Biden team picks Dana Stroul to lead Pentagon's Middle East desk

Stroul, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, will join a roster of Obama-era veterans when she returns to the Pentagon.

al-monitor Dana Stroul, a co-chair of the bipartisan Syria Study Group, testifies to the findings of the group's final report at a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Oct. 16, 2019, in this screenshot taken from C-SPAN. Photo by C-SPAN.

Jan 20, 2021

Dana Stroul is set to become the Pentagon’s senior policy official solely focused on the Middle East for the Joe Biden administration, two sources familiar with the matter confirmed to Al-Monitor.

Stroul, an Obama-era veteran of the office she has been selected to lead, co-chaired the Syria Study Group set up by Congress while she was a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Her name was among a list of the latest Pentagon appointees first reported by Defense One.

Stroul previously worked on the US drawdown from Iraq and the Obama administration’s ties with Egypt amid the Arab Spring while at the Defense Department until 2013, and later joined the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as a lead staffer with responsibility for the region.

She has earned high praise from colleagues, including former Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary for the Middle East Michael Mulroy, who called Stroul an “excellent choice” for the role in a statement to Al-Monitor. Mulroy added that she has “the depth of knowledge and the key relationships needed to succeed” in the position.

At the Pentagon, Stroul is set to join other veterans of the Obama administration. Brian Katz, a former CIA analyst who led the Syria desk at the office of the secretary of defense from 2016-17, is reportedly set to become special assistant to the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.

Christopher Maier, whose position as director of the Pentagon’s task force to defeat the Islamic State (IS) was eliminated in the fall, is also slated to return as the principal deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict.

Why it matters: Biden administration officials have not yet articulated how they will fit the remnants of the Mike Pompeo-era Syria policy into a renewed attempt at detente with Iran, but the latest personnel picks provide some clues as to what might happen. 

Earlier this month Biden named Brett McGurk, the longtime envoy to the coalition to defeat IS, as Middle East coordinator for the National Security Council. Barbara Leaf, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and an expert on the Gulf, was named NSC senior director for the Middle East. Robert Malley, former NSC coordinator for the Middle East and current head of the International Crisis Group, is also reportedly under consideration for a lead role on Biden’s Iran policy.

Outgoing Trump administration officials have touted supposed strategic successes of their wholesale regional policy focused on Iran, but critics have charged that the approach sidelined other problems in the region, including human rights in the Gulf and lingering Islamic extremists in Syria.

As co-chair of the Syria Study Group, Stroul recommended the United States leave counter-IS forces in Syria to maintain pressure on President Bashar al-Assad and continue support Israel’s air campaign against Iran’s proxies, while redoubling political efforts to address the thousands of jihadi fighters and their families detained indefinitely in the country’s northeast. 

She and co-chair Michael Singh also advocated peace talks between NATO ally Turkey and the Kurdistan Workers Party to help ensure the survival of the main US  local partner militia against IS in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces. Stroul has also pointedly criticized the Trump administration's approach to Iran as ineffectual, lacking direction and potentially risking violent conflict, and advocated for a greater role for US allies in pushing back on Iran's regional influence.

What’s next: President Trump pushed hard against his own top advisers to force US troops out of the Middle East to end what he saw as "endless wars." In Syria and elsewhere, the president's impulse may have reduced Washington’s already insufficient leverage to achieve its goals.

Any increase in US troop presence in the Middle East is likely to remain a politically touchy subject as Biden focuses on extraordinary crises at home, but the possibility shouldn’t be discounted during his first several months in office.

Know More: Elizabeth Hagedorn takes a close look at hints about future regional policy from Antony Blinken, Biden’s pick for secretary of state, during his Senate confirmation hearing Tuesday.

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