Morning Brief

In Message to Iran, Biden Bombs Syria

Will a move meant to show U.S. strength jeopardize a diplomatic opening with Iran?

President Joe Biden signs an Executive Order on the economy in the State Dining Room with Vice President Kamala Harris, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021.  (Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Joe Biden signs an Executive Order on the economy in the State Dining Room with Vice President Kamala Harris, Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2021. (Photo by Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Biden directs air strikes on Iran-backed militia targets in Syria, Armenia is rocked by coup allegations, and the Netherlands votes to recognize genocide against Uyghurs.

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Biden Targets Iran-backed Militias In Syria

U.S. President Joe Biden made the first major military move of his presidency when he directed air strikes in Syria on a structure held by Iran-backed militias who are believed to be responsible for recent attacks on U.S. targets across the border in Iraq.

In bombing the war-torn country within weeks of becoming president, Biden follows in the footsteps of his predecessor Donald Trump, who launched a missile strike 77 days in to his term, hitting a Syrian airbase in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack.

What the strikes both have in common is that they are designed to be interpreted not as an act of war, but as a message. In Biden’s case, it’s an attempt to set boundaries of acceptability with Iranian proxy forces and meant to prevent further escalation.

But as the Biden administration openly talks of resuming dialogue with Iran over a return to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it’s worth considering both whether the strike makes that possibility more remote, and whether it has undermined the Biden administration’s stated goal of promoting diplomacy as the primary tool of U.S. foreign policy.

For Vali Nasr, a professor of Middle East studies at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), the strikes aren’t likely to change Iran’s calculus when it comes to the JCPOA.

“I don’t think it closes the door to diplomacy,” Nasr told Foreign Policy. “For both Tehran and Washington, the nuclear deal matters more than these tit-for-tats in Iraq and Syria. Iran needs sanctions relief and the U.S. still wants restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program, so I don’t think regional issues supersede these concerns.”

In a perverse sense, the bombings may have even helped diplomacy, Nasr said. “The Iranians will think if the U.S. gets worried about its mischievous behavior it may get to the table faster, and the Americans want to prevent Iran from doing things that could complicate going back to the table by responding decisively early on.”

Trita Parsi, executive director of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, says the tit-for-tat escalation and deescalation is needlessly complex. Speaking to Foreign Policy, he suggested a more elegant solution.

“If the Biden administration did this in retaliation to what happened in Iraq because they believe the Iranians are escalating in order to pressure the U.S. back into the deal, then that in and of itself is making clear the dangers of not going back into the deal. Why don’t we just go back in the deal? That seems to resolve these issues much better.”

Even though it’s still early in the Biden administration, Parsi said the strikes in Syria have not inspired confidence.

“I understand that they think they need to show this resolve—so no one thinks that they’re weak—but that, in my view, signals weakness. Because if you’re strong you don’t need to do this kind of signaling. And it worries me that they already feel so pressured that they have to do this.”

What We’re Following Today

Turmoil in Armenia. Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan ordered the dismissal of the chief of the military’s general staff on Thursday as he accused the country’s top military officers of attempting a coup. Military leaders released a statement on Thursday calling on Pashinyan to resign, as tensions over a deal signed by the prime minister to end the conflict with Azerbaijan over Nagorno-Karabakh increased. Pashinyan, whose party currently holds a majority in parliament, has so far survived votes to oust him. Both the United States and Russia offered words of support to the Armenian government in the dispute.

Netherlands parliament passes Uyghur genocide motion. The Netherlands has become the first European country to call Chinese treatment of its Uyghur minority in Xinjiang genocide, after the Dutch parliament passed a non-binding motion on Thursday that stopped short of blaming the Chinese government. The Chinese embassy in the Hague said the designation was an “outright lie” and that the Dutch parliament had “deliberately smeared China and grossly interfered in China’s internal affairs.”  Foreign Minister Stef Blok—whose VVD party voted against the motion—said the government did not wish to use the term, but nevertheless said the Uyghur situation is “a cause of great concern.”

U.S.-Saudi ties. U.S. President Joe Biden and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman spoke over the phone on Thursday, paving the way for the publication of a declassified U.S. intelligence report detailing Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s involvement in the death and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi. In a readout with little detail released after the call, the White House did not mention Khashoggi by name, but said that Biden “affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law.”

Keep an Eye On

Tigray war crimes. Amnesty International has called for a U.N.-led investigation as the rights organization published a new report documenting possible crimes against humanity perpetrated by Eritrean forces in Tigray late last year. The report, based on dozens of witness accounts, says that Eritrean troops “systematically killed” hundreds of unarmed civilians in the city of Axum during an offensive against the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) in November. Amnesty’s report follows similar reporting on a massacre in Axum by the Associated Press last week. The Eritrean government rejected the AP story as “outrageous lies.”

Trump returns. Former U.S. President Donald Trump will address the Conservative Political Action Conference this Sunday in Florida in his first public speech since leaving office. According to an Axios report, Trump is expected to outline his vision for the Republican party’s future—naming himself as the likely 2024 presidential nominee.

Odds and Ends

A group of Russian diplomats leaving North Korea were forced to leave the country by hand-pushed rail trolley as strict coronavirus measures bring travel in and out of the country to a standstill. After travelling 32 hours by train and another 2 hours by bus from Pyongyang to reach the Russian border, the diplomats and their families loaded up their luggage on the rail trolley and pushed themselves the final kilometer to a Russian train station. The Russian foreign ministry singled out the Pyongyang embassy’s third secretary Vladislav Sorokin for providing the bulk of the effort. 

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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