Joe Macaron is a resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. where his research focuses primarily on U.S. strategy, international relations, and conflict analysis in the Middle East. He pays particular attention to the countries of the Levant and Iraq. Macaron was previously an analyst at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, the Issam Fares Center in Lebanon, and the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies at the City College of New York. A former journalist, he has also advised the International Monetary Fund on public engagement in the Middle East and served in different capacities in the United Nations system. Diwan interviewed Macaron in mid-October to get his perspective on the United States’ goals in the Middle East under the Biden administration, particularly in Syria.

Michael Young: Recently, the United States has taken a more lenient position toward Syria by not opposing a plan to send Egyptian natural gas to Lebanon via a pipeline through Jordan and Syria. How do you see American thinking on Syria, and is it undergoing change as the Assad regime appears to be solidly in place today?

Joe Macaron: President Joe Biden has no policy toward Syria, nor did former president Donald Trump. Since the Russian intervention in 2015, the U.S. approach has been to either engage or pressure Moscow to restrain Iran’s influence in Syria and cut Syrian President Bashar al-Assad loose. This approach has clearly failed. The United States is now playing the long game in Syria, keeping a light footprint in the northeast through the Syrian Democratic Forces and maintaining U.S. sanctions on Assad until Russia is ready to compromise on ending the conflict.

The difference between Trump and Biden on Syria is tactical rather than strategic. Trump was adamant in refusing any Gulf normalization with Assad, and Arab regimes avoided challenging him, while the Biden administration has more nuances and is sending mixed messages. The Biden administration is not vetoing limited engagement with Assad if it does not flagrantly violate the Caesar Act, U.S. legislation to sanction the Assad regime for its wartime crimes. This is an olive branch to Moscow as the U.S.-Russian bilateral talks that began after the Biden-Putin summit, and that include Syria, are advancing. We should remember though that Trump also agreed to grant Iraq a waiver from U.S. sanctions to import Iranian gas, hence what Biden did regarding the Arab Gas pipeline to Lebanon is not a significant policy shift. Washington’s position will continue to evolve in incremental steps because there are, simply, limited U.S. options in Syria. However, the ultimate questions remain what cost Moscow is willing to pay to end the Syrian conflict and to what extent the United States is willing to be flexible? Within this context, there is currently a U.S. return to the mantra of changing Assad’s behavior, which signals Washington’s expectation that Russia should pressure Assad to make concessions to resolve the Syrian conflict. Assad’s future largely depends on this U.S.-Russian attempt at making a deal.

MY: The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan underlined that whether it is Republican or Democratic administrations in Washington, all are keen to reduce the United States’ military footprint in the broader Middle East. What do you think will happen to the U.S. military presence in Syria and Iraq as a consequence of this thinking?

JM: Unlike Afghanistan, the U.S. presence in Syria is cost-effective in a defined area and involves an advisory role for a well-structured SDF force with aerial coverage through drones when needed. Unless this presence becomes a burden, one should not expect a U.S. policy shift in the short term. However, the SDF has its long-term concerns regarding what might happen and is preparing contingency plans.

Recently, there were significant steps taken by the Biden administration to assure the SDF on the U.S. commitment in Syria after the American withdrawal from Afghanistan. So far, the establishment in Washington wants to maintain this military presence. It was structured in a way that is easy to manage and move around. However, on the political track there is no clear U.S. vision on how to protect this presence in the medium term or how to plan an ultimate exit strategy.

MY: Jordan has moved quickly in the process of improving relations with the Assad regime, while Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon all are thinking in a similar way. How do you foresee relations between the Arab states in general and Syria in the coming year?

JM: A growing number of Arab regimes have been willing to engage with the Assad regime, each for its own different reasons. For instance, Jordan, Iraq, and Lebanon have their domestic motivations, while Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates seek to counter Iranian and Turkish influence. Now that Trump is out of office, these Arab regimes do not share the same connection with Biden and are willing to take a step closer to Russia when it comes to Syria. What might encourage them to do so is that the Biden administration is not offering an alternative, nor has it been sending clear warning signals against normalizing with Assad as the Trump administration previously did. The Arab normalization train has left the station. What the Biden administration can do is put a lid on the process and make sure it does not mean bestowing international legitimacy on Bashar al-Assad. Regardless of what approach it adopts, the Biden administration should be more proactive on Syria.

MY: While many people in the Middle East say the United States is disengaging from the region, American officials insist they are not, and that all they’re doing is drawing down their military commitments. Yet even if this is true, such behavior is highly significant and even transformative in the region. Can you describe for us the impact of the new American outlook toward the region and its implications?

JM: There has been clear U.S. fatigue with the Middle East for over a decade now. Former president Barack Obama signed the nuclear deal with Iran in order to facilitate a pivot to Asia and the establishment in Washington is eager to shift resources away from the region to counter China and Russia globally. However, the Middle East keeps coming back to knock at the White House’s door. Middle Eastern leaders were exceptionally spoiled with U.S. attention under Trump, who had a self-serving approach. However, under Biden there is a return to U.S. normalcy, and these Arab leaders must adjust to an American president who is not interested in engaging with them unless it is necessary. The Biden administration will stay the current course of U.S. policy in the Middle East. It might alter its tactics, but the objective remains to preserve the American presence and influence, avoid confrontation with other powers, and manage local conflicts. However, there is no coherent U.S. strategy or clear endgame, which makes the United States and its allies vulnerable to shifting regional dynamics and unpredictable U.S. domestic politics.

MY: One of the instruments the United States would like to use to prepare its disengagement from the region is a nuclear deal with Iran. Where do you see the negotiations going?

JM: A U.S. nuclear deal with Iran is inevitable, as both sides want this outcome. It is a matter of time before Tehran ends its grandstanding, because the alternative is a continuous decline in the economy that the Iranian regime can no longer afford. Like Obama, Biden sees that renewing the deal will help restrain Iran’s nuclear program and provide a less hostile environment for U.S. troops in Iraq, which would put less pressure on the larger U.S. presence in the Middle East. Beyond that, the U.S.-Iranian rivalry is expected to continue, as we can see today in Lebanon and Iraq. A nuclear deal should not be interpreted as a case of U.S. disengagement, but rather as an attempt to manage and mitigate the ongoing conflict with Iran.