Sunday, November 20, 2016

Syria

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[F]or a nation fighting a war on terrorism whose ideology and praxis are mostly traced to the Middle East, it is arguably hardly possible for United States to entertain a role in Syria not associated with counterterrorism. Admittedly, the Obama administration has done serious mistakes, chief among them calling on President Asad to step down and creating a red line against the regime’s use of chemical weapons. Eventually, the U.S. did not back its words with action. At the same time, the U.S. relegated the political initiative to deal with the Syrian crisis to Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Whereas the first fanned the ideological and monetary support for the jihadists, the other paved for the Jihadists the route to Damascus. Yet, the U.S. has struggled to support moderate opposition groups. As it turned out, some of these groups have shifted their allegiance to al-Nusra Front or other Salafi-Jihadist groups, which are dedicated to killing Americans. In addition, can the moderate opposition be absolved of the tragedy befalling Syria? When the U.S. designated al-Nusra Front as a terrorist organization in November 2012, members of the Syrian opposition deplored the American act, asserting the indispensability of the al-Qaeda-affiliate group in fighting the Asad regime. This was a serious strategic mistake that helped further legitimize Salafi-jihadism within the Syrian revolution. Therefore, how could anyone blame the U.S. for the rise of Salafi-jihadism in Syria? Did the U.S. support, equip, train, or fund Salafi-jihadists? Did the U.S. prefer supporting Jihadists more than the moderate opposition? In fact, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, Kuwait and UAE all supported various Islamists and Jihadists significantly more than the moderate opposition. No less significant, it is the Arab world, which applauded and hailed the violent and oppressive Asad regime, that supported the jihadists and helped bring Syria to its tragedy. Certainly, ISIS is the latest manifestation of an Arab world mired in deep social and political crisis.

Meanwhile, once the regime’s hold onto power had begun to teeter, despite considerable support from Iran and Hezbollah, Russia stepped in not only to save its old satellite capital but also to entrench itself in the Mediterranean basin as a bulwark against what it considers American hegemony. Strategically speaking, by helping the Syrian regime, Moscow would create in Western Syria a bastion of Iranian influence beholden to Russian power, while at the same time turning the Eastern Mediterranean into a Russian lake. No doubt, the entry of Moscow into the Syrian fay further complicated Washington’s maneuvers. Whereas Moscow came to the help of an old client, Washington has had reservations with certain predominant Salafi-jihadist group spearheading the opposition. And, if history is any guide, it is naïve to think that Russia would not pursue a Grozny-like campaign to ensure that its military involvement in Syria would not become ominously perpetual. This explains the forcible displacement of Sunnis from parts of Western Syria and the savagery with which Russia and its allies have pursued their campaign to seize full control of Aleppo.

Consequently, Washington found itself in a quandary. It ironically found itself on the same side with Russia and the Syrian regime fighting Salafi-Jihadist opposition groups while at the same time supporting the moderate opposition whose power paled in comparison to the Jihadists.  Expectedly, neither the Obama Administration, Congress, nor the US public support sending troops to an unfriendly land crisscrossed by jihadists on one side, and Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hezbollah and Iraqi Mobilization units on the other. How could one expect the U.S. to attack the regime, even in a limited capacity, without potentially incurring the wrath and retaliation of its Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah and Iraqi allies, all of which are really running the deadly show? Similarly, should anyone expect that Salafi-jihadists will not jump at the opportunity of Washington striking at the regime to widen their sphere of influence and in the process slaughter non-believers? Or should anyone brush aside the possibility that the Iraqi mobilization units would use their partnership with the Iraqi government to attack the approximately 6000 American soldiers advising the same government? Or should American people forget the high pitched fictitious slogan that Iraqis would welcome Americans with flowers as liberators in 2003? Certainly, the U.S. is in an unenviable position in both Syria and Iraq, where American enemies vastly outnumber American friends! Nevertheless, The U.S. has been the largest donor of humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees, and has sent dozens of U.S. troops to train and equip moderate Syrian opposition forces.

Speaking recently before the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon drew a bleak but accurate picture of the Syrian crisis: “Present in this hall today are representatives of governments that have ignored, facilitated, funded, participated in or even planned and carried out atrocities inflicted by all sides of the Syria conflict against Syrian civilians…Many groups have killed innocent civilians — none more so than the government of Syria, which continues to barrel bomb neighborhoods and systematically torture thousands of detainees.”

This is the tragedy of Syria and, by extension, the tragedy of the Muslim world in the Middle East. Be that as it may, the U.S. should apply its soft influence to reach a permanent cease fire and end the slaughter and displacement of Syrians. No doubt dealing with Russia is exhausting and at times unproductive. But the reality of the world today is that the U.S. cannot force a cease fire as part of a settlement on its own without introducing a massive number of troops to eventually occupy Syria.  In his most recent book World Order, Henry Kissinger affirms that the main challenge for the twenty-first century is how to shape an international order in a world buffeted by violent conflicts, technological proliferation and radicalism. He adds that unless the major powers reach a new kind of accommodation about their global roles chaos would ensue. In other words, the United States would find it difficult to play the leadership role it had carried out in post-Cold War. Consequently, the United States confronts a paradox whereby it continues to be the undisputed global leader but in an often contested, sometimes uncertain global position. This is the international backdrop against which the tragedy in Syria continues to unfold [..].

Currently, the tragic reality today is that Aleppo is all but a foregone conclusion, for the city is essential to consolidate Russian-Iranian-Syrian regime control over Western Syria. It’s clear from Secretary Kerry’s statements that the U.S. will not go to war with Russia over Aleppo. But that does not mean that the U.S. and the international community should not apply significant pressure, including by proxy, on Russia and the Syrian regime to stop their indiscriminate warfare. This begs the essential question following the day after the likely fall of Aleppo: How to change the dynamics in Syria in favor of the moderate opposition without creating a bigger war and tragedy. Until a new American administration moves into the White House, this remains to be seen!