July 31, 2017
On April 4, 2017, toxic substance spread after Syrian warplanes dropped bombs on the town of Khan Sheikhoun in the rebel-held Idlib province. The West and Russia offered conflicting explanations for the tragedy. Three days later, US cruise missiles struck Al Sharyat airfield.
Five days later, President Trump’s fire-breathing Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said, “In no way do we look at peace happening in that area with Iranian influence. In no way do we see peace in that area with Russia covering up for Assad. In no way do we see peace in that area with Assad as the head of the Syrian government.”
On June 26, the White House said that President Bashar al-Assad of Syria appeared to be preparing another chemical weapons attack, and warned that he would “pay a heavy price” if one took place.
And three weeks later, in a surprising development for many, President Trump decided to end the CIA’s “clandestine” program to arm and train “moderate” Syrian rebels fighting the Assad regime.
According to the Washington Post, an official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said: “This is a momentous decision, Putin won in Syria.” Others said it was recognition of Assad’s entrenched position in Syria. “It’s probably a nod to reality,” said Ilan Goldenberg, a former Obama administration official and director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. Some also referred to Iran’s entrenchment.
One may conclude from the foregoing that had the opposite happened with Russia scaling down its military involvement in Syria, this would have been an American victory.
President Obama had judged that resisting a major military intervention in Syria would be less costly for the US in the long run than being blamed for a failed intervention. Moreover, his resistance to such an intervention also reflected an evolving understanding of Syria’s dynamics beyond the desire to avoid another long war. In his interview with Thomas Friedman of the New York Times on August 8, 2014 Mr. Obama said:
“… This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards…”
It seems that Mr. Obama gradually came to the conclusion that Assad’s ouster from power could only pave the way to extremists’ takeover of Syria. As a result, CIA’s covert program to arm and train the “moderate” opposition with almost no chance of making a difference on the battlefield lost momentum. Moreover, as Washington moved towards closer cooperation with Russia in Syria and launched the operation to liberate Raqqa together with the YPG, the program became all the more irrelevant. “The coalition supports only those forces committed to fighting ISIS,” coalition spokesman US Army Col. Ryan Dillon told CNN. All of this is likely to make Idlib, where al-Qaida affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham has been in the ascendant, the next major battleground. And, to what extent expanded American sanctions on Russia would impact the two countries’ unsettled cooperation in Syria remains to be seen.
The discussion, either in the region or beyond, regarding “who won and who lost in Syria” only shows that external powers involved in the conflict, including regional ones, are essentially after their particular agendas rather than ending the plight of the Syrian people. But, who can blame them? Countries which fail to address their problems through dialogue, fall victim to polarization and conflict only pave the ground for others to step in. This is exactly what is happening in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen. And, no country in the region seems willing to learn the lesson. In the Middle East, one does not hear much about building national unity, consensus let alone democracy, political reform, rule of law and freedom of expression. But, one can watch the game of thrones, season after season, live.