013.

With ISIS gaining ground across half of Syria and a third of neighboring Iraq, another Middle East power stepped in: Iran. Tehran doubled down on support for its longtime ally in Damascus in 2014, in part through the mobilization of militias originating from Lebanon to Pakistan, and also shored up paramilitary forces against ISIS in Iraq.

The U.S. launched an anti-ISIS military coalition in both countries that same year, and in 2015 teamed up with a new non-state faction on the ground in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a group comprised of mostly Kurdish fighters. Around this same, Russia staged a direct military intervention in Syria to aid the pro-government campaign, which quickly began to reverse territorial losses incurred in the earlier years of the conflict.

Today, Syria is divided among rival factions. The government controls up to two-thirds of the country as well as the lion's share of its population. The Syrian Democratic Forces run much of the northeast, while opposition elements have established control with the support of Turkey across pockets of territory along the northern border.

Around 900 U.S. troops are deployed alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces mostly near oil and gas resources in the northeast and alongside rebel fighters at a southern desert garrison in Al-Tanf. Biden has ordered a review of the Pentagon's extensive troop presence across the globe but has yet to announce any moves regarding the future of U.S. ground troops in Syria.

Israel, a U.S. ally, also continues to occupy the Golan Heights, seized during the 1967 Six-Day War with Syria. Israeli forces regularly stage air raids against suspected Iran-linked positions it suspects are transferring weapons or setting forward operating bases. President Biden ordered a U.S. strike on two such spots earlier this month in response to an earlier rocket attack tied to a group with alleged ties to Tehran.

Both Israel and the U.S. have de-confliction channels with Russia to avoid incidents.

Concerns over further U.S. action grew following a second such Iraqi rocket strike on a position where U.S. soldiers were present. The Syrian permanent mission to the United Nations told Newsweek that the Biden administration's earlier strike had shown "an utter disregard for the principles and norms of international law, and it sends a negative signal of the new administration's policies and its persistent endeavor to implement the law of force instead of the force of law, in continuation of the previous US administrations' approach in dealing with the regional and international crises in the world."

The mission accused Washington of flouting the international order as defined by the U.N.

"The Syrian Arab Republic has strongly condemned the American aggression against its sovereignty, independence, unity, and territorial integrity as it gravely violates the principles of international law and provisions of the UN Charter," the mission said at the time. "Syria has warned that this aggression will lead to consequences that will escalate the situation in the region and threaten peace and security."

Damascus has joined Moscow in calling for the new U.S. leader to adopt a new approach to the conflict, one which diverges from the paths taken by his predecessors. Syria has specifically requested that Biden abandon policies "aimed at destabilizing the security and stability of Syria through acts of aggression, occupation, utilizing terrorism, sponsoring separatist proxy militias in northeastern Syria, looting cultural property, oil, and gas, in addition to imposing unilateral coercive measures that have catastrophic impacts on the daily life of millions of Syrians."

Russia and Syria have joined Iran (which, like Syria, continues to face intensive U.S. sanctions under the Biden administration) and 14 other signatories to establish the "Group of Friends in Defense of the Charter of the United Nations." The group recently shared with Newsweek a concept note detailing its mission and calls for additional parties to join.

Among the U.N. Charter principles highlighted by members were "fostering respect to the principles of sovereignty, equality of States, non interference in the internal affairs of States, peaceful settlement of disputes, and to refrain from the use or threat of use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State."

Russia has taken the lead alongside Iran and Turkey in seeking to end Syria's conflict through international dialogue and mediation. The three have established themselves as guarantors of Syria's beleaguered peace process, a track guided by the unanimously passed U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, which calls for ceasefire, negotiations and political settlement.

Under the Biden administration, a State Department spokesperson told Newsweek last month that the U.S. "is committed to a political settlement in line with UNSCR 2254 to end the conflict in Syria, in close consultation with our allies, partners, and the U.N."

But this settlement, as envisioned by Washington, appeared to involve consequences for Assad and his government over their alleged wrongdoings. The U.S. spokesperson said the administration "would use the tools at our disposal, including economic pressure, to push for meaningful reform and accountability for the Assad regime."

The anti-ISIS fight was listed as a third priority.

"The United States and the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS continue to work with our increasingly capable local partners to maintain constant pressure on ISIS remnants in Syria to ensure ISIS's lasting defeat," the spokesperson said.

Syrian officials continue to lash out at U.S. presence in the country, especially as the country's humanitarian situation worsens, and attempts to foster reconciliation between Damascus and the autonomous administration led by the Syrian Democratic Forces repeatedly fail.

Despite his country's dire situation and his own recent COVID-19 diagnosis, Assad does not appear to be poised to leave anytime soon as he faces his fourth consecutive election in two decades in the upcoming weeks.

In fact, the 22-member Arab League that suspended Syria's participation in late 2011 may be closer than ever to restoring Damascus' seat at the table. The top diplomat of Saudi Arabia, arguably the most influential single nation of the grouping and an outspoken critic of Assad, recently spoke in favor of Syria's return, a development that comes amid concerns over the level of influence held by non-Arab nations like Iran and Turkey.

The remarks came amid Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov's tour of the region. Lavrov also stopped in the United Arab Emirates, whose foreign minister joined the call for the easing of international pressure against the Syrian government just a day earlier.

Speaking Thursday at a press briefing, State Department spokesperson Ned Price acknowledged that Assad "remains in power despite 10 years of civil war." However, Price said a change in Washington's approach would only come about in response to a shift in Damascus.

"If there is to be a sustainable end to this conflict, we recognize that the Syrian Government must change its behavior," Price said. "We are in the process now of reviewing what we might do to advance the prospects for that political settlement, and we'll consult, as I said before, closely with the U.N., closely with our allies and partners in doing so."

So far, Price said, the Syrian leader "has not done anything that would restore his legitimacy."

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Russian President Vladimir Putin holds a meeting with his Syrian counterpart Bashar al-Assad via a video conference call at the Novo-Ogaryovo state residence outside Moscow on November 9, 2020. Putin has twice traveled to Syria, and Assad has made three publicly acknowledged trips to Russia since the outbreak of Syria's civil war in March 2011. ALEXEY NIKOLSKY/SPUTNIK/AFP/Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken later issued a joint statement alongside his counterparts from France, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom marking the beginning of the demonstrations that first rocked Syria 10 years ago and arguing that "President Assad and his backers bear responsibility for the years of war and human suffering that followed."

The statement took note of Syria's failing economic situation, its ongoing need for humanitarian assistance and dismissed Syria's upcoming elections as a spectacle that would "neither be free nor fair, nor should it lead to any measure of international normalization with the Syrian regime."

"It is imperative the regime and its supporters engage seriously in the political process and allow humanitarian assistance to reach communities in need," the top diplomats said.

In remarks given that same day, U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen issued virtual remarks in which he described a "fragile calm" that has recently gripped the embattled country, potentially allowing for a fresh diplomatic push among the international community.

He said this new format "will have to involve, one way or the other, the United States, Russia, Iran, Turkey, Arab States and the European Union" as well as all permanent members of the Security Council, which also includes China, France, Germany and the U.K.

But, for now, the ball appeared to be in Washington's court. And Pedersen warned no one country would be able to set the rules of play moving forward.

"As you know it is still early days for the Biden administration, and we will also need a more in-depth discussion with the Biden administration and then with the other interlocutors that I just mentioned to you now," Pedersen said.

"But I think the key for me is that it is now necessary for all these actors to seriously sit down and develop a Syrian policy based on the understanding that none of them can dictate the outcome of the Syrian conflict," he added.

One Syrian source with whom Newsweek spoke on the condition of anonymity expressed desperation as to what appeared to be a lack of urgency on the part of the U.S. to address the ongoing war.

"About the new administration's policy towards Syria, until now there's some kind of vagueness," the Syrian source said, noting that it appeared both Washington and Moscow are looking for some sort of arrangement to be put into place right before or after the upcoming presidential vote.

As of now, however, the Syrian source noted that "Russia is doing the heavy lifting in talks with the leading Arabs, Turkey and Iran, and, at the same time, the solution will be utilized to cross the issues between Iran and the U.S.," which continue to feud over the latter's unilateral exit from a nuclear deal in 2018.

But this individual found it hard to be hopeful.

"A part of me believes that nothing will change," the Syrian source said, "and this country will suffer until it's no more."