The Biden administration has struggled to chart a clear course on Syria and the latest National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), approved by Congress on 15 December, is unlikely to help matters. Between rejection of some amendements concerned with the regime led by President Bashar al-Assad and the lack of clarity of those that were approved, the status quo seems to have been maintained.
On eggshells in northeast Syria
The act calls on the government to define a United States diplomatic and defence strategy for Syria within 90 days. Congress is mostly concerned about the transition timeline for the military presence in northeastern Syria alongside the Syrian Democratic Forces . The Biden administration, taken by surprise by the Trump administration’s sudden decision to withdraw US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) from Syria in 2019 , continues to insist that the US will have a military presence to pursue the fight against the Islamic State group (IS), as Brett McGurk, the National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, reiterated on 10 December.
Congress also asked the White House to establish a withdrawal timetable for the Al Tanf garrison, where the US, which was targeted again by a drone probably of Iranian origin on 14 December, is supporting the militia group Maghaweir Al-Thawrah (MaT). Established in 2014 under the US’s Train and Equip programme, the faction, which was intially set up to fight the Assad regime, before being redirected to the fight against IS, is now struggling to find a clear mission due to the reduced operations against IS. MaT has nonetheless received renewed funding of $177,000 under the NDAA.
Fight against drug trafficking strategy
Seeking to find a role for itself, MaT has made much of its success in seizing cargos of Captagon, the amphetamine-based drug used by IS and pro-Assad militia fighters. Initially Congress wanted to prioritise the fight against this drug trafficking, which the Assad regime is suspected of being responsible for, and the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) was asked to address the problem. However this amendement on this subject was left out of the final version of the DNAA.
The act nonetheless calls on the administration to strengthen sanctions against the Syrian regime, even though Congress is out of its depth with the difficulties of applying the Caesar Act and the US Treasury recently approved easing the sanctions with regard to the Lebanese crisis .