By: Dr. Mohsen Mohammad Saleh.
We discussed in a previous article the US policy in the region, especially in Iraq. This article will attempt to shed light on US policy in Syria.
Throughout the past five years, US policy on Syria focused primarily on weakening the Assad regime, without seeking in earnest to remove it, fulfill the aspirations of the Syrian people, or even protect the Syrian people… Rather, this article argue that the US Administration practical policy was focused (aside from lips service) on attrition and fragmentation, pushing for the emergence of walls of blood between Syria’s regions and communities, with a view to usher in a new sectarian-ethnic Sykes-Picot in the country, regardless of whether or not this would be followed by an alteration of political boundaries.
Therefore, the claim that Russian-Iranian intervention in Syria is the result of US weakness and decline, and retreat from the region, is an exaggeration that would lead to false conclusions. Rather, their intervention ultimately converged with the US agenda, without costing Washington any military or financial burdens. It contributed to protracting the conflict and exhausting the warring parties amid a lack of a serious US appetite for ending the war pending the “stewing of the broth,” the final deal. In the meantime, the US does not mind for rival or enemy parties to act as fuel for the fire under this “broth.”
US Policy in Syria
Similarly to the Iraqi situation, the function of the US practical policy in Syria is primarily to “set the pace” of events in such a way as to allow the following:
1. The prolongation of the conflict for the longest possible time, to destroy Syria’s social fabric and erect bloody sectarian and ethnic walls.
2. The continuation of the conflict to destroy the economy, infrastructure, and means of production in Syria.
3. The continuation of the conflict to destroy the central state and army, without letting them be replaced by an effective revolutionary central force, instead allowing the rise of sectarian and ethnic militias and forces in specific geographical areas under a weak central authority.
4. The preservation of Israel’s security and stability in any future arrangements in the region.
Therefore, the United States was not interested in direct intervention, but rather only in the management of the conflict in a way that preserves the overall features of its interests and policies, commensurate with the doctrine of the Democratic administration of Barack Obama and its focus on “soft” means of projecting power.
Climates of Foreign Intervention
Since the ouster of the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq in 2003 and the assassination of Rafik Hariri in Lebanon in 2005, the neo-conservatives in the American Administration have put sustained pressure on Syria to abandon the resistance against Israel and engage in the “peace process.” Writing in The Washington Post on 1/4/2005, Charles Krauthammer proclaimed that a new axis of evil was forming, comprising Syria, Iran, Hamas, Hizbullah, and Islamic Jihad, and that “Syria is the prize”, meaning that it would be the weakest link. Then Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, argued that the Syrian regime was very fragile, and that the United States should take advantage of this. Dennis Ross and others also made similar arguments.
However, their writings focused on what Syria must do vis-à-vis Iraq, Lebanon, the peace process, and resistance, rather than reforms and democratization… In other words, the lobbying from the beginning was about re-configuring the region in accordance to US and Israeli interests. In September 2005, Nicholas Blanford of The Christian Science Monitor at the time quoted Middle East Expert Joshua Landis as saying, “The US wants to get Bashar by the throat and shake him hard to see what change falls out of his pockets.”
In the spring of 2011, the popular revolt reflected a true popular desire for change. For several months, the revolt remained peaceful… However, the Syrian regime opted for a violent crackdown, killing nearly six thousand Syrians by the end of 2011. The revolt was militarized, as the doors closed quickly to any peaceful protest movement that could have led to a real change towards a democratic system that reflected the popular will.
The “militarization of the revolt” was a risky process. However, the Syrian regime found it to be its best option to confront the revolutionary wind, as this would allow it to repress the popular uprising and isolate the revolutionary hot spots from the masses. Furthermore, as a segment of the opposition took up arms, it allowed the regime to play the game it excels at in the region, where the rebels have no military means to take it on. In addition, the regime has used its propaganda machine to paint the rebels as extremists and terrorists, to present itself as being in the same side as the international powers in the war on terror… playing on Western fears and “legitimizing” its repression of the rebellion in the eyes of some.
However, the regime did not take into account that just as it allowed itself to use military force and seek assistance from regional and international powers, the popular revolt, strong and broad, would not surrender, and some of it would turn to armed insurrection and attract foreign political and military support…
Thus, regime’s insistence on repressing the revolution, and the revolution’s insistence on toppling the regime… created a golden opportunity for foreign intervention that increased with time, as the conflict turned into a war of attrition that exhausted both sides. The Americans were thus afforded the chance to enter as a major player in the Syrian civil war… as a “maestro” that controls the overall path of the game.
American Policies and Actions
In order to implement its policy, the US administration, first, provided support for the Syrian opposition’s demand for Assad to step down. The US turned a blind eye to efforts to arm the opposition as it proceeded to capture parts of Syria, putting the regime in a difficult position. Yet, the US did not allow the delivery of advanced weaponry to the rebels in a way that would have defeated the regime, and prevented countries that support the rebels like Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey from doing the same.
Second, the US turned a blind eye to regional intervention in support of the Syrian regime (Iran and Hizbullah), and the flow of weapons and fighters supporting the regime (especially because this gives the conflict a sectarian nature in line with the US desire to implicate and drain Iran and “resistance forces,” and deviate their direction, while turning the peoples of the region against them as enemies of the popular aspirations). This allowed the regime to survive and go on the offensive, but then the US allowed weapons to flow to the rebels to recapture their lost positions… As a result, both sides were led to believe they can prevail and achieve victory, while only prolonging the bloodletting.
This policy led to tremendous suffering among the Syrian people and the warring parties. In five years and two months (by 25/5/2016), up to 282 thousand Syrians were killed, two million were left wounded, and 11 million were displaced. The human losses of the forces of the regime and allied militias surpassed a hundred thousand.
Third, despite the US pretense of caring for the humanitarian situation, it refused to declare a no-fly zone in Syria to ground the regime aircraft (a measure neither difficult nor costly for the Americans). This allowed the regime to safely bomb areas controlled by the rebels, while bids by them to acquire anti-aircraft weaponry was blocked by the US. A no-fly zone is not difficult for the US to implement.
Since 1991, the US implemented a no-fly zone in northern Iraq to protect the Kurds, and did the same during the Libyan crisis that ended with the removal of the regime in Tripoli. According to the Syrian Committee for Human Rights, there were 619 massacres in 2015 alone, including 413 perpetrated by the Syrian regime warplanes and 79 by the Russian air force.
Fourth, the United States deliberately thwarted efforts to establish safe zones in northern Syria along the border with Turkey, which would have reduced the suffering of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians and provided a safe haven for the Syrian opposition. This also was not a costly measure for the Americans. Their Turkish, Saudi, and Qatari allies would have covered its financial and military costs.
Moreover, the US “practically” implemented this kind of protection for the Syrian Kurdish militias (People’s Protection Units) that were then able to extend their influence to vast swaths of northern Syria, ensuring ethnic dominance of one Syrian community at the expense of other rebel factions, and further reinforcing the trend for partition and sectarian-ethnic division favored by the US administration.
Fifth, the United States, which had shown enthusiasm to intervene to protect Syrian civilians following reports of sarin-gas attacks by the Syrian regime killing 1,400 civilians in Ghouta in the summer of 2013, backtracked without a clear reason from attacking the Syrian regime. Jeffrey Goldberg, writing in The Atlantic in April 2016, believes that 30/8/2013 marks the day Obama “brought to a premature end America’s reign as the world’s sole indispensable superpower,” when he decided not to attack Syria.
Goldberg said this was in line with the Obama’s doctrine, who “generally does not believe a president should place American soldiers at great risk in order to prevent humanitarian disasters, unless those disasters pose a direct security threat to the United States.”
This article, which was promoted far and wide, as an accurate diagnosis of the strategy of the current US administration and the decline of the US empire, was very misleading with regard to Syria. Indeed, using cruise missiles, for example, would have not carried considerable risk for US soldiers. On the other hand, the US air force has played a key role in attacking the strongholds of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq (ISIS) and supporting Kurdish forces in Syria.
The Americans, who have around 4,600 troops in Iraq, are taking part under US air cover in attacks on ISIS strongholds there. In other words, the issue was not carrying out a shift in the current US strategy. It was about the lack of an American appetite to intervene in Syria, as long as the course of events there was in line with the US agenda.
For this reason, the US on the subject of Syria’s chemical weapons agreed to a solution that serves the strategy of weakening Syria while benefiting Israel, namely, for the regime to agree to dismantle its chemical weapons arsenal. At the same time, however, this solution allowed the Syrian regime the freedom to continue its war on the rebels by land, sea, and air, with complete US disregard for civilian lives as long as they are killed by other means. Thus, the Syrian regime proceeded to kill tens of thousands more using conventional weapons. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the regime killed around 184 thousand civilians in the first five years of the conflict, compared to three thousand at the hands of rebel factions and 2,200 at the hands of ISIS.
Sixth, the Russian intervention alongside the regime would not have been possible without US consent or non-objection. Indeed, the Americans do not mind for the Russians to slide into a quagmire in Syria, even to shore up the regime and strike the rebels, especially those who do not toe the US line or those that adopt an Islamic or nationalist outlook with regard to their aspirations for change.
The Russian intervention rescued the Syrian regime from rapidly accelerating retreat in the spring and summer of 2015… and thus restored the mutual bloodletting in Syria desirable to the American Administration. The Russian intervention also weakened Iranian influence over the regime and the general course of events, although it appeared as relieving the burdens of intervention on Iran. Moscow’s intervention implicitly served the US interest because the Russians have since antagonized the peoples of the region, whose anger is now directed at Russia.
Moreover, the US understanding with Russia regarding the future of Syria in accordance to strategic and pragmatic arrangements between the two sides, where Russia obtains a slice of the pie acceptable to the Americans, remains easier to Washington than a direct understanding with Iran or the Syrian regime. It soon became evident that most Russian strikes in Syria targeted non-ISIS factions, in contradiction of Moscow’s stated objectives. Russian strikes targeted hospitals, schools, bakeries, and civilian facilities. In seven months (up until 30/4/2016), according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Russian strikes killed 5,800 including 2,005 civilians, of which 800 are children.
A visit by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Moscow on 7/6/2016 was a clear indication that the Russian intervention does not prejudice the cornerstone of US Mideast policy, namely, “Israel and its security.” The gift the Russians gave to Netanyahu, an Israeli M48 Patton captured by the Syrians in 1982 in the battle of Sultan Yacoub with the Israeli army, had a huge significance.
Indeed, it shows the extent of Russian sway over Syria’s rulers, while also underline Russia’s keenness to reassure the Israelis regarding its role in Syria. Shortly before the visit, Netanyahu declared that strengthening relations with Russia “serves us and our national security at this time, and has also prevented superfluous and dangerous confrontations on our northern border.” Later developments showed deep Russian coordination with Israel over air sorties in areas bordering the Israeli-occupied territories.
Seventh, the US have bought into the claim promoted by the Syrian regime and its allies that they are fighting “terrorists and extremist groups”… The narrative soon shifted to one where the essence of the problem in Syria is “terrorism” rather than the “rebellion” of the Syrian people. The US thus chose to focus its declared military efforts on fighting ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra, conditioning their support for any rebel faction upon their declaring war on ISIS rather than fighting the Syrian regime.
However, there are some things that need to be clarified. First and foremost, the party most damaged by ISIS was not the Syrian regime but the rebel forces, at the expense of which ISIS had expanded in many cases, draining them in bloody battles. Meanwhile, the Syrian regime benefitted by painting the rebels with the brush of ISIS, portraying them as similarly extremist, to justify its tactics and very survival, not only to suppress ISIS but essentially to suppress the Syrian rebellion’s factions, be they moderate Islamic or national. The move by the Syrian regime to release hundreds of Islamist extremists at the start of the Syrian rebellion gives an indication as to the regime’s desire for such elements to dominate the rebel side, in order to deviate their cause and distort their reputation.
The evaluation of ISIS and the role it has played requires a standalone study. How did it manage to capture vast swaths of Syrian territory (and Iraq) at astounding speed, under the eyes and nose of the US, the Syrian regime, and its allies? Why did the US, despite its military might (which occupied Iraq in three weeks), say it would need years to defeat this group? All this indeed deserves pause.
In December 2014, James Terry, the then commander of the US military counter-ISIS campaign, said it would take at least “a minimum of three years” for the coalition to reach a turning point against ISIS. US Secretary of State John Kerry said in September 2014, “It may take a year, it may take two years, it may take three years.” Lion Panetta, former defense secretary, told USA Today on 6/10/2014, “I think we’re looking at kind of a 30-year war.”
This means that the US wants to maintain the ISIS “scarecrow” for the longest possible time, in order to reach the outcome it desires. To be sure, the extremism of ISIS is perfect fodder for sectarian and ethnic polarization, and the emergence of walls of blood and hatred. The “Sunni terrorism”?! (as the Syrian rebellion is portrayed by some to be and not by the Syrian popular uprising), would be met by Alawite, Shia, Druze, Christian, and Kurdish mobilization. But for Washington, a popular Syrian rebellion with a forward-looking vision is not an acceptable alternative to the regime, because it would prevent the US policy makers desire to weaken and fragment the region. For this reason, fighting ISIS will continue to be the main slogan of politics and the media discourse, until the main component of revolution in the region is weakened and defeated, that is, the “Sunni Muslim component” in which ISIS is burrowing.
Eighth, there is a US desire to sustain pressure on the Assad regime for the purpose of subduing it into abandoning all programs and slogans of resistance, and joining the peace process camp and normalizing relations with Israel, that is, the “moderate” axis. At the same time, the US and Israel highly appreciate the calm front in the occupied Golan Heights for the past four decades, and the Syrian regime’s lack of appetite for a direct war with Israel.
Therefore, there is a US-Israeli consensus on preventing regime change in Syria (especially since the regime relies on a sectarian minority base), even if the alternative is secular, democratic, and liberal, unless this would guarantee bigger US-Israeli influence. Because the general line of the Syrian opposition forces is no less stringent towards Israel than the Assad regime… the survival of the regime, even without the person of Bashar al-Assad, remains the preferable option for the US and Israel.
Ninth, the US considers the presence of a regime whose main base is a minority sect, or the presence of a totalitarian regime, as a better opportunity to blackmail Syria into making concessions due to the regime’s weak legitimacy. For this reason, the US would not be too keen on having a real democratic system reflecting the popular will of the Syrians, as this would pose a risk to its interests in the region. The US thus seeks to disrupt any bid in this direction, pretexting the need to protect minorities and ensure their representation in politics and decision-making…
Undeclared US Policy
A large part of this US policy in Syria does not appear in an explicit manner. As a result, the US has appeared as a weak, dithering party. But the US administration may have accepted this bad reputation in order not to declare its actual official policy. In a hearing held in Congress on 27/10/2015, both the Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and the Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Joseph Dunford appeared confused and dumbfounded… and could not give Senator Lindsey Graham any logical answers. They had specific answers regarding support for Syrian fighters to fight ISIS, but were completely clueless when it came to support for rebels against the regime. Graham said that day,
“If I am Assad, this is a good day for me, because the American government has just said without saying it that they are not going to fight to replace me. The Russians and the Iranians and Hizbullah, this is a really good day for them … So what you’ve done, gentlemen, along with the president
[Obama], is you’ve turned Syria over to Russia and Iran. You have told the people in Syria who died about hundreds of thousands that we are more worried about political settlement than we are about what follows. All I can say is this is a sad day for America, and the region will pay hell for this, because the Arabs are not going to accept this. The people in Syria are not going to accept this. This is a half-assed strategy at best.”
Two Paths for a Solution
A careful reading of the US policy and conduct, and the conclusions drawn from studies conducted by think tanks, commentators, and influencers, produce two main lines of thinking in Syria
First: the Syrian state survives with its borders intact. A weak political regime emerges unable to deal with internal issues and conflicts. Sectarian and ethnic walls of blood bisect the land, with local factions controlling their respective areas. The regime is strong enough to preserve the security and stability of external borders, especially with Israel.
This regime would be similar to those in Lebanon and Iraq today. Its role will be close to being a local “firefighter,” but without having the ingredients for development, stability, and progress. Meanwhile, sectarian and ethnic forces will seek assistance from regional and international powers to preserve their gains and prevent “encroachment” by the regime.
Second: Syria is partitioned into Alawi, Sunni, Druze, and Kurdish states emerging from the ruins of the Syrian state. The walls of blood become official borders.
Perhaps the dominant trend so far is the first one, especially amid real concerns that the emergence of weak mini-states would allow “extremist” forces to infiltrate the borders and stage attacks against Israel. Furthermore, weak entities could incentivize those with a unifying vision to put forward their projects more seriously and vigorously, not to mention that partition would antagonize regional powers with their own restless minorities such as Iran and Turkey.
Nevertheless, partition remains a desirable option to orientalists such as Bernard Lewis and his “neoconservative” and right-wing religious extremist acolytes… They believe partition would render Israel, with its Jewish identity, a natural entity in the middle of similar entities based on ethnic and sectarian identities.
In an article published in Foreign Policy in January 2011, Indian-American writer Parag Khana advocated, “The coming partitions must be performed with a combination of scalpel and ax, soft and hard power. Above all, the world must recognize that these partitions are inevitable.” Khana himself co-wrote another article with Frank Jacobs published in The New York Times on 22/9/2012, in which they predicted in Syria a model that “will resemble its erstwhile client state Lebanon: religions exerting squatters’ rights in the empty shell of central government. Or perhaps Syria will revert to the ethnic puzzle laid out by the French: separate states for the Druze and the Alawites, and city-states for Damascus and Aleppo [with Sunni majority].”
However, they did not indicate the fate of the Kurdish-dominated region in the northeast, albeit they backed the establishment of a Kurdish state in northern Iraq. They also called for the partitioning of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan with the creation of Greater Azerbaijan, Baluchistan, and Pashtunistan.
In general, the US solutions for the Syrian crisis converge with the paths of weakening the central state and internal division. This is to a large extent in line with the Russian proposal for the federalization of Syria. According to Jonathan Stevenson in the The New York Times on 17/3/2016, the US Secretary of State John Kerry, when speaking before Senate Foreign Relations Committee he “implied that if the present cease-fire and political negotiations on Syria failed, partition could be Plan B.” Stevenson added that “according to a United Nations Security Council diplomat, the idea of a ‘very loose center with a lot of autonomy for different regions’ is gaining traction among major Western powers.” John Brennan, CIA chief, reiterated this idea at the Aspen Security Forum in July 2016, by saying, “I don’t know whether or not Syria can be put back together again.”
The proposals by the RAND US leading think tank converge with this. In a study published in December 2015 and updated in June 2016, titled A Peace Plan for Syria, the center gives priority to a ceasefire after which Syria is partitioned into four zones: “one controlled by the government; one controlled by the Kurds; one controlled by diverse elements of the Sunni opposition; and one controlled largely by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.” The idea focuses on international guarantees and a foreign role, “to secure agreement to an immediate ceasefire, which would be followed by further negotiations on the shape of a reconstituted Syrian state and government.” This study tries to give priority to cessation of hostilities after which efforts are directed at fighting ISIS or “extremism”… deferring the removal of the regime… or the establishment of a true democratic system until further notice.
No matter how powerful the US is, its will is not fate. It’s Administration and policy makers cannot impose their will on the peoples seeking independence and self-determination away from “Western dominance.”
Therefore, what is required in Syria, Iraq, the Arab world, and the Muslim world, is to emphasize the rights of people to self-determination, and to collaborate to create an inclusive revival project that confronts sectarian and ethnic divisions and close off the region from foreign intervention and meddling, particularly from the US and Israel.
The Arabic version of this article appeared on Al Jazeera.net on 13/8/2016.