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US policy in Syria: Confused or just confusing?
By Tony Iltis
February 27, 2017 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal — Since the Syrian civil war began in 2011, the US has been involved, at first, through arming and supporting groups opposing the dictatorship of Bashar Assad, and supporting allies in the region doing likewise; and since 2014, through its direct involvement in leading an international coalition in an air war against ISIS.
Small numbers of US Special Forces and CIA operatives are also in Syria, supporting different, mutually antagonistic groups in the multi-sided conflict.
The US role in Syria often appears confused and contradictory. This seems set to increase under the new US administration.
Before his inauguration as US president, Donald Trump admitted to not being particularly interested in foreign policy, adding as an afterthought that he wanted to be surprising. What US foreign policy will look like under his administration remains unclear.
As with every aspect of decision making by the Trump government, the main motivators appear to be boosting Trump’s personal approval among his nationalist and racist voter base and satisfying the various far-right and more traditionally conservative political currents in the coalition that makes up his administration.
The result is contradictory: on the one hand signaling a more isolationist foreign policy and talking down long-term alliances; on the other hand, supporting a significant increase in the size and strength of the military.
Trump’s ramping up of Islamophobia is largely in connection to domestic policies. However, Islamophobia became central to US government ideology under former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama as a justification for imperial wars.
The much-speculated over relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin has been somewhat exaggerated by the US Democrats in an attempt to influence and frame the narrative of the domestic upsurge in opposition to Trump.
In reality Trump is not a Russian puppet or agent and while he has expressed a personal respect for the authoritarian, alpha-male Russian president, he and his government have stressed that Russia’s ambitions will be challenged if they threaten US global hegemony. Furthermore, Trump has taken a more aggressive stance than Obama toward Russian allies such as China and Iran.
US aims in Syria are confusing. In the initial years of the conflict the aim, officially at least, was to support some of the armed opposition to Assad. However, it was never entirely clear who the US was supporting. Officially the support was going to groups represented by the Syrian National Council, later the Syrian National Coalition (SNC).
However, Western powers and their Middle Eastern Allies created the SNC from bickering political exiles. Nominally it is represented inside the country by the Free Syrian Army, founded by defectors from Assad’s army who refused the regime’s orders to fire on unarmed protesters who rose up against the regime in 2011.
The FSA was always a name used by a huge number of independent armed groups. Some FSA units maintained a close relationship to the civilian protest movements while others were increasingly accountable only to themselves. Some degenerated into predatory gangs. This was one factor in the rise of Islamist groups who won passive support from communities that believed — usually mistakenly — that their rule would be less violent and oppressive than degenerated FSA units.
Another factor in both the rise of Islamist groups and the splintering of the armed opposition was the support given by US allies Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey, which reflected those countries' own ideologies, agendas and rivalries.
The rise of Islamist groups within the opposition, with varying degrees of hostility to the West, caused the US to limit its material aid, crucially not supplying the opposition with anti-aircraft weaponry to counter the regime’s air force.
US support for the opposition fell short of enabling regime change. However, the war itself served Western aims in the region. The Assad regime is not only allied to US rivals Russia and Iran but previously had given material support to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah, the only force in the Arab world to have – twice - militarily defeated Israel.
Now, as a result of the war, the Assad regime is increasingly dependent on Hezbollah, along with Iran, as its own armed forces disintegrated. Furthermore, Hezbollah has lost political capital as well as military capacity, through being drawn into the Syrian war.
Turkish involvement was initially motivated by the ambitions of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to extend Turkish influence in the region. However, following the 2012 revolution in Rojava (Syrian Kurdistan), crushing it became Erdoğan's main preoccupation because of its political affinity to the struggle led by the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in Turkish Kurdistan and the broader left and democratic opposition in Turkey, represented electorally by the Peoples Democratic Party (HDP).
The rise of ISIS in 2014 was the result of large scale Turkish material and logistical support, after other groups armed by Turkey had proved ineffective against Rojava. Ironically, given that ISIS was functioning as a proxy for Turkey, a NATO member, the seeming existential threat the organization posed to the West – exaggerated by both ISIS and Western propaganda – became the pretext for direct Western intervention through the US-led coalition's air war, which started in September 2014.
A major motivation for launching the air war on ISIS was relegitimizing Western military interventions in the Middle East. Overthrowing Assad, his use of chemical weapons notwithstanding, was not a domestically acceptable pretext for direct Western involvement, either in the US or other major Western powers such as Britain and France.
This was largely because of the failure of the George W. Bush administration's war in Iraq. The 2011 NATO-led air war in Libya, ostensibly in response to the Libyan government's militarized response to anti-regime protests, was one attempt to relegitimize military intervention in the Middle East.
However, this intervention left Libya under the anarchic control of warring militias, who the West had armed. Many of these were anti-Western Islamists. The September 2012 killing of four senior US personnel in Benghazi by a militia they had themselves armed created further domestic constraints on Middle Eastern military adventures.
The alliance between the US-led coalition and the Rojava-based revolutionary forces followed the success of the latter in resisting ISIS in the siege of Kobanê, which began shortly after the Western coalition's air war. The alliance was based on the Rojava-based revolutionaries being the only force inside Syria to consistently and successfully fight ISIS, an important factor given the Obama administration lacking domestic support for deploying ground troops.
The secular, democratic, ethnically inclusive and feminist politics of the Rojava forces are in line with the West's stated aims for its frequent Middle Eastern military interventions. That their distinctly anti-capitalist politics contradict the actual aims of Western intervention is reflected in the West continuing to ban the PKK as a terrorist organization, while supporting the right-wing Kurdish Democratic Party and the autonomous statelet it rules in Iraqi Kurdistan – the Kurdistan Regional Government.
The KRG was created under Western protection following the 1991 US-led war against Iraq, and is both a pillar and rival of the fragile Iraqi state created after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. It has good relations with Iran, Russia and particularly Turkey.
This contradiction between the West's stated and actual aims fuelled the apparent confusion of US policy. The Rojava forces were denied heavy weapons and subjected to a blockade implemented by US allies Turkey and the KRG, while the US offered coordinated air strikes as a substitute for heavy weapons in countering ISIS armor and artillery.
The US supported the establishment of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) that unites the Kurdish revolutionary military forces with other Syrian forces – including some FSA groups – that share their vision of grassroots democracy, ethnic inclusion and secularism. However, the US has consistently opposed the SDF's political representatives, the Syrian Democratic Council (MSD) and Democratic Federation of North Syria, and excluded them from international talks on Syria, in favor of the SNC.
Moreover, in 2015 the US welcomed Turkey as a partner in the air war against ISIS, despite the fact that Turkey was providing support to ISIS at the time. Meanwhile, Russia began its own air war in Syria in late 2015, officially against ISIS but in reality more directed at SNC-affiliated and other Islamist groups fighting the tottering Assad regime.
There ensued a complicated diplomatic game where both Turkey and the MSD used the antagonism between Russia and the US to leverage both powers, while in turn the US and Russia, who have both hinted at a solution to the conflict based on partition, used the antagonism between Turkey and the MSD/SDF to leverage both.
This led to a major shift in the war in late 2016. In August, following the liberation of the town of Manbij by the SDF, Turkish forces – with Syrian auxiliaries under the FSA banner – took the border town of Jarabalus and the surrounding countryside from ISIS without a fight. The US supported the Turkish intervention, politically and with air support, while continuing to give air support to the SDF.
A rapprochement between the Erdoğan regime and Russia, Iran and, indirectly, the Assad regime, led to Turkey withdrawing militias it supported from Syria's largest city Aleppo. This led to the capture of east Aleppo by regime forces in December, ending four years of the city being divided in a bloody stalemate. This has implications for Western policy, as the SNC is no longer a viable contender for power.
A Russian peace plan appeared to offer the MSD control of the areas they currently control. However, MSD statements have become more explicit in emphasizing that they oppose partition and see their model of “democratic self-administration” as the democratic solution for all of Syria.
In its final days, the Obama administration's Syria policy was based on the improbable aim of fighting ISIS in alliance with both the SDF and the Turkish occupation forces and their Syrian proxies. With US air support, the SDF has reached the outskirts of the ISIS capital in Syria, Raqqa.
Meanwhile, the town of al-Bab became a strategic flashpoint. If the SDF took it, they would control the entire border between Rojava and Turkey. Turkish forces moved to take it to prevent this and stop the geographic unification of Rojava. For the first time Turkish forces actually fought ISIS. Inside Turkey, ISIS attacks began targeting tourist venues whereas previously they had targeted Erdoğan's political opponents.
As Assad regime forces advanced on al-Bab from Aleppo to the south, the US told the SDF that they would not support an attack on al-Bab while promising to restrain Turkey and its proxies from attacking Manbij.
The Turkish advance on al-Bab benefited from both US and Russian air strikes, although a Russian air strike also hit Turkish forces in an apparent friendly fire incident. Turkish forces took al-Bab on February 23.
The February 2 Washington Post reported that when leaving office Obama had presented Trump with a plan to give heavy weapons to the SDF to enable the rapid taking of Raqqa. Trump however delayed enacting the plan and canvassed a range of options including a massive invasion by US ground troops. This seems to have been largely motivated by Trump's reluctance to implement a plan drawn up by his predecessor and the Post speculated that Trump might end up following a similar plan.
Following the Turkish capture of al-Bab, Turkish leaders and spokespeople for their Syrian proxies said that they would advance on Manbij. In response the SDF announced that if Turkish forces or their proxies attacked Manbij, the SDF would cease its advance on Raqqa and redeploy its forces from Manbij.
On February 24, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported that US Central Command head General Joseph Votel had made a secret visit to Syria, apparently to reassure the SDF. SDF spokesman Talal Silo told AFP “there were promises of heavy weapons in future stages.”
AFP quoted another “senior source in the SDF” as saying, “Votel confirmed the coalition's commitment to protecting Manbij from any attacks waged by Turkey or supported by it, as part of its previous commitment to protecting the area.”
The Pentagon did not respond to AFP requests for comment.
Attacks on Rojava
Once Raqqa falls and ISIS is defeated, the basis of the US alliance with the SDF will have gone. The alliance has been reflected in Western media coverage of the Rojava-based revolution, which has emphasized its democratic and feminist credentials, while playing down its anti-capitalism.
Two articles by Roy Gutman that appeared in The Nation on February 7 and 13 might be an indication of how Western coverage will change if the alliance ends. The articles accuse the SDF of war crimes and paint the areas under democratic self-administration as an Orwellian police state.
Some of the allegations are absurd. For example, that the forces defending Kobanê in 2014 withdrew from outlying villages and evacuated their civilian population in the face of the ISIS advance is cited as evidence of ethnic cleansing and collaboration with ISIS.
The articles also alleges ISIS handed towns over to the SDF in instances where hard-fought battles with heavy casualties on both sides are on the public record.
Equally absurd are the suggestions that the SDF and PKK are financed by Iran. Their ally in Iranian Kurdistan, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK) is involved in an intense struggle against the Iranian regime, which singles out PJAK member and supporters for brutal persecution.
The article's allegations of collaboration between the democratically self-administration region and the Assad regime seem more plausible because this allegation has been a continual trope of the SNC-aligned opposition. However, it ignores the continual clashes between the Rojava-based forces, and later the SDF, and regime-aligned forces, and focuses instead on ceasefires.
Significantly, between the SDF's liberation of Manbij and the Turkish occupation of Jarabalus, regime forces launched an attack on Hasekeh that, while unsuccessful, diverted SDF forces from advancing from Manbij to Jarabalus. This attack followed the rapprochement between the Erdoğan regime and the Assad regime's sponsor, Russia.
The sources cited in the articles are not objective – Turkey-based former Assad regime officials and intelligence agents, the SNC-aligned Syrian Network for Human Rights and KRG representatives. The reliance on the latter is responsible for outlandish claims such as the SDF sealing Rojava's borders to stop the population escaping to the KRG statelet in Iraqi Kurdistan. In reality it is the KRG that has closed the border.
Most of the specific allegations are impossible to verify or refute. But the allegations of an overall pattern of ethnic cleansing of the non-Kurdish population is demonstrably untrue. Like a 2015 Amnesty International report that was refuted by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the allegations are based on the depopulation of areas where intense fighting has occurred and the destruction of property in fighting is presented as the deliberate destruction of homes by the SDF.
A lot of people have left their homes in Syria since fighting started in 2011 – 4 million Syrians have fled the country while 7 million have fled their homes but remain inside Syria. Refugees have fled from areas under democratic self-administration but these areas have also received refugees from other parts of Syria.
Rather than suggest a pattern of ethnic cleansing, the resulting demographic changes suggest the opposite. In the areas under democratic self-administration, the proportion of the population that is Kurdish has fallen while the proportion that is Arab has risen.