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What Is US Supposed to do with Syria?

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Ahmad Khodaei Namin
Expert on Middle East Issues

A second international conference on the ongoing crisis in Syria is scheduled to be held in the Swiss city of Geneva on January 22, 2014. The Geneva 2 conference, which is expected to be attended by representatives from 26 countries, will discuss the crisis in the Arab country and seek solutions for putting an end to the civil war in Syria, which started about three years ago. According to neutral human rights groups, the war in Syria has so far claimed up to 40,000 civilian lives and about 25 percent of civilians killed in the conflict are women and children.

More importantly, a total of 5,000 people were killed in a chemical attack on the suburbs of the Syrian capital city of Damascus in September. It is not still clear who launched the chemical attack. The participants in the meeting are also supposed to find solutions for helping Syrian refugees in neighboring countries. The high number of Syrian refugees who have sought shelter in neighboring countries is gradually turning into a major problem for those countries that are currently playing host to Syrian asylum seekers. Up to this moment, it seems that all parties involved in the conference have reached a consensus on these goals. However, there is no doubt that the most important problem, which is also the most important challenge with which the participants must deal, is about transfer of power in Syria. This is one problem for which the Americans have not been able to come up with a solution yet. The question is what major risks the United States is facing in the run-up to the international conference on Syria?

1. Not inviting Iran

Iran is a strategic power in the Middle East region, which also sways a great deal of influence on the Syrian government. As a result, absence of Iran in the Geneva 2 conference may overshadow the frail agreement that may be possibly forged by the participants and undermine executive guarantees for its implementation.

The so-called Free Syrian Army has been basking in unbridled military, ideological and financial support of such regional countries as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey since its inception. The commanders of the Free Syrian Army branched off the Syrian military at first. However, during the past three years of fighting, the Free Syrian Army itself has experienced several instances of branching. As a result, the Free Syrian Army has given birth to two splinter groups. The first group is Al-Nusra Front, with the second one, which is also more recent, being the Syrian Islamic Front (or Al-Jabhah Al-Islāmiyya As-Sūriyyah). The latter group is, in turn, an amalgamate of seven extremist armed groups, the most important of which are Liwa al-Tawhid, or the Al-Tawhid Brigade (Unity Brigade), Harakat Ahrar ash-Sham Al Islami (Islamic Movement of the Free Men of the Levant), the Suqour al-Sham Brigade (Falcons of the Levant Brigade), and Liwa Ul Haqq (the Brigade of Truth).

Now, the United States should give a convincing answer to one question, which has preoccupied many neutral observers since a long time ago: why the main supporters of the fragmented Syria opposition – that is, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – are supposed to have serious presence in the forthcoming conference on Syria, but the main supporter of the party that is winning the war – at least in the battlefield -, that is, Iran, should be absent?

2. Where is Assad’s alternative?

Following popular revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya, where extremist and ideologically radical Islamist forces had no power, those countries have been grappling with catastrophic conditions as well as widespread insecurity and instability, which have cast serious doubt on future prospect of post-revolution states. Now, imagine what will happen to Syria following the possible fall of [the country’s incumbent President Bashar] Assad, considering that extremist Islamist forces are currently unrivaled in the Arab country? This is the unsolvable paradox with which the American leaders in the White House have been dealing for months.

On the one hand, the White House officials and leaders of the US Congress believe that American values, including the liberal democracy, are at odds with continued presence of Assad in power. On the other hand, however, the only viable alternative to Assad seems to be limited to radical, extremist, and even vengeful Salafist forces who are pessimistic toward most, if not all, of the American values.

At the same time, the United States’ allies in the region (including Turkey and Israel), which happen to be neighbors of Syria as well, will be at loss if the war in Syria continues any longer. For them, like the United States, the outlook of a Syria without Assad does not look promising. This is true because it is a general understanding that after Assad falls, the way would be paved for the expansion and promotion of extremist versions of Islamism and Syria will turn into a safe haven for such terrorist groups as Al-Qaeda and its affiliates. In that case, the region will move toward ethnic clashes among many ethnic and sectarian groups that inhabit it, including Shias, Sunnis, Alawites, Druze people, Christians, and Jews. Under these conditions, governments that are lending their support to every one of these ethnic groups will not remain idle and will enter the war. Such a war, in which Lebanon, Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Iraq and Iran are sure to engage, will have no final winner.

Perhaps, it is out of fear from such a terrible future outlook that according to some press reports, the Western officials have talked during their recent visits to Syria about reviving their past security cooperation with Assad’s government. Such cooperation was cut off about two and a half years ago, when the unrest broke out in the Arab country.

What the Americans have in mind now, and don’t give voice to, is that it is more preferable to get along with Bashar Assad, who is at least a predictable neighbor for their most important regional ally (Israel) and who has already undertaken to annihilate his country’s stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction. He is certainly more tolerable to the United States than radical and ideologically extremist Salafists and Islamist forces. This is why the United States has backed down on its previous positions on Syria. A few months ago, the United States went as far as declaring its intent to launch a military attack against Syria and [the US Secretary of State] John Kerry drew an analogy by likening Assad to [the German dictator] Adolf Hitler and [the former Iraqi despot] Saddam Hussein. However, a few days later, he thanked Bashar Assad for his cooperation in letting international bodies remove his country’s stockpiles of chemical weapons.

If the American officials actually gave voice to what is going on in their minds, it would greatly annoy those countries that have stood up against Bashar Assad’s government with all their power and have spared no effort to help his opponents. These countries include Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar among others. Out of these three, Saudi Arabia will be more irritated because its age-old ally, the United States, has also signed a nuclear deal with Saudi Arabia’s past friend and current rival, Iran, quite recently. Therefore, American officials are certainly not planning to annoy their faithful ally more than what they have already done just for the sake of Assad.

Therefore, now the question is: What is the United States going to do with Syria?

Key Words: US, Syria, International Conference, Geneva, Iran, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Khodaei Namin