WASHINGTON (Analysis) — It’s not clear if the United States knows what it is doing in Syria anymore. Having successfully toppled the Libyan government in 2011, former President Barack Obama subsequently spent a good three years attempting to bring about the fall of the Syrian government, under the guise of humanitarianism, that embroiled the region in chaos and civil strife. Incessant calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to formally step down, combined with the billions of dollars in arms and funding for radical Sunni jihadists who sowed the seeds of sectarianism and a bloody civil war in order to divide and conquer Syria, plagued Obama’s foreign policy for years. And let’s not forget the extensive strike plan Obama drew up in 2013, which would have almost certainly extinguished Assad’s presidency.
Unfortunately for the establishment, Obama’s strike plan didn’t have the approval of America’s warmongering partner in crime, the United Kingdom; and was strongly opposed by Russia. Most importantly, there was significant disapproval among the general public and military, and the U.S. knew it would never garner the support needed to carry out such an intervention.
Then in 2014, the U.S. military found backdoor access by riding the international outrage and horror provoked by the radical group ISIS, which had attained huge swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria. Anyone who had been paying attention knew deep-down that the focus on ISIS was essentially just a façade to pave the way for the U.S. military to take on Assad directly — though this scenario proved much harder than expected, after Russia’s formal intervention in 2015. With Russia backing the Syrian government directly, there was little the U.S. could do but direct most of its energy towards ISIS, with some minor, albeit noticeable, exceptions.
And then came Donald Trump, the alleged Russian stooge and lackey, who was going to focus on making America great again and who had proposed instead to work with Assad and Russia. Whether or not Trump has any say in the matter is unclear, but it became quickly apparent that the war-hawks in his administration are just as schizophrenic as their predecessors.
Working through the plan alphabet and back around to Plan A
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson initially maintained that Assad had to leave, but then appeared to change his mind. Trump’s ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, only added to the confusion. Barely days after this flip-flop, a chemical weapons attack in April last year immediately brought us back to another strike plan on the Syrian government; and the go-to mantra ever since appears to renew the longstanding call for Assad’s departure.
Read more by Darius Shahtahmasebi
But why did the U.S. want to remove Assad so badly that it justified manufacturing an entire bombing campaign against another force? There are many competing theories, but Assad as a stalwart Iranian and Russian ally poses a major threat to the U.S. empire, as well as to adversarial states such as Israel and Saudi Arabia.
In 2009, Qatar put forward a proposal to run a pipeline through Syria and Turkey and into Europe to export gas from Saudi Arabia. The Assad government instead forged an agreement with Iran and Iraq to run a pipeline into Europe — leaving out Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey completely. If these kinds of deals can be arranged under the cover of Russian air power, the United States risks losing out much of the region and its spoils to Russia and Iran.
Now that ISIS has been successfully (more or less) “defeated,” the U.S. is openly staying in Syria indefinitely to counter both Assad and Iran’s alleged expanding influence. Tillerson put it bluntly in mid-January this year:
Continued strategic threats to the U.S. other than ISIS persist. I am referring principally to Iran. Iran has dramatically strengthened its presence in Syria by deploying Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops; supporting Lebanese Hezbollah; and importing proxy forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere. Through its position in Syria, Iran is in a stronger position to extend its track record of attacking U.S. interests, allies and personnel in the region.”
“Syria remains a source of severe strategic problems and a major challenge for our diplomacy,” Tillerson added. “But the United States will continue to remain engaged.”
The U.S.-Turkey debacle
As reports began to emerge of Washington’s plan to build a 30,000-strong Kurdish and Arab force on Turkey’s border in Syria, it became quite clear that Turkey itself was days away from invading Syria directly. To no one’s great surprise, the Turkish military intervened in the days that followed, most notably in the city of Afrin, before announcing it would extend its operations right up to the border with Iraq.
The U.S. surely knew this would happen, yet continued to antagonize both parties to the fullest extent possible. Neither the U.S. nor Turkey has the legal basis to conduct military operations in Syria, yet the two of them believe they have the right to call the shots as to the best way of handling the situation. First, Turkey urged the U.S. to leave the area of Manbij because that is where the Turks have set their sights, getting closer to the border with Iraq. A top U.S. general immediately responded by saying the U.S. had no intention of leaving Manbij at all, further aggravating the situation.
The only consistent strategy employed by the U.S. that can be ascertained (to a point) is that of maximizing the chaos in Syria. Even as we speak, Russia has begun a peace process of its own in Sochi. Why did the U.S. decide to announce its unlimited troop presence in Syria days before the peace talks were to commence; and do they genuinely believe their presence in Syria contributes to any meaningful peace for that country?
Just as disturbing is America’s unrivaled ability to commit itself to wars left, right and center without any domestic democratic accountability or approval from the international community. As The New York Times notes, this new Syria strategy is “illegal under both the Constitution and international law.” It was illegal when Barack Obama began a covert war of aggression to topple the Syrian government as far back as 2011; it was illegal right up until he began bombing Syrian territory in 2014; and everything the United States has done right through the Trump administration until today is equally illegal.
The Times’ assessment that allows for the U.S. to be in Syria solely to defeat ISIS is questionable at best; but it proves one thing: not even the warmongering mainstream media can put a positive legal spin on the plan to stay in Syria to confront Assad and Iran: because there is no legal basis to do so.
As it stands, the U.S.’ strategy in Syria is beginning to make less sense by the day. Turkey, a longstanding opponent of the Assad government, now might be working to establish a formal dialogue with Assad himself, to counter what it deems to be the principal threat: the U.S.-backed Kurds.
According to Robert Fisk, reporting from on the ground in Syria, the city of Afrin hasn’t even been bombed by Turkey yet, while Turkey has been continuously threatening a grand offensive to retake the city. That’s because it’s Russia, not the U.S., that controls the airspace over the city of Afrin, and any incursion into Afrin would most likely need Russian approval. By Fisk’s research, if Turkey’s army wanted to take Afrin, it could do so in less than half an hour. So far, there have been signs of violence around Afrin, but not in Afrin itself. Indications are that Turkey is relying on its newfound proxy force instead, in the hopes of re-establishing a sizeable anti-Assad force of its own — one that can continue to fight for Turkey’s interests without compromising its position on the Kurdish question.
There’s a reason that Turkey is arresting journalists and critics of the invasion by the hundreds even as I type. With Western media relying on state-approved Turkish correspondents without the capacity for dissent, it is unlikely that those of us on the outside are getting the full picture. Fisk is most likely the only journalist on the ground who won’t be simply echoing Erdogan’s narrative, and already he has alleged that Turkey is conducting outright civilian massacres, not “surgical” strikes on “terrorists.”
Turkey is a member of NATO. It has invaded Syria just as the U.S. has, but with what appear to be polar-opposite interests.
According to Haaretz, the real reason Turkey is involving itself in the region is not to stop an independent Kurdish state, but to stop Assad from incorporating the current Kurdish political infrastructure into his own future Syrian state. Haaretz explains:
Russia knows the survival of Assad’s regime and his control of the entire country depends to a large extent on his ability to assimilate the Kurdish districts into Syria, with the ideal scenario being one that allows the Kurds to run their federation as part of the Syrian state under Assad’s rule. The United States also sees the Kurdish federal system in Syria and the principles of the Kurdish constitution as being no less worthy of defending than the Kurdish region in Iraq.”
The media won’t admit it outright, but this too is a dealbreaker for the U.S., and hanging the Kurds out to dry and drawing Turkey into a direct confrontation might be the principal way in which the U.S. can continue to dismantle any hopes for a unified Syria in the not-too-distant future.
Where are we headed?
Clearly, Washington’s distaste for Assad lies in his geopolitical proximity to Iran and Russia. This should be no secret, as the U.S. has maintained its view of both countries as American arch-rivals right through the previous administrations.
As The Washington Post noted just days ago, the U.S. has finally admitted its true intention in Syria:
After months of incoherence, the Trump administration has taken a step toward a clear policy on Syria and its civil war. In a speech last week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson bluntly recognized a truth that both President Trump and President Barack Obama attempted to dodge: that ‘it is crucial to our national defense to maintain a military and diplomatic presence in Syria, to help bring an end to that conflict, and assist the Syrian people . . . to achieve a new political future.’
To do that, the United States will continue to deploy several thousand personnel in the country and help allied Syrian forces maintain control over enclaves in the southwest, near Israel and Jordan, and the northeast, on the border with Iraq and Turkey.” [emphasis added]
Yet as long as Russia maintains a military presence in Syria, with the capability of establishing a no-fly zone of its own in much of the country, there is little the U.S. can do regarding Assad without taking on Russia directly. In the meantime, however, it clearly can do its utmost to put a dent in Iran’s expanding influence. By allowing its proxy forces to take over the strategic areas of al-Tanf and parts of Deir ez-Zor, the United States will put a major hole in Iran’s ability to link itself to Iraq, Syria and Lebanon as directly as it otherwise could. This bridge of Iran-allied nations, known as the Shia Crescent, is Saudi Arabia’s worst nightmare.
In that context, however, the current stand-off will remain a stalemate for some time, as Iranian-backed troops will continue to render America’s military bases all but useless — as they have more or less taken control of the areas that surround the bases, cutting the U.S. military off from using the bases effectively.
Whether or not the U.S. is prepared to launch a direct strike on these forces and go further than merely cutting them off is unclear, but it seems unlikely at this stage. Given that the U.S. knows Israel is itching to bomb Syria and Lebanon to confront Iran’s growing military presence, it seems more likely that the U.S. will instead rely on Israel to kickstart such a war. At the same time, Washington can continue to rely on its proxy forces to take on the so-called Iranian threat, without fighting Iran directly.
Either way, America’s schizophrenic approach to the conflict and its desire to prolong the war as long as possible does nothing to ease the suffering of ordinary Syrians. It should be clear that the U.S. has no desire to bring peace to Syria, as it continues to violate international law and aggravate other major players in the region, all of whom have conflicting and contradictory visions for the future of Syria.
America’s current Syria strategy opens up the door for a war with Turkey and a potential war with Iran and Syria. All the while the U.S. loses its status as the so-called global leader, with Russia emerging unscathed from the conflict as the region’s major power broker.
The corporate media would do well to follow the footsteps of The New York Times and call this strategy what it is: illegal — not to mention chaotic and maniacal. There is no happy ending to this story; but the least Washington could do is allow Syria to resolve its problems on its own, without further igniting a regional bloodbath.
Top Photo | Turkey-backed Syrian rebels and Turkish troops secure the Bursayah hill, which separates the Kurdish-held enclave of Afrin from the Turkey-controlled town of Azaz, Syria, Jan. 28, 2018. (AP Photo)
Darius Shahtahmasebi is a practicing attorney with an interest in human rights, international law, and journalism. He is a graduate of the University of Otago, where he obtained degrees in Law and Japanese. Follow him on Twitter at @TVsLeaking.