With the defeat of the Islamic State group imminent, the future of Syria is beginning to take shape – and many nations have sought to promote their preferred visions for the country through covert or explicit intervention.
One might expect their objectives to be largely conflicting, but for the three most consequential external players – Iran, Russia and the United States – some unity is starting to solidify as they eye some preferred outcomes.
Iran has spent the duration of the Syrian war propping up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. This has included providing material aid and logistical support to Damascus, transporting Shia foreign fighters into Syria, and marshalling regime-allied militias. Iranian troops have been covertly fighting on Assad’s side for many years.
Russia’s pro-Assad intervention has, since September 2015, involved a massive use of airpower, and changed the course of the war. Its results are clear to see: the war crimes, the mass civilian casualties, the bombing of Aleppo into submission, the clear targeting of opposition forces in preference to hitting IS – these were, in embryonic form, part of the operation from the beginning.
The American part in all this is less clear cut. US policymakers have been saying for years that Assad should – in fact must – step aside. His crimes against the Syrian people are too great, and too visible, for those who are willing to see, to allow for the adoption of any other posture.
But this stated position has, from the beginning, been a half-truth. The United States never committed to a policy of regime change in Syria. It vetted rebel groups and began ferrying arms to aid them, but never enthusiastically. Some of these programmes were declared early on to be failures and wound up.
America’s president in 2013, Barack Obama, did not seem to be pursuing regime change.
When the dictator, who Obama said must go, used gas to murder civilians in East Ghouta – and in doing so, stepped over an American ‘red line’ – there was no response.
If the gassing of children in front of the world does not force the world’s leading nation to take action, one can only conclude that no action was ever intended.
Now, with a new president in office, and even after another chemical attack which shocked the world, the result of six years of policy is clear for all to see: the US is happy for Assad to remain in power and will even turn much of Syria over to the regime. This is a mistake. It’s a terrible, world-historic mistake.
Officialdom has a certain view of things. It peers at foreign revolutions with scepticism tinged with horror. And in many Western countries, officials have for years been pushing the line that Syria’s revolution is a spent force. Some were saying so from the very beginning, in 2011.
This inflexible view has prompted governments such as the UK to withdraw support from rebel forces. It has contributed to the failure of numerous American initiatives to arm Syria’s revolutionaries. This has begun a self-fulfilling prophecy, with rebel groups, starved of support for years, failing to meet arbitrary standards for success.
The net beneficiary of such deliberate neglect is Assad, whose forces have received sustained backing from two dedicated allies. Alone, the Iranian support to the regime has been immense. Adding Russia into the equation unbalances everything further. Syria’s rebels have had sporadic foreign support, but they have never been able to count on it.
In the wake of the international anti-IS campaign, the concerns of the people of Syria, tired of an otiose and corrupt tyranny, were pushed into the background.
The Assad regime has benefited from the pressure applied by dozens of nations to the shrinking Islamic State group. It has reaped the rewards territorially and can now claim – with little real evidence – that it is fighting terror. The regime’s push into Deir az-Zour would be unthinkable without massive external action against IS; it simply lacks the manpower to execute anything of that scale on its own.This campaign against IS has become the only show in town. Western governments care exclusively about IS’ swift defeat, and seem to care little about who gains from collapse of ‘the Caliphate’.
At the same time, much of Syria is being given over to the Syrian Democratic Forces, a tightly controlled subsidiary of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), whose origins remain unclear and whose objectives are often, despite repeated promises, not those of the occupants of the land being fought over.
The wholehearted American and coalition support of the SDF is about little more than beating IS fast, and damn the consequences. But it is also, notably, about abdicating responsibility in every possible way.
The SDF will likely hand over much of the territory it captures to the regime, and the Americans seem perfectly at peace with this.
Hence the increasing international tolerance of Assad’s survival. Many nations, such as France, still maintain that Assad must go and a transition take place. But this is fictive.
There was no serious attempt on the part of the international coalition to get to Deir az-Zour before Assad, despite the fact that the regime cannot be counted upon permanently to take the territory from IS, nor to do so without huge numbers of civilian casualties.
Assad’s regime is being allowed to survive and even to benefit from the collapse of the Islamic State group. But the regime remains on life-support.
Its survival, aided by Russia and Iran, is not sustainable, nor in the best interests of Syrians.
For the United States and others to allow the regime to survive is beyond neglect or even cold indifference. This unhappy conclusion, a callous international consensus, represents a profound rejection of the Syrian people, and, in the American case, a deliberate step back from the duties commanded as the price for leading the world.
This piece was originally published at The New Arab.