Washington Coming to Grips with Reality in Syria

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Hassan Ahmadian
PhD, Senior Researcher; IRI Expediency Council’s Center for Strategic Research (CSR)

The crisis in Syria has entered its fifth year. During the past four years, extreme approaches all based on military option were the common denominator of solutions offered for Syria crisis. The United States and other Western countries made the mistake of lending their support to that part of Syria opposition that they consider as “moderate opposition,” thus helping domestic players of this crisis to get as far from realities as possible. On the other hand, Arab countries, which were wary about disruption in the balance of powers in the Middle East, saw the Syria crisis as an opportunity to be used to undermine their rivals. As a result, they missed no time to unleash all their destructive potential in Syria. This development elicited no protest in the United States and the situation got so worse that some Arab countries, which sought to overthrow Assad’s government expected Washington to overtly enter the equation to their benefit. They also felt no shame about explicitly announcing their expectation from Washington.

However, the United States, which had been already bitten in Iraq and Afghanistan, was not willing to get involved in another bout of adventurism. US President Barack Obama, one of whose election promises was to take the American troops out of Iraq, carefully avoided being dragged into another regional crisis and only sufficed to sending aid to the Syrian opposition and putting political pressure on various parties involved in it. By choosing not to become seriously involved in Syria and by delegating the main responsibility for the Syria crisis and the entire region to its regional allies, Washington preferred to leave its regional allies in charge of managing various crises in the Middle East. Under these conditions, the measures taken by the operation room in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, in addition to steps taken by Turkey to offer military training for Syria militants, left Damascus with very few options to choose from. The measures taken by regional allies of Washington gradually ushered Syria into a full-blown civil war; a war of attrition that has so far claimed the lives of over 200,000 people on all sides of the conflict. Moreover, millions of Syrians have been either displaced in their own country or have left Syria to take refuge in other countries.

As the Syria crisis enters its fifth year, the United States is apparently reviewing its past approach to this crisis. Following the rise of the ISIS terrorist Takfiri group and exacerbation of crisis in Syria and Iraq, it became clear to Washington that the method used by its regional allies to manage regional crisis has practically turned the Syria crisis into a full-blown regional one. The pressure put by Washington on Saudi Arabia and Turkey and other allies to join the international anti-ISIS coalition is telltale sign of the fact that the status quo in the region is a direct outcome of their crisis management approach. By forming an international coalition, the United States practically changed its mind about leaving crisis management to its allies in the region. In parallel to this change, Washington also altered its priority from supporting the Syrian opposition to weakening the ISIS. However, it should be noted that in addition to mismanagement of the crisis by the US allies, there are other reasons for this change of course on the part of Washington.

Since four years ago up to the present time, nobody has been able to draw a sharp line between the moderate and radical opposition groups in Syria. A remarkable number of the members of those opposition groups that have been known as moderate, have already joined radical ones in the past years. In fact, such demarcation is meaningless under conditions of war. Many people cross the line between various groups as a result of which the weapon meant to be used by the so-called moderate forces has frequently ended up in the hands of radical groups.

The second point is that the so-called moderate opposition groups in Syria have been practically marginalized in the country’s developments during the past four years. Therefore, in a best-case scenario, they only dominate a small part of the Syrian territory. At the same time, the main game changers in Syria crisis have been radical opposition groups such as the ISIS, al-Nusra Front, and Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham (Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), on the one hand, and the Syrian government and army, on the other. The latest sign of the weakness of those opposition groups that enjoy West’s support was the defeat of Hazm [Steadfastness] Movement at the hands of al-Nusra Front, after which the movement actually imploded. Interestingly, some members of the Hazm Movement later joined al-Nusra Front. This reality showed those groups that can change the game in Syria are not exactly those which enjoy the support of the West.

The third point is that after entering the war against the ISIS, the United States needs a well-defined strategy in order to win that war. When the international campaign against the ISIS began, the United States lacked a well formulated strategy to fight the ISIS. It was clear to Washington that the international coalition could be stalled by two problems. The first problem was impossibility of differentiating between the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. The second issue was that air strikes alone are not sufficient to put an end to the ISIS. Under these conditions, the United States had to make a strategic decision; a decision that has not been, and will not be, favorable to Washington’s allies in the region.

Recent remarks by the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) John Brennan about the need to maintain Syrian President Bashar Assad in power as well as remarks by the US Secretary of State about the necessity of negotiating with Assad to find a solution to Syria crisis made it clear to the world that the United States is gradually pulling itself together and getting rid of bewilderment it faced in Syria. In other words, the United States is currently paying a price for botched management of regional crises by its allies and is witnessing the untoward consequences of sole reliance on military option. As a result, Washington now believes that entering into serious negotiations with various parties that are involved in Syria crisis, including Bashar Assad’s government, is the best way out of the ongoing crisis. Of course, in a bid to appease its regional allies, Washington is still underlining the need to arm the so-called “moderate opposition,” and has promised to pave the way for their training in Saudi Arabia and Turkey. However, it seems that Washington’s large-scale approach to Syria is gradually changing. All the protests and objections shown to the aforesaid remarks by various American officials’ show that Washington is not coordinated with its regional allies when it comes to making macro decisions. On the other side, despite their initial discontent, the US allies will finally have to get along with Washington in the near future since they have no initiative of their own. Therefore, we must expect Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar and other regional allies of Washington to get in line with the strategic turn in Washington’s regional policy in the near future.

Key Words: Syria, US, Western Countries, Bashar Assad, Civil War, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, ISIS, Al-Nusra Front, Regional Policy, Ahmadian

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*Photo Credit: The Times

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