The US loses its moral high ground over Syria

The White House looked weak as it defended President Obama’s policies in Syria

Raghida Dergham
Raghida Dergham
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The White House looked weak as it defended President Obama’s policies in Syria, in response to the strongly worded memorandum sent by 51 US diplomats calling for the “calculated use” of long-range weapons and airstrikes against the regime of Bashar al-Assad, arguing that the “status quo in Syria will continue to present increasingly dire, if not disastrous, humanitarian, diplomatic and terrorism-related challenges.”

The moral rationale for taking steps to end the deaths and suffering in Syria, after five years of brutal war, is evident and unquestionable, the memo said. The memo’s harsh tone and allusion to “the moral rationale” compelled the White House to go on the defensive, raising impossible questions to justify its policies. The White House asked “what was the alternative” or “show us another option”, phrases that seem to be at the heart of the Obama doctrine and the lexicon of the administration.

The White House’s message is clear and unchanged: The White House will not intervene militarily against the regime in Damascus. Its main battle today is against the ISIS and not Bashar al-Assad. Therefore, the Obama administration is trying to wash its hands clean of the moderate Syrian rebels represented by the High Negotiations Commission (HNC), and implicitly agrees with Russia on replacing the rebels with Kurdish and tribal forces on the ground that make up the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighting ISIS primarily rather than the regime.

This trend coincides with international inaction in the Security Council and the UN at large, where the Syrian question has been effectively reduced to one of refugees and humanitarian crisis requiring focus on the delivery of aid, away from political considerations and accountability for the crimes and atrocities being committed in Syria. The Geneva Communique that spoke of a transitional process handing over full executive power to a new governing council has been aborted.
The Vienna Process

The Vienna Process midwifed by Russia has fulfilled its objectives and stopped where Moscow wanted it to. The members of the Security Council have retreated into empty statements and bowed down to the dictates of Russian-Iranian policies without a “Plan B”. The UN secretary general swallowed his words about seeking accountability, and submitted to the will of the Russian-American duo with regard to managing the Syrian tragedy without protesting.

Thus the UN lost its moral leadership by relinquishing the principle of accountability and its values. It accepted to be the blunt instrument by which the Geneva Communique was bashed, and hid behind its weakness when another deadline for a political process (August 1) approached, on which the UN is supposed to launch a political process albeit less firm than the one launched by the Geneva Communique. Its only excuse is that the US and Russian leaderships had had long lost their moral compass in Syria before the UN followed suit.

From the beginning, it was clear that prolonging this military approach without accountability, while using terrorism as a pretext to avoid reform, would lead to the growth of more terrorism in Syria

Raghida Dergham

This week, the number of refugees and displaced persons in the world reached 65 million. Syria has a large share of this figure with more than 10 million refugees and displaced persons. The UN has long since stopped counting the number of those killed in Syria, but unofficial estimates put the number at over 400,000, all killed in just five years, since protests demanding reforms erupted in Syria, before the regime decided to respond with a brutal military crackdown.

From the beginning, it was clear that prolonging this military approach without accountability, while using terrorism as a pretext to avoid reform, would lead to the growth of more terrorism in Syria at the hands of both the regime and its opponents, as well as those who decided to turn Syria into a magnet for terrorists to drive them out of their own countries – i.e. away from US, Russian, and other cities. When it comes to involvement in Syria, no one at all is innocent.

The failure of this line of thinking became clear, however, as terror attacks struck Europe and the US, and could strike Russia at some point. Now, however, US, Russian, and European leaders believe the priority is for war on ISIS in Syria and Iraq. It was in Iraq where terrorists were lured away from US cities, as then-President Bush had suggested.

In Iraq, the collapse of the Iraqi army began when the US decided to dismantle it based on a deliberate political decision by the Bush administration. The Iraqi army was among the strongest Arab armies and represented a threat to both Israel and Iran. The Iraqi army was the strongest in the Arab-Israeli strategic equation, and at the time, the decision by Syria to join the war on Iraq and destroy the Arab weight in this equation was stunning. Thus, the dismantling of Arab armies began with the Iraq war, benefiting both Israel and Iran, which will never forget the Gulf support for Iraq during the Iraq-Iran war even though it has forgotten the US role in support of Saddam in the same war.

In Iraq today, militias like the Popular Mobilization control the military arena, replacing the army. The army pretends to be coherent, even as tribal fighters join the wars on terror, against al-Qaeda and ISIS. The same situation exists in Syria. Iranian-run militias control the military arena, undermining the army. Russia is furious because it prefers the army to the militias, but has found itself on the losing side as Iran insists on the militias at the expense of the army.

What matters most for Russia is that no Islamists should replace the regime in Damascus. From the outset, Russia moves against the Arab Spring because it opposed the rise of Islamists to power. Russia backed Bashar al-Assad because it assumed that the alternative is the rise of Islamists to power. Russia has also insisted on not excluding Assad from running again for the presidency, because it refuses for Syria to fall into Islamist hands, and has clung to the term “secularism” at all costs because it would not allow the new Syria to be ruled by Islamists.

Moscow’s point of view

Therefore, Russia and the Unites States agree today on supporting the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). From Moscow’s point of view, the SDF are a secular alternative to other rebels in Syria represented in the HNC. And for Washington, the SDF are the only force able to fight ISIS effectively on the ground.

The Obama administration was a backer of the rise of Islamists to power in the early days of the Arab Spring, in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen. The administration of President Putin in Russia pushed back against this bid, until they converged in Syria. Moscow then gradually co-opted Washington, though differences remain over Turkey and Egypt.

Moscow is committed to a strong relationship with President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, who is intent on preventing the Muslim Brotherhood from participating in power in Egypt. For its part, Washington is opposed to el-Sisi’s excesses, but it is trying to mend relations with Egypt which have been damaged by Obama’s support for the Muslim Brotherhood-aligned former President Morsi.

Putin, meanwhile, has an overt animus with Turkey, whose president Erdogan is considered the godfather of the Muslim Brotherhood and the model of the Islamist rise to power. Obama is fond of the Turkish model that he believed was good for the whole Sunni world, before he was forced to reassess this position.

Informed sources familiar with the situation in Syria say that Washington and Moscow seem to have a minimum agreement on the SDF, which comprise Kurds and Arab tribes, and that European and American advisors on the ground are there to help these forces against ISIS primarily. The SDF comprise minorities and do not have in their ranks any Salafist or jihadist groups. These forces seem to be the alternative being prepared to replace Syrian rebels represented in the HNC, backed by Turkey, Saudi, Qatar, and others.

The question among these circles is: Are the Syrian rebels associated to the HNC aware of the US-Russian convergence against them, especially as the SDF is leading key operations in the Aleppo countryside and moving to liberate Raqqa. Do they have any option since they do not receive the military support they need to retake the initiative and restore their momentum? And what are the prospects of Saudi and Turkish resistance to these developments?

Diplomatically and at the level of negotiations, there is a near de-facto discarding of the Syrian opposition through the silence of UN envoy De Mistura regarding the political process that was supposed to start on August 1. This is happening by overemphasizing the cessation of hostilities and the delivery of aid, both of which issues leads to nothing politically noteworthy.

Moscow won its bet. It has turned the battle away from toppling the regime toward toppling the opposition, by toppling the Geneva Communique and the commitments of the Vienna Process. It is now working to ensure the survival of the regime and its president until further notice.

Putin and his military and diplomatic teams delivered on what they pledged to him. Putin never hid his intentions, although he played the Assad card from time to time to appease US calls for his departure. Russia was clear in everything it has said and done, unlike Obama’s administration, which vowed, hesitated, then backtracked before fully colluding. Now it is on the defensive.

Spokesperson for the White House John Earnest, in response to the memo by the US diplomats, defended the administration’s position saying it would be difficult to avoid full-scale war in the event of using military power against the Assad regime. He said: “I think what it means is it means that we should direct the force of the United States military against the Assad regime.

And I think there are a lot of questions that are raised about that. First of all, how do you do that without harming innocent civilians? Second of all, I’m not sure exactly what legal authority the President would rely on to do something like that. And, three, it seems like a slippery slope. Does that just mean that there’s one round of missile strikes and then we spend a month trying to negotiate again, and if nothing happens, do we launch more missile strikes? Or then do we have to steadily ramp up the military engagement? And at what point does that stop? It’s hard to imagine where that stops — that that somehow stops short of a war against a sovereign nation that is being backed by Russia and Iran.”

John Earnest’s response is nothing short of astounding. There can hardly by any response that insults the intelligence of 51 US diplomats more than his defence of Obama’s failed policy. In truth, the response exposes the US’s Syria policy for its lack of any moral high ground, which is perhaps why the US diplomats protested, because they do not want their country to lose its international moral standing.

No such protests would have been possible from Russian or UN diplomats. But the US cannot be reduced to a president, administration, or policy. We should at least credit the US diplomats for being bold enough to tell their president: You have failed us morally and humanly.

This article was first published in Al-Hayat on Jun. 25, 2016 and translated by Karim Traboulsi.
Raghida Dergham is Columnist, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent, and New York Bureau Chief for the London-based Al Hayat newspaper since 1989. She is dean of the international media at the United Nations. Dergham is Founder and Executive Chairman of Beirut Institute, an indigenous, independent, inter-generational think tank for the Arab region with a global reach. An authority on strategic international relations, Dergham is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and an Honorary Fellow at the Foreign Policy Association. She served on the International Media Council of the World Economic Forum, and is a member of the Development Advisory Committee of the IAP- the Global Network of Science Academies. She can be reached on Twitter @RaghidaDergham

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