By Nauman Sadiq
On February 7, the US bombers and Apache helicopters struck a contingent of Syrian government troops and allied forces in Deir al-Zor that reportedly killed and wounded dozens of Russian military contractors working for the private security firm, the Wagner group.
In order to understand the reason why the US brazenly attacked the Russian contractors, we need to keep the backdrop of seven-year-long Syrian conflict in mind. Washington has failed to topple the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria.
After the Russian intervention in Syria in September 2015, the momentum of battle has shifted in favor of Syrian government and Washington’s proxies are on the receiving end in the conflict. Washington’s policy of nurturing militants against the Syrian government has given birth to the Islamic State and myriads of jihadist groups that have carried out audacious terror attacks in Europe during the last couple of years.
Out of necessity, Washington had to make the Kurds the centerpiece of its policy in Syria. But on January 20, its NATO-ally Turkey mounted Operation Olive Branch against the Kurds in the northwestern Syrian canton of Afrin. In order to save its reputation as a global power, Washington could have confronted Turkey in Afrin. But it chose the easier path and vented its frustration on the Syrian government forces in Deir al-Zor which led to the casualties of scores of Russian military contractors hired by the Syrian government.
It would be pertinent to note that regarding the Syria policy, there is a schism between the White House and the American deep state led by the Pentagon. After Donald Trump’s inauguration as the US president, he has delegated operational-level decisions in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria to the Pentagon.
In Afghanistan, the “steady hands” of the American deep state, the Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, advised the newly inaugurated Trump administration to further escalate the conflict by deploying thousands of additional troops to a contingent of 8,400 US troops already stationed there as “trainers and advisors.” The total number of US troops in Afghanistan has now risen to 15,000.
In Syria, the way the US officials are evading responsibility for the incident, it appears the decision to strike pro-government forces in Deir al-Zor that included Russian contractors was taken by the operational commander of the US forces in Syria and the White House was not informed until after the strike.
It bears mentioning that unlike dyed-in-the-wool politicians, like Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who cannot look past beyond the tunnel vision of political establishments, it appears that Donald Trump not only follows news from conservative mainstream outlets, like the Fox News, but he has also been familiar with alternative news perspectives, such as Breitbart’s, no matter how racist and xenophobic.
Thus, Donald Trump is fully aware that the conflict in Syria is a proxy war initiated by the Western political establishments and their regional Middle Eastern allies against the Syrian government. He is also mindful of the fact that militants have been funded, trained and armed in the training camps located in Turkey’s border regions to the north of Syria and in Jordan’s border regions to the south of Syria.
As far as the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq is concerned, the Trump administration is continuing with the policy of its predecessor. The Trump administration’s policy in Syria, however, has been markedly different from the regime change policy of the Obama administration.
Unlike Iraq where the US provided air and logistical support to Iraq’s armed forces and allied militias in their battle to retake Mosul from the Islamic State militants, the conflict in Syria is much more complex that involves the Syrian government, the opposition-affiliated militant groups and the Kurds.
According to the last year’s March 31 article for the New York Times by Michael Gordon, the US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley and the Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated on the record that defeating the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq is the top priority of the Trump administration and the fate of Bashar al-Assad is of least concern to the new administration.
Under the previous Obama administration, the evident policy in Syria was regime change and any collaboration with Syria’s backers against Islamic jihadists was simply not on the cards. The Trump administration, however, looks at the crisis in Syria from an entirely different perspective, a fact which is obvious from Donald Trump’s statements on Syria during the election campaign, and more recently by the statements of Nikki Haley and Rex Tillerson.
Although expecting a radical departure from the six-year-long Obama administration’s policy of training and arming militants against the Syrian government by the Trump administration is unlikely, the latter regards Islamic jihadists a much bigger threat to the security of the US than the former. Therefore, some indirect support and a certain level of collaboration with Syria’s backer Russia against radical Islamists cannot be ruled out.
What has been different in the respective Syria policy of the two markedly different US administrations, however, is that while the Obama administration did avail itself of the opportunity to strike an alliance with the Kurds against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, it was simply not possible for it to come up with an out of the box solution to the Syrian crisis.
The Trump administration, however, is not hampered by the botched legacy of the Obama administration in Syria, and therefore it has been willing to some extent to cooperate with the Kurds as well as Syria’s backer Russia against Islamic jihadists in Syria.
Two obstacles to such a natural alignment of interests, however, are: first, Israel’s objections regarding the threat that Hezbollah poses to its regional security; and second, Turkey, which is a NATO member and has throughout nurtured several militant groups during the seven-year-long conflict, has serious reservations against the new US administration’s partnership not only with the Russians but also with the PYD/YPG Kurds in Syria, which Turkey regards as an offshoot of the separatist PKK Kurds in southeast Turkey.
Therefore, in order to allay the concerns of Washington’s traditional allies in the Middle East, the Trump administration conducted a cruise missiles strike on al-Shayrat airfield in Homs governorate on April 6 last year after the chemical weapons strike in Khan Sheikhoun. But that isolated incident was nothing more than a show of force to bring home the point that the newly elected President Donald Trump is an ‘assertive and powerful’ president, while behind the scenes he has been willing to cooperate with Russia in Syria in order to contain and eliminate the threat posed by Islamic jihadists to the security of the US and Europe.
Finally, Karen De Young and Liz Sly made a startling revelation in the last year’s March 4 article for the Washington Post: “Trump has said repeatedly that the US and Russia should cooperate against the Islamic State, and he has indicated that the future of Russia-backed Assad is of less concern to him.”
Thus, the interests of all the major players in Syria have evidently converged on defeating the Islamic jihadists, and the Obama-era policy of regime change has been put on the back burner. The incident of bombing the pro-government forces that included Russian contractors was clearly a last-ditch attempt by the American deep state to sabotage the cooperation between the White House and Kremlin in Syria. But Russia has sagaciously downplayed the brazen atrocity and moved on with its efforts to bring peace to the war-ravaged region.