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The pretexts behind U.S. protection of Syrian rebels

Washington and Moscow have been recently trying to find common ground in resolving the Syrian crisis

Maria Dubovikova

Published: Updated:

Washington and Moscow have been recently trying to find common ground in resolving the Syrian crisis. Attempts have been made via phone calls between Presidents Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin, as well as through diplomatic contacts and expert consultations. The two sides have been assessing each other’s positions, limits and flexibility to make concessions.

Following these efforts, Obama decided to authorize air protection for U.S.-trained Syrian rebels fighting against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) by bombing any force that attacks them, including the Syrian army.

Washington is thereby pressing Moscow and Damascus, and showing them how far it is ready to go to achieve a transition in Syria, as it had previously been reluctant to involve U.S. military forces.

The decision to form an international coalition to hit ISIS in Iraq and Syria has caused much anxiety in Damascus and Moscow, as they expected Washington to use this opportunity to target the Syrian army.

By authorizing the protection of rebel forces, Washington is constricting the corridor for negotiations. Remarkably, this decision was announced just before the trilateral meeting in Doha of Russian, American and Saudi officials, whose agenda included Syria.

Little hope of political transition

Moscow and Washington understand the importance of the transition of power in Syria. In Doha, they renewed their call for a managed political transition. The difference between Washington and Moscow is in the perception of when it should be done. Russia considers the highest priority now to be the fight against ISIS, in which Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a partner.

However, in a strategy that has not yet produced anything positive, Washington is trying to solve the Syrian internal problem and fight ISIS simultaneously. The problem is that the Syrian army is still one of the forces on the ground containing the spread of ISIS. Without the army, ISIS could spread further and take Damascus.

There is currently little hope for an adequate political transition, with more than 4 million Syrians as refugees, and disagreement over the mechanisms behind such a transition and the figures to be included.

Another problem is that Russia’s influence on the Syrian regime is highly overestimated. Assad is not an easy counterpart to press and to push, and will not leave his post in the near future. By threatening to hit his army if it attacks U.S.-trained rebels, Washington is trying to convince him otherwise.

As U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter told lawmakers, only 60 recruits have passed their training. Already half the $500 million budget has reportedly been spent. Washington expects to have 3,000 recruits by the end of the year, so it is easy to see how high expenses will rise. Taking into account the estimated size of ISIS – between 20,000 and 200,000 militants – the number of trained rebels is a drop in the ocean.

By authorizing the protection of rebel forces, Washington is constricting the corridor for negotiations.

Maria Dubovikova

With air protection, they will hardly ever be involved in fighting as any battle will be prevented by massive U.S. airstrikes. Another problem is that if they are trained like the post-Saddam Iraqi army was, they will be virtually useless.

Thus announcing air protection for rebels is mostly a pretext for intervening in the Syrian crisis and sending a strong message to Damascus and Moscow. The possibility of a transition of power in Syria remains a distant prospect.


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Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not reflect Al Arabiya English's point-of-view.