America’s allies in Syria cannot count on their friends. That’s the message sent by the White House.
It emerged last week that the United States will shutter a CIA programme to equip vetted rebel groups. These groups were America’s allies and assets on the ground in Syria.
Some rebel groups, after extensive vetting, have been given a small number of American weapons. They have been given American small arms, as well as TOW missile systems, with which they have ceremonially destroyed some enemy vehicles.
But this flow of arms, never strong, is to be shut off, meaning that all support, stated or tacit, from the United States cannot be counted on. This rift is serious and it looks to be final.
Donald Trump’s Syria policy remains deeply confused, and this latest development can only exacerbate this confusion, which breeds dysfunction, and threatens to render ridiculous America’s entire Syria policy. This is a failure of action but also of messaging.
One message is imparted with real force. America abandons its allies. It ditches its friends. It sells those who are no longer immediately valuable down the river.
In a way, this is of a piece with previous US policy in Syria. This move was always coming. And yet it is still a shocking betrayal, a fact which cannot and must not be overlooked.
Syria’s rebels – and the broader opposition to Assad – share stated American goals. They are fighting for their freedom and for the future of their country. This ought to be something with which the United States, at the helm of the free world, can make common cause.
But this argument seems not to have been received. Or if it was, it can only have been rejected out of hand, disregarded deliberately by successive administrations.
Trump’s break with Syria’s rebels is not all that new, despite his claims to political novelty.
After all, starving rebels of resources is a continuation of President Obama’s policy of half-supporting the Syrian opposition, a policy which never genuinely approached regime change and which essentially confirmed the Assad regime in power.
Far from supporting democrats in the Middle East and elsewhere, the Obama administration was obsessed, eerily echoing Trumpian rhetoric, with deals.
Obama himself joked about wanting ‘a few smart autocrats’ to run the region. And in Iran’s theocracy, he must have thought he’d found a solution of sorts.
Iran gave succour and support to the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad. It backed up the latter’s slaughter of civilians and crushing of protesting crowds. Iranian officers and officials organised the regime’s lines of defence and supply, creating and animating sectarian militias which now make up the bulk of the pro-Assad coalition.
Obama, nominally opposed to Assad and apparently horrified by his crimes, knew this all along. And yet, in pursuit of a deal with the Iranian state over nuclear weapons, the Americans did not act to present a serious challenge to Assad, Iran’s client in Damascus.
Assad was allowed to get away with massacres and war crimes and mass executions. He was allowed to turn state prisons into death camps complete with crematoria for disposing the bodies of those executed en masse.
Compared to this, perhaps, Trump’s policy contains less moral hypocrisy, but it is still incoherent and chaotic in the extreme.
Trump claims to care about Iranian influence in Syria; and he has shown that he is prepared to act to prevent Iranian-supported militias from attacking a base manned by American special forces and Syrian rebels in al-Tanf. Trump’s April strike of the al-Shayrat airbase punished regime war crimes and possibly deterred more uses of sarin gas.
But Trump, at heart an inconsistent man, is incapable of following the logic of an isolated good deed such as this. He is governed by his unstable temperament and worried by changeable, mob-like public sentiment at home.
He conjures great avatars for him to fight. IS, though it is now on the back foot in Syria and Iraq, serves this purpose. Accordingly, Trump says he wants to defeat IS quickly and comprehensively.
This objective and arresting Iranian influence are both incompatible with withdrawing support for Syria’s rebels. They are fighting the regime, which is increasingly becoming an Iranian-controlled operation, incapable of recapturing the rest of the country.
To weaken this bulwark against an Iranian client state would give a shot in the arm to Qassem Soleimani and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps – Quds Force, which conducts external operations for the Iranian state.
Soleimani and the IRGC–QF have played a key role in running things in Syria for years. They will be empowered and strengthened by any collapse in support for Syria’s rebels.
At the same time, the remnants of the Assad regime will be emboldened by this move. And every time Assad feels emboldened, he launches attacks on rebel areas and commits more war crimes, often using chemical means.
Trump publicly deplored the murder of ‘beautiful babies’ by sarin gas. This policy, however it is phrased, can only assist their murderer.
Finally, the rebels Trump wishes to weaken have fought and will continue to fight IS. They have done so with some success. Without them, IS will take longer to defeat, and may be replaced by a successor organisation which will feed on the sense of betrayal felt by Syria’s Sunnis.
That sense of betrayal will not be entirely illegitimate.
Two American presidents have undermined Syria’s revolution. The first by starving it of resources and secretly dealing with a state essential to the survival of the Assad regime; the second by rendering such cloak and dagger stuff public for the first time and using it as a basis for official policy.
If Trump has any sense, he will rethink this move before it has disastrous consequences. But sadly, this seems one Obama-era policy he is more than happy to follow unthinkingly, even into the moral abyss.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.