What Does the US Want in Syria?

News reports in late February that the US was moving towards cooperation with Russia on basis of the Geneva agreement of June 2012 were a welcome relief, suggesting a US desire for a negotiated outcome in Syria. Some thought that the apparent US conciliation with Russia over Syria might be due to Washington’s need for Russia’s cooperation in Afghanistan, including American withdrawal through Russia, and talks with Iran. At the same time, Syrian National Coalition head Moaz al-Khatib’s previously reported amenability to talks with Damascus illustrated more the divisions and jockeying for power in the opposition rather than unified SNC position. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (SMB) in particular is against talks and eager not to be out-maneuvered from a leading role, including important portfolios in a new government.
Washington, in any case, disabused Khatib of such notions in the recent Rome meeting, where it pressured him against any such personal predilection to talk to Damascus (his position waned before Rome anyway), while pledging “humanitarian” and “non-lethal” aid to sustain opposition morale. The SNC, under US pressure, reluctantly decided to attend the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Rome and refused the offer of talks from Damascus; instead, its demand at Rome was for military escalation, “qualitative military support,” to fight the regime, while the Arab Gulf states and Turkey absolutely rejected negotiations.
Is there any evidence the US ever desired or now wants a negotiated settlement? In its recent pronouncements, the US position is, as usual, ambiguous and verging on the deceptive. American officials did not explicitly insist on Assad’s prior removal; however, at the same time they publicly stated the US is interested in devising ways to hasten Assad’s ouster, to ease him out or persuade him to give up power, as John Kerry put it. Kerry also said, “There needs to be a political transition” and Russia can play a role in such. To the US, for the past two years, a political transition means not a negotiated settlement without preconditions, but that leads to Assad’s removal; that is, political transition is a mechanism and process whose goal is Assad’s exit.
At the same time that it declares its commitment to dialogue, Washington indirectly arms the opposition by facilitating arms transfers, money, training, intelligence, etc. through third countries in order to change the military calculus with Damascus. Despite the hypocrisy, and since at least the spring of 2012, the US has facilitated arms shipments to the insurgents by states in the region, the most recent being the Saudi purchase of infantry equipment from its Croatian transit and delivered through Jordan in an orchestrated bid to open a southern front.
Syrian insurgents receive training in the countries surrounding Syria, and in Libya, and special training in the Gulf Arab states. British, French, and Arab intelligence are on the ground in Syria. Israel, its security agencies already in the game of assassinating high-ranking Syrians, has Washington’s green light for air attacks whose pretext is arms transfers to Hizballah, but whose real purpose is to humiliate and delegitimize an impotent regime. Essentially, arms, funds, training, and frequency of covert attacks against Damascus increased substantially.
All this, in addition to US patriot missiles on the Turkish-Syrian border and beefed up American naval presence in the Mediterranean ready to intervene in Syria, effectively constitutes US/NATO aiding and arming the rebels with lethal weapons, despite the ludicrousness of protestation to the contrary. They and their Arab allies, not just the rebels, are at war with the Syrian state.
Reports in the first days of March confirmed this interpretation of US goals: Washington wants Assad out, news analyses said, and is hoping that the Islamists would make this inevitable with gains in Damascus. Thus, the US will look the other way at Islamists and al-Nusra in particular as long as they attack and wear down the city of Damascus, all the while hoping to unify and strengthen the Free Syrian Army as a counterweight. In the past couple of weeks, the US and the rebels have smelled blood. This and the Arab League’s decision to unequivocally support the SNC and arm the rebels at all costs—including giving the SNC the task of forming a government at a scheduled meeting in Istanbul next week with the promise of rewarding them Syria’s seat in the League—has buoyed the opposition. It may well be that a great insurgent push to gain and consolidate further territory is in the making as a prelude to negotiations with a greatly weakened regime, though total regime defeat is the preferred outcome.
Addressing Assad, Kerry said in Doha recently, “You need to go to the table and negotiate a peaceful resolution” and Assad’s “allies” (Russia, Iran) need to advise him so. In context of US goals, what Kerry is saying is, “You need to go the table and negotiate your exit and the installation of a new regime, and your allies better knock this message into your head,” obviously also meaning no genuine and honest cooperation with Russia. Unlike the belligerent militarization of the Syrian conflict by Britain and France, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, only the hapless Germans seem to be striking the right note, as they did recently by warning against arming the rebels because it will lead to an arms race and proxy war that would involve the whole region. It’s probably too late: Regional and international states miraculously transmuted helpless, unarmed innocent protestors into armed, violent proxy fighters.
Islamists among these fighters believe that the US hostility and refusal to arm them, including, they believe, deliberately preventing them from destroying Assad, was because of Washington’s concern with Salafi/jihadi enmity towards Israel. While Israeli interests are paramount in US Middle East policy, including towards Egypt, the better theory is that the goals of Washington and Tel Aviv are aligned in removing Assad. To this end, for the US, the best of all worlds is to accelerate regime change, paradoxically through Salafi and jihadi military gains, precisely in order to stem and weaken the growing power of these elements in Syria caused by protracted war. This, however, is a dangerous game that will not work.
The Russians, by contrast, in recent statements said the SNC must “declare itself in favor of dialogue” because Damascus is ready for negotiation, suggesting no emphasis on Assad’s removal and leaving it to the Syrian people to decide through agreement. The Geneva agreement of June 2012 is not clear on the issue of whether Assad should step down before negotiations; it does not call for this, just for a transitional authority with opposition and government members on it. Russia’s officially repeated goals include stopping the carnage, requiring an immediate ceasefire and end to militarization, humanitarian assistance, and negotiation leading to a transitional government.
Militarily, it seems Russia stopped exporting arms to Syria as of July 2012; at that time, it said it will honor existing contracts (previously agreed exports, most probably conventional air defense weapons and systems), thus complying with international law, but will not enter into new contracts. Russia essentially has supplied the Syrian Army with spare parts, and repairs previously purchased weapons, not, as Hillary Clinton falsely claimed new helicopters and fighter planes.
The longstanding policy of regime change in Syria means that Washington’s on-again, off-again talk of a negotiated settlement and cooperation with Russia is a subterfuge, a delaying tactic. The Russian and many others’ hope for a negotiated outcome will most probably not happen.
How is it that the West (really, US, Britain, and France) is concerned about destabilization of the region yet supports Qatari/Saudi arms destabilization of Syria? Opposes political Islamists on grounds of democracy, freedom, and civil society but supports Arab Gulf states determined to spread ideologically like-minded Sunni fundamentalist regimes? Insists political resolution in Syria must include protection of religious and ethnic pluralism and empowerment of non-Islamist secularists and moderates but colludes with Arab Gulf allies who nurture intolerant Islamist values? The assumption of moral agency on the part of Western states is absurd and hypocritical in the extreme. The Western “dilemma”—viz., sending arms may end up in the hands of radicals; not providing arms to identifiable moderates may lead to jihadi gains in power—is false.
This “dilemma” does not constitute the only choice, for if the moral imperative is to end the horrific violence inflicted on the Syrian people by all sides through this proxy war, then only a political solution can end the accelerating dissolution of Syria’s social fabric. One cannot single-mindedly pursue Assad’s downfall while pretending to want a negotiated solution; label certain groups fighting to bring him down as terrorists while using them to defeat Damascus. This is an untenable contradiction, speaking less to realpolitik than to self-defeating illogic and inconsistency, and ensuring only regional violence and instability. Negotiations may in fact be the best route towards a moderate, democratic post-Assad Syria; the alternative is further disintegration via violent clashes for power between armed groups.
Unfortunately, US policy in Syria is driven by one overriding goal: bring to power a compliant regime run either by the SMB or, preferably, by secularly leaning leaders and elites ready to align to and subordinate themselves with Washington, exactly like the Palestinian Authority has done. To that end, its policy of felling the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, conceived years before the Syrian conflict erupted is perceived as a critical pathway towards weakening if not destroying Iran’s allies, Syria, Hizballah and Hamas. The US wants Syria in its orbit, a client at peace with Israel on Washington-Tel Aviv terms.
The US’s regional goals include controlling the oil rich Middle East; sustaining perpetual Israeli supremacy and the destruction of any countervailing deterrent capability to a nuclear-armed Israel; and isolating, encircling, weakening, bringing down or destroying if required, Iran, just as Washington did in Iraq.
Washington of course is gambling that there are enough other states determined to bring down Damascus, so the tangible US financial cost or probability of direct American military intervention including Libya-style bombing in service of regime change in Syria, is negligible. However, the much greater price is yet to be paid by Syria and the region. In any case, US power in the Middle East is waning, and it cannot control transitions and outcomes, violent or peaceful, much less the actions of its Arab Gulf autocratic allies, all the more reason for Washington to strike a cooperative, consistent, and principled political, legal, and moral stance regarding all things Middle Eastern.
To follow the lead of the US’s Sunni allies spectacularly unconcerned with Syria’s suffering and destruction is sheer folly. To guide the politico-diplomatic-military effort that may undo Syria absolutely does not serve the peace, prosperity, and security of the American people or American presence in the Middle East. Issa Khalaf (D. Phil. in Politics and Middle East Studies, Oxford University).