Four years on from Syrian uprising, Washington shifts priorities

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As the Syrian conflict enters its fifth year over 200,000 people have died, and a further 3.5 million have become refugees.

Currently the United States heads an international coalition that has for the last eight months carried out airstrikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in both Iraq and Syria. These strikes have at times helped to curb the militant group’s advances, notably in the northern Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane, retaken by Kurdish forces in January following a four month siege.

The emergence of ISIS has shifted the international spotlight away from the Assad regime, which continues to be responsible for more civilian casualties than any other force fighting in Syria, due in large part to its indiscriminate barrel bombing campaigns.

Washington’s emphasis, first voiced in 2011, on regime change as a necessity to a political settlement in Syria, has been superseded by the perceived greater threat posed by ISIS — a reality evident in U.N. Envoy to Syria Steffan De Mistura’s recent description of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as “part of the solution” to an end to conflict in Syria.

In August 2013, following the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons in the Damascus suburb of East Ghouta, America appeared momentarily poised to intervene against President Assad. At that time four of the U.S. Navy’s destroyers appeared menacingly in the Mediterranean, whilst President Obama issued a now-infamous statement claiming that by deploying sarin gas a “red line” had been crossed.

But it ultimately proved bluster.


Initial outrage in Washington gave way to a Russian brokered deal permitting U.N. weapons inspectors to enter Syria; an agreement that critics claimed inferred a certain legitimacy upon the Assad regime, whilst detracting attention from it’s continued predilection towards committing more conventional war crimes.

Since, and following the emergence of IS, President Obama has faced criticism from both Republicans and Democrats for a perceived lack of strategy in Syria. Notable dissenting voices have included former Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton who have both cited the failure of the Obama administration to give the green light to a 2012 plan, put forward by then CIA director David Petraeus, to arm and train opposition fighters in Jordan.

However, despite the longevity of rhetoric emanating from Washington calling for President Bashar al-Assad to step down, analysts say decisive military intervention in Syria against the Assad regime was not a major priority of the Obama administration.

“Obama was elected partially on the promise of ending America’s presence in the Middle East,” says Chris Philips, an associate fellow at London’s Chatham House.

“Syria is a humanitarian disaster but Obama ruthlessly made an assessment of where America’s priorities and interests lie and decided they are not in Syria. Hence you only see Washington getting involved with the emergence of a different level of danger and security threat in the form of [ISIS].”

Despite headlines garnered by coalition intervention in Kobane the majority of airstrikes targeting IS since August 2014 have been conducted in Iraq.

Aram Nerguizian, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington DC points out that the Obama administration appears to consider Iraq — from which U.S. troops were withdrawn in Dec. 2011 — as taking precedent over Syria.

“Iraq is an invested priority,” said Nerguizian. “ A decade of trying to build up the Iraqi military means that the US has an “in”. They’ve engaged with the Iraqi government, and also with the Kurds and they know the tribes. In Iraq there is the most energy towards creating some sort of metrics of stability.”

In the Syrian context, Noah Bonsey, an analyst at International Crisis Group, notes that coalition airstrikes targeting IS have in fact at times inadvertently enabled the Assad regime to reallocate its assets to target more mainstream rebels.

Whilst Washington continuously denies the existence of direct coordination between the international coalition and the Assad regime, the failure of airstrikes to target regime-held areas provides ample propaganda for ISIS to claim an affinity.


For such reasons Bonsey argues that airstrikes can be counter-productive.

“The collective punishment tactics and sectarian militias upon which the regime is increasingly dependent are huge assets to jihadi recruitment, as indeed is Bashar Assad's continued reign,” says Bonsey. “In the absence of a coherent strategy to achieve a political transition in Syria, simply bombing ISIS won't diminish the jihadi threat, and risks exacerbating it.”

A month after airstrikes began against IS, in September 2014 the U.S. Congress approved a plan presented by the Obama administration to arm and train rebels deemed “moderate” following a vetting and screening process.

Amongst these groups was Haraket Hazm (The Steadfast Movement) forced last week to disband following a comprehensive military defeat to the Al Qaeda affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra in Aleppo province. Much of the group’s U.S.-donated military equipment is said to have been seized.

Imad Salamey, a politics professor at the Lebanese American University, notes that the arming of rebel groups in Syria by the U.S. has been largely ineffective, as the Obama administration has become increasingly worried about the prospect of military equipment reaching the hands of IS and Nusra.

“When popular protests swept the Arab World in late 2010-2011 the Obama administration expressed support but after with the emergence of ISIS in Syria and Iraq both rhetoric and policy became more hesitant,”
says Salame.

Not on the table

Hilal Khashan, a politics professor at the American University of Beirut, says regime change has never been on the Obama administration’s agenda, criticizing a lack of real strategy in US initiatives to support rebel groups.

“The U.S. has never explained what it meant by “moderate groups,” says Khashan. “After four years of bloody civil war and the survival of a regime whose only concern is to hold on to power, irrespective of its people’s suffering, it is ridiculous to talk about moderation.”

The small-scale US arming of rebel groups is, says Nerguizian, not intended to create a force capable of defeating either the Assad regime or IS but to establish proxies on the ground that could provide leverage to negotiate a future settlement in Syria.

“At worst the US is just ticking a box,” says Nerguizian, “But the train and equip program is also about building relationships with the opposition, putting chips on the table for future negotiations, the same way the presence of Hezbollah and foreign fighters are other chips on the table.”

Phillips concurs.

“The Obama administration does not think the opposition it arms is going to win,” says Phillips. “It is about getting a horse in the race. The problem is they do it with much more reluctance than other players — such as Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi — who you could argue have been more reckless.”

No thanks

Despite ongoing U.S.-Iranian rapprochement, settlement talks regarding Syria have largely gone quiet since prominent Syrian opposition groups such as the Syrian National Council (whose actual leverage amongst opposition fighters on the ground has been questioned) rejected invitations to a peace summit organised by Russia in Moscow in January.

Given such realities coupled with the shift in international focus away from the Assad regime towards condemnation of ISIS, an end to Syria’s civil conflict, let alone the fall of the Assad regime, doesn’t appear imminent.

“Both the regime and opposition are incapable of military victory, but neither they nor their backers are nearing capitulation. In other words, the status quo in this conflict leads to unending, ever-more costly, ever-more radicalizing war,” says Bonsey.

“State backers on both sides would gain from avoiding those costs and stopping the radicalization cycle the war fuels. However, throughout this conflict some (and at times all) of these external players have pursued the illusory promise of military victory, incorrectly assuming that the status quo will force the other side to surrender on their terms. The challenge is to get to the point where external players on both sides are prepared to negotiate seriously, and push their Syrian allies to do the same.”