Congress Muddles Washington’s Syria Strategy

December 16, 2021

Congress has taken several steps within the newly passed annual defense bill that are likely to exacerbate the Biden administration’s confused Syria policy.

For one, lawmakers voted to require the administration to craft a strategy for turning America-led counter-ISIS operations back to allies on the ground in northeast portions of the country, a withdrawal that more hawkish members say is premature. Although the terrorist caliphate was devastated in recent years by a U.S.-led military campaign, a U.N. report this year found that the group continues to operate in Iraq and Syria, even in its current diminished state. Meanwhile, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad has started to reconsolidate his control over the country after a decade-long civil war in which his forces brutally put down an uprising.

The provision will require the secretary of state to submit a congressional report detailing a timeline according to which U.S. forces will pass “security responsibilities” back to Kurdish forces fighting ISIS. Some hawks are furious that the amendment made it into a compromise draft of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) amid a highly chaotic process this year, panning it as a concession to Assad, who has operated an industrial system of mass slaughter and, more recently, turned his government into one of the world’s most prolific exporters of an illicit amphetamine. U.S. officials are required by law to enact an economic-sanctions pressure campaign against the Syrian government, but observers note that sanctions designations have flagged under Biden. In fact, the Wednesday evening before Thanksgiving, the Treasury Department broadened sanctions exemptions that will let companies do business with the Syrian government as long as they claim that they’re involved in reconstruction activities.

Both houses of Congress have now passed the NDAA, with the amendment, and President Biden is expected to sign it into law

The withdrawal strategy set to be mandated by the NDAA, one senior GOP aide told National Review, “is an embarrassment and an attempt by Democrats to green-light a withdrawal from Syria and a weak stance toward Assad. It also illustrates that the Democrat approach to Syria is defined purely out of politics: Remember when President Trump withdrew U.S. troops from Syria and in a panic Democrats quickly passed a resolution condemning it? What changed?”

Other parts of the amendment, by contrast, demand a tougher approach to implementing mandatory sanctions to punish human-rights abusers than has been unfurled by the Biden administration up to now, and the amendment also requires the administration to come up with ways to prevent normalization with Assad and to seek to do more to go after his human-rights abuses. These last bits line up with a different NDAA provision, successfully pushed by Representative Claudia Tenney and the Republican Study Committee (RSC), the largest caucus of conservatives in the House, that would make it easier to home in on Assad’s inner circle with sanction