As al-Qaeda affiliated groups try to gain foothold in Northern Syria, and as Iran and Hezbollah continue to shed resources in support of the Assad regime, the Obama administration finds itself in no rush to increase its involvement in the conflict.
The U.S. administration is gradually slowing down the Syria-policy pace, in what it sees now a protracted war that will most likely go for years to come. Washington is instead embracing a risk-averse strategy for the long haul, which - with help from regional actors - will aim at containing the conflict, without forcing it to an end.
The Dempsey Rule
The most telling indication of the U.S. gradual pullback from the Syrian ball of fire, came in U.S. General Martin Dempsey’s comments to CNN earlier this month, noting that Syria is a “10-year issue, and if we fail to think about it as a 10-year regional issue, we could make some mistakes." The Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff was referring to the regional proxy war inside Syria with the Arab Gulf states and Turkey largely supporting the rebels and Iran and the Iraqi government supporting Assad. Dempsey also referred to the situation being “hijacked at some level on both sides by extremists – al-Qaeda on one side and Lebanese Hezbollah and others on the other side.”
It is worth remembering that it was Dempsey, according to Bloomberg news, who argued in a senior level meeting last month against U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal to launch airstrikes against Assad’s airfields. The Dempsey rule of cautious and risk-averse involvement, appears to be the one prevailing in the White House today. Anticipating a long war, and taking a step back in employing military and political tools, capture the mood inside the U.S. administration today.
Sources tell Al Arabiya that Syria’s opposition has not received any of the arms shipments that U.S. President Barack Obama had pledged to “vetted groups.” Obstruction from Congress’ intelligence committees on funding such effort, has politically crippled the plan. Although the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is authorized to act alone in launching “covert operations” while allocating the money from other sections in its budget.
While Washington has approved indirect arming by regional countries to the opposition, it has exercised its leverage in controlling what kind of arms cross the Syrian border. Sources say that the U.S. has recently advised the French government against selling an Arab country heavy arms that might end up in the hands of the Syrian opposition. It has also not provided key Arab governments like Saudi Arabia and UAE with an “end user agreement” on arms purchases they have made from the U.S. Without such an agreement, re-exporting these arms is not an option.
A Militias Melting Pot
The rise of al-Qaeda elements in the north of the country has contributed a great deal to the administration’s reluctance in acting on Syria. Just in the last two weeks, the “Islamic State of Iraq and Levant” (ISIL) an affiliated al-Qaeda group, killed Kamal Hamimi, a leader from the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The ISIL has also increased its coordination with the al-Nusra Front, a terrorist organization according to U.S. designations, and has been making gains in Northern Syria especially around Aleppo and is fighting Kurdish militias on the Turkish border. Islamic councils are emerging across Aleppo, and so are Fatwas (religious decrees) banning “provocative clothes,” while the civil state is eroding. Even groups within the FSA such as Ahrar Sham have become more radicalized, attracting more foreign fighters, and attempting to establish their own ‘emirate’. Multiple sources have told Al Arabiya that the U.S. administration is considering adding one of the groups within the FSA umbrella to the terrorism list.
On the regime side, military escalation with the help of Hezbollah has become the norm. Even as Israel launched an airstrike on July 5 targeting allegedly Russian missiles in Latakia, the regime continued to be consumed in the civil war, and battling the opposition in towns around Homs and the capital Damascus. Even Hezbollah has been dragged into fighting on its own turf with a car bombing in its stronghold in Beirut, and an attack on its convoy in the Bekaa valley just six days apart.
There is little appetite inside Washington as it starts preparing withdrawal from Afghanistan, to be dragged into a military confrontation inside the Middle East. Even on the political level, Kerry is prioritizing the Peace Process between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as his plans for a “Geneva 2” conference have gone with the Russians on a “summer vacation.” The prospects for a political solution seem dimmer than ever before in Syria, and the U.S. has little to lose in a contained battle between Hezbollah and Al-Qaeda. Never in the history of Syria has Israel launched three airstrikes within one year, without expecting retaliation.
The conflict in Syria will probably go through many cycles of violence with gains and/or losses between the Assad regime and the rebels. But throughout those cycles, the U.S. seems more prone to keep its involvement to the minimum, by focusing on limiting the regional spillover, as well as containing Al-Qaeda threat and weapons transfers into and out of Syria.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam