Washington’s cynical policy towards Syria

Hisham Melhem

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The criticisms leveled at president Obama’s policy towards Syria reflect a spectrum of views; his indecisiveness in taking bold action is a function of his inclination not to get involved in a costly conflict like Iraq’s, or that his contradictory statements particularly in the last few weeks, are proof that the administration lacks a clear strategy to deal effectively with a war that has regional ramifications not fully known and cannot be contained.

Finally, Obama’s dithering reflects a fickle public opinion tired of America’s prohibitively costly and exhausting wars in the Arab/Islamic worlds.

However, from the beginning there existed a minority view that remained on the margin of the Syria debate, which claimed that, if you put aside the moral and legal considerations, the strategic interests of the U.S. will best be served by denying victory to both combatants.

This view was reinforced further after the improved military performance of the radical Islamist forces (including Sunni Jihadists from the Arab states and beyond) and after the Iranian military intervention to save Assad’s regime, and the participation of Hezbollah forces from Lebanon, in the fighting along with Assad’s forces.

When U.S. interests are best served

This view is reminiscent of former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s infamous position regarding the Iraq-Iran war; that American interests are best served if both combatants lose the war. The proponents of this “cynical” view as described by many analysts, believe that U.S. strategic interests requires depleting the resources and capabilities of the Syrian regime, helping the extremist Jihadists to sink deeper in the Syrian quagmire, and trapping Iran and its ally Hezbollah in a long drawn out war of attrition.

This cynical approach became more credible when the Washington Post revealed on Oct. 2nd the true objective of a limited clandestine CIA program to provide light weapons to the rapidly losing ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels.

Hisham Melhem

That view was given an intellectual veneer when the historian cum military analyst Edward Luttwak wrote in a New York Times op-ed last August that “a victory by either side would be equally undesirable for the United States,” therefore “a prolonged stalemate is the only outcome that would not be damaging to American interests;” and the best way to achieving that objective “is to arm the rebels when it seems that Mr. Assad’s forces are ascendant and to stop supplying the rebels if they actually seem to be winning.”

This cynical approach became more credible when the Washington Post revealed on Oct. 2nd the true objective of a limited clandestine CIA program to provide light weapons to the rapidly losing ‘moderate’ Syrian rebels. According to U.S. official quoted in the report the CIA’s mission “has been defined by the White House’s desire to seek a political settlement, as scenario that relies on an eventual stalemate among warring factions rather than a clear victor. The historian Luttwak must have been thrilled when he read the following sentence in the Post’s article, “As a result, officials said, limits on the agency’s authorities enable it to provide enough support to help ensure that politically moderate, U.S.-supported militias don’t lose but not enough for them to win.”

Benign neglect

It has been more than two years since President Obama called on President Assad to step down and more than a year since he drew his famous red line to Assad regarding the consequences of using chemical weapons. Looking back at how President Obama really dealt with the Syrian war it is clear the policy, if one can call it that, was benign neglect. President Obama’s failure to provide active leadership, (in the early, peaceful stage of the Syrian uprising and long before the emergence of demands for arms or military intervention) to lead and coordinate meaningful regional and international political- economic efforts to isolate the Assad regime and help the opposition with material, logistical support and intelligence sharing has set the stage for keeping the non-Islamist opposition bereft of serious options.

When Assad succeeded in militarizing the uprising by resorting early on to brutal force president Obama refused to provide training and arms to those elements that defected from the Syrian army when it was possible for the CIA to vet them in coordination with neighboring states, particularly Jordan. By not arming and training the moderate and non-Islamist opposition in their various manifestations, including the recently formed Supreme Military Council (SMC) the U.S. and its European allies have allowed the military balance whiting rebel ranks to shift towards the radical Islamists, including those extreme groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. That is why, American expressions of deep concerns about the rising dangers of Radical Islam in Syria and the threats of the war spilling over to neighboring countries ring hollow.

All along, American officials knew, or they should have known that unless the conflict was settled quickly one way or the other it will become more lethal, sectarian fault lines will deepen, and shape the outcome, while attracting Islamists, as was the case in Afghanistan and Iraq and the violence will spill over to neighboring states. For a while now, the conflict in Syria has been shaped by these factors. The longer the fighting continues, these factors will combine to plunge Syria and the Levant region into a protracted cycle of shifting bloody conflicts similar in their intensity and destruction to those that burned the Balkans in the 1990’s. As a result, saving Syria as a unitary and governable state could become mission impossible. Those in the region and beyond who while wringing their hands lament the increasing violence of a monstrous regime , the inexorable slide towards a wider war and the fanaticism of foreign Jihadists will not escape moral and political blame. The simple painful truth of Syria today is that this civil war will be settled, like most such wars by force with a victor and a vanquished, ( with or without foreign intervention) or with partition, soft or otherwise.

In this long season of Arab tumult, Syria’s uprising has the sorry distinction of becoming the longest and bloodiest; and it continues to spiral out of control its reverberations and shocks will be felt from the Eastern Mediterranean to the Gulf region. The outcome for the struggle for Syria will carry more political and strategic consequences than all the other Arab uprisings. Already the five states bordering Syria: Turkey, Iraq, Jordan, Israel, and Lebanon, as well as Iran and the GCC countries particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been drawn into the fire next door in varying ways and degrees.

The many facets of the Syrian war

After two and a half years of struggle, new dynamics have emerged, creating intended and unintended facts on the ground that cry out for bolder and focused regional and international selective military support for the Syrian opposition to hasten the collapse of the Syrian regime, while denying the al-Qaeda affiliated groups vital support as a prelude to expelling them from Syria. For all the talk about Geneva 2 as a framework for eventual solution, it is very likely, assuming it will convene, end up like Geneva 1, the Annan mission and the Lakhdar Brahimi mission in failure. The time for diplomacy has come and gone around the time President Obama had called on Assad to step down. Syria’s brittle political, religious, sectarian and ethnic mosaic is fraying rapidly. Sectarianism as practiced by the regime has created a life of its own, leading to dangerous communal strife mainly in Alawite/Sunni mixed regions with their attendant sectarian cleansings.

Even the casual observer of civil wars, particularly in heterogeneous societies, would know that they usually draw neighbors and even far away parties to their maelstrom, either to protect their interests and or to help the warring parties, many of whom are eager to get outside support. The one major exception to this rule is the American civil war, because the combatants were two well-structured armies, far away from powerful European nations and bordering two weaker states. The whole European continent tore itself apart on Spanish soil from 1936 to 1939. In the Spanish civil war, one of the most passionate civil wars in modern times, the Nazis, Fascists and the Soviets sent thousands of troops and advisors who turned Spain into the precursor to the Second World War. More than 45 thousand international volunteers went to Spain to help the Republic, including 3000 Americans who fought under the banner of the famed “Lincoln Brigade.” In most of the civil wars since 1945, such as Korea, Vietnam, Angola, Lebanon and Afghanistan regional and international parties were drawn to these conflicts. Syria was destined to be one of them.

Already the flow of refugees from Syria to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey has already strained their relations with Damascus and led to occasional border clashes. A massive refugee influx from the Aleppo region to Turkey, coupled with Ankara’s mounting fear of increased assertiveness on the part of Syria’s Kurds and Syrian support for the PKK militants could finally force Turkey’s hand to intervene. Lebanon. The weakest link around Syria, has witnessed sectarian strife between the Sunni opponent of Assad’s regime and his Alawite supporters in northern city of Tripoli. Since Hezbollah’s intervention in Syria, sectarian clashes occurred between Sunnis and Shiites in Eastern and Southern Lebanon as well as in Beirut. Through the porous borders of Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq fighters, Sunnis and Shiites and arms have been smuggled to Syria, making Lebanon and Iraq minor fronts in the Syrian war. With one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon and almost the same number in Jordan, these two states, with their limited resources will face with their Syrian guests a terrible winter, and they, particularly Lebanon could literally snap. After allowing Syria to fester for more than two years and watching it drown in its own blood, it is cynical in the extreme for president Obama and other officials in his administration to claim that the U.S. cannot and should not get involved in a civil war, or in a wider war between the Sunnis and the Shiites.

Ever since Syria accepted the American-Russian agreement to dismantle its chemical arsenal, President Assad has become a central ‘partner’ in a political-military process including, in addition to eliminating the chemical weapons, the possibility of his involvement in one form or another in Geneva 2 (along possibly with his Iranian ally, now that the U.S. has left the door ajar) a process that could keep him in power until the end of his official tenure in mid-2014. Publicly, U.S. officials continue to repeat the mantra that Assad has lost his legitimacy, but when Secretary of State John Kerry thanks Assad publicly and praise his cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapons, and welcomes ‘a good beginning’, the cynical policy of creating a stalemate among the warring parties becomes more and more credible.

This article was first published in Lebanon-based An-Nahar on Oct. 10, 2013.


Hisham Melhem is the bureau chief of Al Arabiya News Channel in Washington, DC. Melhem has interviewed many American and international public figures, including Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush, Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen, among others. Melhem speaks regularly at college campuses, think tanks and interest groups on U.S.-Arab relations, political Islam, intra-Arab relations, Arab-Israeli issues, media in the Arab World, Arab images in American media , U.S. public policies and other related topics. He is also the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. For four years he hosted "Across the Ocean," a weekly current affairs program on U.S.-Arab relations for Al Arabiya. Follow him on Twitter : @hisham_melhem

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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