The Remarkable Consistency of Obama’s Syrian Policy – Martin Makinson
The Remarkable Consistency of Obama’s Syrian Policy
When the Syrians bravely made their first stand against their dictator in Deraa on March 18th 2011, and then in Homs and the Damascus eastern suburbs, they – logically – thought Western countries, the United States at their lead, would assist and support them with more than words. When the demonstrators were machinegunned in their hundreds in April 2011, they were still clinging to the hope that President Obama would do more than drawing red lines that would be overstepped systematically by the Syrian regime with little or no consequences. When cities such as Homs, Deir ez-Zor were bombed with artillery in the summer, autumn and winter of 2011-2012, when Western journalists such as Marie Colvin and Paul Conway would be deliberately targetted by Bashar’s army, Western public opinion might have considered the consequences for the Damascus tyrant to be dire. Almost twenty months after the onset of the uprising, America’s words on the reaction to chemical weapons being delivered from the air on Syrian civilians and defectors alike sound terribly hollow. Many in Western countries are bewildered, perplexed by an attitude contrary to the immediate and visible gains for America should Iran’s stauchest ally fall.
There is, however, an absolute continuity and singularity of purpose in Obama and Clinton’s disingenuous decisions NOT to help the overwhelming majority of the Syrian population free itself from Bashar’s onslaught and from the misery this regime has brought on its people for more than four decades. A few days ago, a European diplomatic source based in one of the Gulf states, an expert on Syria, actually told me his country, France, had no intention of proposing action on Syria lest the US should not do so in the first place. Not someone particularly prone to conspiracy theory, he added that the US was itself following Israeli suggestions on what to do with Syria: i.e. nothing.
In fact the White House and the State Department have been dilligent not so much in pressuring Syria – and economic pressure on behalf of Washington means close to nothing, since Syria imports or exports precious little from and to the US – but in placing the onus on its own allies, warning them not to act militarily against Bashar. Hillary Clinton’s answer to the Turkish proposal of safe zones in the autum of 2011, was: “We’re not there…”. The State Secretary’s impatience with the so-called disunited and fractious Syrian opposition (particularly the SNC) was perhaps meant to discredit a front-in-the-making, which, despite the Doha agreement a few weeks ago, has not been recognized by the USA as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Obama’s warnings about the use of chemical weapons were a double-edged message: whilst warning that nerve gas and chemical warfare could spark NATO reaction, it was also a go-ahead for the Syrian regime to continue pounding its cities with 500 kg barrel bombs filled with steel, fuel and dynamite… So long as conventional weapons were used, the USA would not upgrade its support of the Syrian armed and civilian oppoition and provide them with more than satellite phones (that apparently never got to Syria in the first place). Turkey had a plane shot down in international waters off the Syrian coast by Russian surface-to-air missiles. The Turks are being repeatedly aimed at by Syrian army ordnance flying acorss their border, yet apart from a few rounds, they have not been particularly heavy-handed in their response. In 1997 (I was then working in Jerablus, facing Gaziantep province), after years of seing Hafez al-Assad arming the PKK, Turkey warned Syria of imminent armed intervention through the massing of troops along the border. The result: PKK leader Abdallah Ocalan was expelled within 48 hours, later to be captured in Kenya by Turkish Secret agents. Syria complied, knowing then that the threat from Turkey was real, and acknowledging that there was no way it could have stopped an advance of the Turks to Aleppo – only 60 km south of the Killis border. Other times, other circumstances, and maybe different US policy.
The abovementioned diplomatic source, along with many others, are not as puzzled as most by US indifference to the plight of Syrians confronting their murderous regime. This indifference is similar in many aspects to Bush Senior – and then Madeleine Albright and Bill Clinton’s – policies of “containment” towards Iraq in the 1990s, the embargo years. The objectives, after 1991, following the uprising of Kurds and Shias in Southern Iraq, was to make Saddam a pariah dictator, but to ensure he remained in power, weakened and of no military threat to his neighbours. In office until it was convenient, until a case for hoarding WMDs could be cocked up for an invasion… American policy towards Bashar shows many similarities: condemn the tyrant of Damascus with words, words, words, demonize him, but let him clearly know intervention of armed assistance to the rebels and the FSA is totally off the table. Why would Fogh Rasmussen, NATO secretary, during the entire year of 2011, dismiss every single week the idea of a military reaction on behalf of his organization, if it was not to send a reassuring message to the Syrian executive?
The advances of the Syrian armed uprising can only be credited to better training and more efficiency, not to help from Western or Gulf countries. The downing of helicopters and planes in the eastern suburbs of Damascus or west of Aleppo (at Daret Ezza, jut next to St Simeon’s monastery, the largest Christian church of Antiquity) is a consequence of the FSA shooting at the Syrian airforce with recently-seized, Russian-made weaponry, especially that captured at base 46 next to Mushabbak, 35 km west of Aleppo. Successes have therefore nothing to do with American or US western assistance, as the video clips of the Free Syrian Army holding Russian shoulder anti-aircraft missiles clearly demonstrate. The armed resistance in Syria knows it is essentially alone when it comes to fighting this war. And it has developped a culture of self-reliance and daring it would have never acquired had the USA directly stepped in from the beginning.
So what are the reasons for Obama and Clinton’s lack of clear, decisive action on Syria? The White House appears on surface dithering, hesitant, weary of the consequences with Iran and Russia should the tables decisvely turn in Syria. But this is deceptively not the case. The fear of seing weaponry (Stingers above all) falling into the hands of the “wrong people” (ie the Jihadi al-Nusra front) is a mere excuse, especially since CIA operatives are roaming around Rihaniyeh and Antakya in Turkey as I speak and can perfectly identify who are the various groups fighting the Assad regime and what are their ideology and beliefs. One would have thought that Obama’s reluctance to intervene might have been linked to election promises of not entering another conflict in the Middle East, and would change once the previous administration would return to power. And yet US policy has not varied a iota since the beginning of the twenty-one month uprising in Syria. So, what is the reason for this paradoxical doctrine of non-assistance, which borders on tacit approval in favor of a Assad regime remaining in power?
The same western diplomatic source told me to look at Netanayahu’s aims for Syria. At the onset of the revolution, the Israeli executive spoke in different voices: Barak and Peres supporting the revolution and the FSA, pro-Likud op-eds in the country and in Europe (in France and the Uk for instance) defending the record of the Assad regime on the grounds of its predictability and reliability. After all, no shots have been fired on the Golan Heights for more than 30 years, until the Bashar regime sent Palestinians as canon fodder on the “Yawm al-Naqsa” in June 2011, to distract attention from a revolt gaining momentum. A decision which was not to be repeated…
It is clear now that a weakened Assad, with a long-lasting ongoing rebellion, is to Israel’s benefit. Fighting an armed uprising controling the north of the country along borders with Turkey and Iraq has reduced – and will considerably lower – Syrian military potential, making the threat of Damascus towards its neighbors negligible. Even better for Israel would be the carve-up of Syria into three or four entities, Iraq-style, along sectarian and ethnic lines. Israel’s consistent policy has been to support minorities fighting panarabism or attempts at Arab unity: the Christian Maronites in Lebanon, the Kurds in Iraq, the Christians and Southerners of Sudan, among other examples… They would have no qualms in supporting an Alawi separate state along the coast, or a Kurdish enclave in the far northeast of Syria. In any case, Israel is to gain much from the destruction of the state, the army and the social fabric of Syria, and from the fragmentation of the country into enclaves, Iraq 2003- or Lebanon 1975-style. Bashar al-Assad, like his father Hafez, is and remains “Israel’s best enemy”, despite his support of Hezbollah and Iran. Israel’s red lines seem to be the only ones that the Syrian regime is keen to respect.