For years, the United States and its leaders articulated a sense of what Syria ought to look like without a plan for making it so.
Barack Obama piously opined that the regime of Bashar al-Assad had no legitimacy and that Assad must go. That policy not seriously pursued. Assad was largely left alone, untroubled by any American effort to interdict his unsteady reconquest of much of Syria.
That reconquest could have been interrupted or halted. Assad could have been overthrown. Nothing was done. The gulf between Obama’s rhetoric and his lack of action generated its own confusion.
On Syria, Donald Trump has shown less rhetorical uniformity than his predecessor, but he has held true to his example in practice. Inconsistency of this sort also breeds irresolution.
When campaigning to be elected president, Trump said Assad was not so bad and suggested a tactical alliance. Only later, when the realities of the regime’s use of chemical weapons were shown to Trump, did he act to punish those crimes.
But pivoting from calling Assad a friend-in-waiting to an ‘animal’ did not presage a change of policy. Trump’s consistent opposition to Iran, Assad’s ally and primary backer, seemed paradoxical when Trump wanted Assad to be America’s friend. It was inconsistent if America would not confront Assad.
US policy remains uncertain, except in its commitment to do nothing transformative.
Only on the matter of the Islamic State (ISIS) could the United States make up its mind.
Both Obama and Trump placed great emphasis on the campaign against ISIS, each refusing to support Syrian rebel groups who did not promise to make the end of ISIS’ claimed caliphate their first priority, and advising the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) to form the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) to generate a force on the ground who could serve as the United States’ anti-ISIS proxy.
With ISIS in disarray, if not defeat, US policy has lost even the focus the war against the terrorist group provided. Now, US inaction breeds general disorder.
Some hope disorder may be coming to an end.
Bassam Barabandi, writing for al-Hurra, suggested that the United States is forging a new plan for Syria. This plan holds that the US will continue its mission against ISIS and help establish free and fair elections across Syria in compliance with UN aims, and attempt to ensure the removal of Iranian forces from the country.
This plan may appear at first glance coherent, and it may be welcomed as such. But it is not coherent; and its success is unlikely.
The idea that Syria could shortly hold a free and fair election is itself unreal. Syria’s state – marked by destruction and disarray – is subordinate to the regime. With the regime’s violent apparatus still in place after years of war, holding any vote free from intimidation and duress is impossible.
In any case, open American accommodation with the regime, which holding elections in the present situation will mean, would end the possibility of expelling Iranian troops and assets. The regime needs those forces to maintain its shaky control of much of Syria. It could not survive without them. The same would be true of any state ruled over by a member of the Assad faction.
Assad’s regime remains on a permanent war footing regarding Idlib, which it claims it wants to conquer. This situation can only be maintained with extensive Iranian support.
The regime will not, while Idlib remains outside its sphere, surrender Iranian backing. Because of its weakness, it would likely not be able to reject Iran’s presence even if it wanted to do so.
America’s new policy is very much like the old –a focus on continuing to fight ISIS, and a focus on the rhetoric of changing Assad’s and his allies’ well-established ways. As in policy, so in practice. In Syria, as in Washington, little has changed – and while this plan is pursued, nothing will.
This piece was originally published in The Arab Weekly.