A conspicuous failure of U.S. foreign policy in Syria

January 24, 2015 by Doyle McManus

In 2011, the U.S. ambassador to Syria, a mild-mannered diplomat named Robert S. Ford, became the face of American support for the Arab Spring when he boldly visited opponents to the brutal regime of Bashar Assad in the northern city of Hama.

In 2014, Ford quit, saying he could not defend the Obama administration’s inconstant support for Syrian rebels. “More hesitation … [will] simply hasten the day when American forces have to intervene against Al Qaeda in Syria,” he warned.

Now, a year later, Ford’s warning has come true. U.S. warplanes bomb jihadists in Syria week after week. Northern Syria has become a base for both Islamic State, which invaded Iraq last year, and an Al Qaeda franchise that trains European terrorists.

But Ford thinks U.S. policy has moved backward, not forward. “We’re seeing Syria divide into four countries,” he told me last week. “and I’m not sure it can be put back together.”

It’s the most conspicuous failure of U.S. foreign policy today. The Assad regime that President Obama declared dead remains in power, and roughly half its territory is held by jihadists. The moderates the U.S. said it would support are mostly scattered and defeated.

You wouldn’t have learned that from Obama’s State of the Union speech last week, though. In Obama’s telling, Syria is part of a success story.

“In Iraq and Syria, American leadership, including our military power, is stopping [Islamic State’s] advance,” Obama said. “Instead of getting dragged into another ground war in the Middle East, we are leading a broad coalition … [and] supporting a moderate opposition in Syria that can help us in this effort.”

It’s “a smarter kind of American leadership,” the president said.

Actually, two American impulses have collided in Syria. One was the desire to help topple a regime that has held power through “murder, hostage-taking, enforced disappearances, torture, rape, sexual violence, use of child soldiers, targeting civilians, and indiscriminate bombing,” to quote the State Department.

The other, stronger impulse was to avoid getting entangled in another war — and that, officials said, has been the most consistent message from Obama and his closest aides.

So even as the administration announced program after program to aid moderate rebels — from humanitarian aid and “non-lethal supplies” to a not-yet-started plan to train 5,400 rebels a year — the warning that filtered through the bureaucracy was: It’s safer to move slowly than it is to take risks.

“There’s never been a great sense of urgency in the administration about doing something big,” Ford said. The new training program, he added, is so small that it “has the feel of checking a box.”

Meanwhile, the jihadists didn’t wait. They collected government aid and private donations from the Arab Gulf states; they bought weapons and trained rebels; and, in November, they overran bases of Harakat Hazm, an armed group the United States was backing, and seized its U.S.-supplied anti-tank missiles. “At that point, our window [for arming rebels] closed,” Ford said.

There isn’t much appetite in Congress for shipping anti-tank missiles to rebels if the missiles end up in the hands of Al Qaeda affiliates. But that still leaves the United States fighting a war in Syria if it is to “destroy” Islamic State, as Obama has promised.

That goal, if it’s real, will require a ground force. U.S. officials have nominated Turkey, or a coalition of Turkey and friendly Arab forces, plus the future Syrian rebels if their U.S. training ever starts. But that’s a force that doesn’t exist in service of a strategy that hasn’t been described.

One thing U.S. officials still insist they won’t do is conclude an alliance with Syria’s Assad. But they’re no longer insisting he needs to step down immediately. They’ve suggested that the United States could be flexible if Assad’s regime entered serious peace talks with the non-jihadist opposition.

“It is time for President Assad [and] the Assad regime to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria,” Secretary of State John F. Kerry said Jan. 14.

If the administration has a diplomatic strategy, it centers on cajoling countries that have influence in Syria — Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Turkey — to join in a combined effort to end the conflict. The premise is that those countries fear Islamic State and other jihadists enough to put aside their otherwise deep divisions. But that’s a long way from happening too.

Until then, the U.S. strategy boils down to attacking Islamic State from the air, hoping a war of attrition somehow weakens Assad’s grip on power, and asking Turkey (and perhaps others) to act on the ground where the United States has been unwilling.

“Our problem is that we don’t have much leverage,” Ford noted. “We have put very little skin in the game. The Russians and Iranians have put a lot of skin in the game.”

And that offers little ground for optimism. The lesson of our misadventure in Syria may be this: A risk-averse foreign policy can keep you out of ground wars — but it can also keep other goals out of reach too.

Syrian forces ‘kill dozens’ in barrel bomb attack

January 24, 2015 by Al Jazeera/Agencies

Syrian government air raids have killed at least 42 people in a rebel-held village near Damascus, activists and a group monitoring the violence have said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported a “massacre” against the village of Hamoriyah in eastern Ghouta area on Friday, as at least 42 people, including six children were killed.

The Britain-based watchdog said government helicopters dropped five barrel bombs on the village.

According to the Local Coordination Committees (LCC), a grassroots network of opponents of the government, one of the air strikes hit a square where people had gathered for the weekly Muslim Friday prayers.

The opposition Syrian Media Organisation posted footage on YouTube of several bodies lying on a blood-stained floor, some of them children with blast wounds. Other bodies lay under white shrouds or jackets.

Another opposition group, the Shaam News Network, published a video on its Facebook page showing what it said was the aftermath of a blast in an open square. Bodies lay on the road and buildings were damaged.

Al Jazeera could not independently verify the authenticity of the videos.

Syria’s air force began launching strikes against opposition-held areas in the summer of 2012, with rights groups blasting the regime for attacks they say fail to discriminate between civilian and military targets.

The rebel-held eastern Ghouta area, located east of the capital, has been under army siege for more than a year, leaving tens of thousands of civilians short of food and medical supplies.

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has learnt that at least four people have been killed in government air strikes on Houla town near Homs city.

Three explosive barrels were thrown on the village when residents started to leave the mosques after Friday prayers.

Al Jazeera’s journalist in the southern city of Deraa reported that another air raid killed at least six civilians, including a child, in Dael town near Deraa city, on Friday.

According to the UN, at least 220,000 people have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war that began with an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

January 25, 2015 – Syrian rebels carry out attacks on Lebanese…

January 25, 2015 - Syrian rebels carry out attacks on Lebanese border towns

January 24, 2015 – Syrian refugees in Lebanon unable to find…

January 24, 2015 - Syrian refugees in Lebanon unable to find space to bury dead

Syria: The Policy Cul-De-Sac

January 21, 2015 by Frederic C. Hof

US policy toward Syria is stalled in a cul-de-sac. It occupies the strategic low ground between an August 2011 presidential call for Bashar al-Assad to step aside, the June 2014 eruption of the Assad-conjured Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) into Iraq from Syria, and the administration’s resolute reluctance to act in accordance with a fundamental fact: ISIL will be defeated neither in Iraq nor in Syria so long as Assad family-rule remains in place. ISIL is, in large measure, the monster created by a viciously sectarian survival strategy featuring mass murder, one pursued by the Assad regime since March 2011. Yet the administration, eager to accommodate that regime’s strongest supporters (Iran and Russia), reportedly perceives value in Assad staying on for a while. How else to explain tepid support for those fighting both ISIL and the regime? How else to justify flirting with a Russian diplomatic initiative designed to fragment and destroy the nationalist opposition to Assad and ISIL?

This is not to say that the dream of Assad regime apologists—active, conscious collaboration between the regime and the United States against ISIL—is about to come true. Far from it. President Barack Obama has labeled Bashar al-Assad a mass murderer. As recently as January 15, US Permanent Representative to the United Nations Samantha Power noted, “Assad, those around him, and any individuals overseeing or complicit in the commission of serious crimes in Syria must know that they will be ultimately held accountable. That is why the United States is actively supporting the collection and preservation of evidence to support future justice processes in a variety of jurisdictions for war crimes and other human rights violations, including those involving sexual and gender-based violence.”

Therefore, it is not as if President Obama rejects the notion that Bashar al-Assad has a date with the hangman. It is not as if his administration sees utility in throwing in with ISIL’s number one recruiting asset. It is not even as if anyone in the administration sees genuine merit in prolonging the tenure of a regime, which, according to Ambassador Power’s January 12 remarks at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, has (along with ISIL) “produced the worst humanitarian disaster in a generation. More than 12 million Syrians—a population nearly three times the population of the entire state of Kentucky—currently need humanitarian aid to survive. Five million of those in need are children. Five million kids. Yet the Assad regime continues to use the suffering of civilians as a cynical tactic of war, cutting off entire communities from food, water, and medicine simply because they live in cities or neighborhoods controlled by opposition groups.” 

No one, not even regime apologists, can argue convincingly that this civilian-centric policy of mass murder and mass terror provides stability in an otherwise chaotic country. Those in the administration who background journalists on the supposed dangers of Assad departing too quickly are in full alibi mode.

The problem is not that the administration sees merit in Bashar al-Assad: the problem is that Iran and Russia do. This is why the administration does not draw an operational link between what it knows about the Assad regime’s role in making Syria safe for ISIL and the mission to degrade and ultimately destroy the self-styled “caliphate.” This is why the president adopts an “ISIL first” approach to the collapse of Syria and Iraq and an “Iraq first” approach to ISIL, even though the Syria-Iraq border is gone and Iraq was nearly drowned by a tidal wave of fighters originating in Syria. This is why the United States is reluctant even to gather and analyze ISIL-related targeting intelligence from anti-Assad nationalist rebels inside Syria. To decry the destabilizing, ISIL-facilitating brutality of the Assad regime is one thing. To do anything at all about it is something else entirely. The gap between talk and action is impressive.

That the world’s sole superpower finds itself bound—though not gagged—with respect to murder and mayhem in Syria seems to have much to do with Iran. It is understandable that President Obama wants to achieve with Tehran an agreement that would prevent it from fielding nuclear weapons. It is defensible for him to think (or at least hope) that such an agreement would empower “Iranian moderates” to reorient politically one of the world’s great civilizations. It is arguable that strong measures against the Assad regime—whose continued existence is vital to Tehran—could derail the nuclear talks, dislodge the diplomatic jewel from the legacy crown, and encourage Iranian-backed militiamen in Iraq to attack US forces. The reported written assurance by President Obama to Iran’s Supreme Leader last October that Assad was not the target of American military operations in Syria is at least consistent with these beliefs.

One may argue that US immobility in the face of Iranian (and Russian) abetted mass murder in Syria is not the way to persuade the Supreme Leader (or Russia’s Putin) that the United States is a serious adversary and a worthy interlocutor. One may argue that the last thing in the world one would deploy in a negotiation would be a preemptive concession, one guaranteeing the inviolability of the opposite number’s key asset: the asset that facilitates Iran’s penetration into the Arab world and (via its Lebanese militia) its missile threat against Israel. One may argue that the Supreme Leader should be taken literally when he describes the United States as a permanent enemy of the Islamic Revolution, one to be confronted even if a nuclear agreement is achieved.

One may, in short, waste one’s time. President Obama has no illusions about the merits of the Assad regime. Yet it seems unlikely that he will abandon any of the bedrock beliefs that have created an unbridgeable chasm between the way the administration talks about Syria and the way it acts—or more precisely, fails to act.

Is there anything the administration can do to mitigate Syria’s unspeakable suffering while clinging to the essentials of its “avoid the slippery slope, don’t upset Iran” approach to ISIL’s rise amidst a world-class Syrian humanitarian abomination? Perhaps it would consider one or more of the following:

  1. Concentrate diplomatically on ending the regime’s humanitarian depredations. One presumes that Secretary of State John Kerry makes this item number one in his talking points with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov every time they discuss Syria: every time. Surely US support for Moscow’s attempts to convene regime-opposition discussions should be conditioned on the Assad regime taking steps consistent with Kofi Annan’s 2012 six-point plan. One presumes that Iran is similarly braced on mass murder in Syria every time Iranian officials are engaged by US counterparts. If these presumptions are false, what are Iranians and Russians to conclude about US concern for the suffering of Syrian civilians—especially the “five million kids” cited by Ambassador Power?
  2. If diplomacy fails, put an end militarily to regime depredations involving air attacks on civilian populations. This will not require the invasion and occupation of Syria. It will not require a frontal assault on regime protected by Iran and Russia. Indeed, both of those parties will have had adequate time to convince their protégé to stop with the barrel bombs, chemical munitions, and associated air raids. Yes, it is regrettable and even shameful that modest steps to stop or slow the slaughter have not been taken. Yet innocent people ought not be required to pay the price for upholding dysfunctional consistency.
  3. Graduate the train-and-equip program to something meaningful: the creation of a robust, all-Syrian national stabilization force whose mission would be to pacify the entire country, either by militarily defeating any combination of foes or by setting the stage for meaningful political transition negotiations consistent with the June 30, 2012 Geneva Final Communiqué. This will be the subject of a forthcoming report spearheaded by the Atlantic Council.

None of these steps—either singly or collectively—will rescue the United States anytime soon from the cul-de-sac it has entered; the diplomatic dead-end in which it has voluntarily resided. If the administration wishes to empower ISIL by looking the other way as the Assad regime—to cite Samantha Power—repeatedly uses chlorine and barrel bombs against civilians while it “continues to systematically use torture as a means of inflicting suffering and extracting information,” then it will continue to look the other way operationally even as Ambassador Power speaks. In so doing, it will earn the respect of no one: surely not the Iranians it wishes so earnestly to reassure.