Syria Open to Talks with Biden if US Pulls Troops, Leaves Oil, Ends Militia Support

Syria's permanent mission to the United Nations has told Newsweek that the country is willing to engage with Joe Biden's administration if he reverses the policies of its predecessors.

Such a reversal would include halting intervention in Syria's internal affairs, withdrawing U.S. troops deployed without Damascus' permission, and stopping the exploitation of oil and gas resources, the mission said.

It would also include ending assistance to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish force seeking greater autonomy in the country's northeast, as well as aid to other non-state actors engaged in the civil war, according to the mission.

"The reason for the existing disputes with the United States of America is the policies of previous American administrations that include: interference in the Syrian internal affairs, occupation of territories in the Syrian Arab Republic, stealing its natural resources, and supporting separatist militias and armed terrorist entities in Syria," Syria's permanent mission to the U.N. told Newsweek.

Should these conditions be met, Damascus would consider reestablishing ties with Washington, which severed relations in 2012 as Syria's Arab Spring-era unrest devolved into an all-out conflict between security forces, insurgents and jihadi factions.

"In the case that the US administration is ready to abandon these policies," the mission said, "Syria does not object to meaningful and purposeful communications far from the conditions that the previous administration was trying to impose on Syria with regard to the situation in Syria and the region."

us, military, syria, war, oil
A U.S. Bradley Fighting Vehicle patrols near oil production facilities in the countryside near Al-Malikiyah, known in Kurdish as Derik, in Syria's northeastern Al-Hasakah province on Feb. 2. Initially a supporter of rebels fighting to overthrow Syrian President Bashar al-Assad almost a decade ago, the U.S. shifted efforts roughly mid-war to backing majority-Kurdish militia efforts to defeat ISIS and secure oil and gas resources. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

The Biden administration has yet to send any similar signals to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom the U.S. and its partners have accused of war crimes, including the use of chemical weapons, throughout the nearly decade-long war.

Biden served as vice president when former President Barack Obama first launched a covert campaign to support rebels fighting to oust Assad in the early stages of the war. As Islamists gained ground nationwide, however, U.S. attention shifted toward defeating the Islamic State militant group (ISIS), and the Pentagon formed an international coalition with backing on the ground from the Syrian Democratic Forces.

The Syrian military also took on ISIS in a separate campaign backed by Russia, Iran and allied militias now viewed as a top threat by Israel, the closest U.S. ally in the region.

Syrian air defenses were activated in response to an Israeli attack on the country's south, targeting what one source in Syria told Newsweek were sites near Damascus International Airport and Al-Kisweh south of the capital, as well as the southwestern city of Al-Quneitra and a radio station in nearby Daraa.

The attacks marked the latest strikes in a period of heightened Israeli military action against the war-torn nation.

Even with ISIS' physical caliphate mostly defeated, violence continues on the ground between Syrian troops, Syrian Democratic Forces fighters and various rebel groups and jihadi elements. Meanwhile, an estimated 600-900 U.S. troops remain posted near oil and gas sites across regions under Syrian Democratic Forces, which have recently engaged in clashes with Syrian forces as efforts to reconcile the two factions failed.

At his first press conference on Tuesday, State Department spokesperson Ned Price elaborated on the Biden administration's current thinking on Syria ahead of the war's 10th anniversary.

"We will renew U.S. efforts to promote a political settlement to end Syria's civil war in close consultations with our allies, our partners, and the U.N," Price told reporters. "A political settlement must address the underlying causes that led to nearly a decade of civil war. We will use the tools at our disposal, including economic pressure, to push for meaningful reform and accountability, and we'll continue to support the U.N.'s role in negotiating a political settlement in line with UNSCR 2254."

U.N. Security Council Resolution 2254, adopted in 2015, paved the way for the formation of the Syrian Constitutional Committee. The Committee, comprised of delegates of the government, opposition and U.N.-selected civil society members, held its fifth session last week in Geneva.

The meeting was attended by U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Geir Pedersen, who said Friday in remarks sent to Newsweek by his office that he had yet to make contact with the Biden administration. Russia, Iran and top opposition sponsor Turkey also held their own joint session on the sidelines, reaffirming their status as the main guarantors of the beleaguered effort to end Syria's civil war as they prepare for their next meeting in Sochi later this month.

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Members of the Kurdish Internal Security Police Force, also known as Asayesh, man a checkpoint in the northeastern Syrian Kurdish-majority city of Al-Qamishli, on Jan. 31, amid heightened tensions with pro-government protesters. Kurdish fighters and Syrian troops have both clashed and fought alongside one another at different points throughout the conflict and their troubled ties have recently devolved into limited clashes. DELIL SOULEIMAN/AFP/Getty Images

While arbitration continues abroad, Syria's domestic suffering has deepened significantly, not only as result of the conflict, but also due to an economic crisis exacerbated by lockdowns induced by the COVID-19 pandemic. Price said resuming humanitarian assistance suspended by the previous administration was also a priority.

"We will also restore U.S. leadership in providing humanitarian aid," Price said. "Syria is a humanitarian catastrophe, and we must do more to aid vulnerable Syrians displaced within Syria, as well as refugees who have fled abroad."

Russia and Iran, however, have joined Syria in accusing the U.S. of contributing to the country's humanitarian crisis through the implementation of tough sanctions, which were intensified last summer in an effort to further squeeze the government.

During a press conference alongside his Jordanian counterpart on Wednesday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov lambasted what he called "the West's general strategy for regime change in the Syrian Arab Republic, which is contrary to the decisions of the U.N. Security Council." He touted the work of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and emphasized the need for a Syrian-led dialogue, with support—but not interference—from outside nations.

Lavrov provided a list of conditions on the ground necessary to bring an end to the conflict, including "the need to eradicate remaining small centers of terrorism in Syrian Arab Republic territory, to provide conditions for the return of refugees and to begin international assistance for the reconstruction of this country."