US Trying To Change Its Strategy In Syria – Analysis


By Alireza Rezakhah*

John Steinbeck, famous US writer and thinker, once wrote that when he looked at the chimneys of the White House, he wondered what big volcanoes of illusions were hidden beneath them. Also a while ago, Anthony H. Cordesman, former political advisor to US Department of Defense in Syria affairs, noted that the United States follows a strategy of chaos in Syria. The main basis of this strategy is lack of direct intervention and avoiding involvement in Syria crisis. Although Americans set up an anti-ISIS coalition at a juncture, the reality of Washington trying to avoid direct involvement in the crisis did not change. However, it seems that this strategy is not effective anymore. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted the United States’ Department of Defense officials as saying that Washington is mulling change in its strategic policy with regard to Syria. The following article will review reasons behind this change in policy and discuss possible options available to the United States in Syria.

Failure of the policy of creating the “Third Force”

One of the main goals of the strategy pursued by the United States and its allies in the Middle East following withdrawal of the American forces from the region has been to form a new current known as the “Third Force.” This force was supposed to replace the US ground forces in the Middle East. To achieve this goal, three models have been designed so far, but all of them have failed in practice.

A) Transnational militia

The first model was based on the model of non-state actors in the Middle East and sought to form a transnational militia force similar to the model of Mujahedeen in Afghanistan. Seymour Hersh wrote in 2007 that in order to weaken the resistance axis in the Middle East, the administration of the former US president, George Bush, decided to change its priorities in this region and started a new project to counter the Lebanese Hezbollah in Beirut in cooperation with certain regional Arab states and by creating underground organizations in Lebanon. The result of this cooperation was mushrooming of terrorist groups in the Middle East. These groups soon got out of control and created the current critical situation in the Middle East.

B) Forming a regional army

The second model was based on the model of state actors. In this model, the “Third force” consisted of a regional army, which was to be established in cooperation with the US allies. This model was introduced in the form of a joint Arab army.

Establishment of such an army was first brought up last March in a meeting between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Saudi Arabia’s King Salman, and the final statement of the 26th session of the Arab League put renewed emphasis on the need to establish this joint military force. US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter moved rapidly to support this idea and emphasized that the American military forces were ready to cooperate with this army and train its forces.

Although the regional bloc supporting Saudi Arabia within the Arab League welcomed this idea, serious differences among Arab countries have so far prevented this idea from being realized. Some analysts believed that the failure of the Arab coalition in its aggression against Yemen should be considered as an end point to this ambitious idea.

C) Forming local armies

The third model for the creation of the Third Force, was neither based on the model of non-state actors, nor drew on the model of state actors. In this model, in view of the ongoing crises in Iraq and Syria, Americans decided to establish a semi-governmental and local militia. In Iraq, this militia was designed in the form of the Iraqi National Guard, and in Syria, it was designed as the Free Syrian Army. The model of the Iraqi National Guard, however, has been never successful so far due to high influence and background of al-Hashd al-Shaabi (also known as the Popular Mobilization Forces) and resistance groups, on the one hand, and serious opposition from Iraqi politicians, on the other hand.

The situation is even worse in Syria. Units from the US army were supposed to train five thousand people for this purpose by the end of 2015. To achieve this goal, the government of the United States approved a USD-500-million budget. The result of that plan, however, has been training of only 54 people by the Pentagon so far. These 54 people were killed in subsequent clashes with the al-Nusra Front, which is the offshoot of al-Qaeda in Syria. As put by General Lloyd James Austin, commander of the US Central Command in the Middle East and Africa, only 4-5 members of these forces are still alive.

Direct intervention by Russia

Direct intervention in Syria by Russia can be considered as the second reason for change in US policy toward this Arab country. Although since the end of the Cold War up to the present time, Russia has not been willing to get involved in Middle East crises, Moscow’s diplomatic, security, and military activities in the region, especially in Iraq and Egypt, have been on the rise in the past few years. Russians are of the opinion that Americans are not in good conditions in the Middle East because during past years many of the US allies in the Middle East have had serious doubts about the policies pursued by the White House. Therefore, under conditions that a serious doubt exists among Arabs about getting close to the United States, Russians are trying to fill this void and replace the United States in the region.

Refugee crisis in Europe

The third reason for a US policy change is the escalation of refugee crisis in Europe. Europeans currently feel that they have to pay the price of the existing chaos in the Middle East and North Africa on their own. The wave of refugees entering Europe from south and east, has stirred great concerns among political authorities of the Green Continent. With this threat posed to the existence of Europe, borders have been reinstated in Europe, the Schengen Agreement is practically in suspense, and new walls are being erected across Europe. All the United States has done so far is to sympathize with European countries. As a result, European states have been thinking twice about their diplomatic alignment with Washington. Germans have already started to drift away. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that to solve the crisis in Syria, help should be sought from Iran and Russia, and this issue has cost the White House very dearly.

Reality of public opinion in Syria

The fourth reason should be sought in Syria’s public opinion. A recent report by ORB International showed that Syrian President Bashar Assad is still supported by 47 percent of the Syrian people. In the meantime, the popularity of the French President François Hollande, who is a staunch supporter of the downfall of Assad, has slumped to below 20 percent. Also, based on a poll conducted by the CNN news channel, the popularity of the US President Barack Obama among American people stands at only 45 percent. In addition, unlike the extensive and powerful media campaign launched by Arab and Western countries, the attitude of the Syrian people toward Iran is much more positive than the attitude of the people of this Arab country toward littoral Arab states of the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, on the contrary of all the ongoing propaganda, Bashar Assad enjoys extensive support base among Sunni people in Syria and his supporters are not limited to Christians and Alawites.

Options available to the US in Syria

The above reasons are the most important factors, which have caused the United States to think about changing its strategy in Syria. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Pentagon officials have noted that “a broad-based agreement” exists about the necessity of making strategic changes with regard to Syria, but it is not clear how inclusive these changes would be. The most important options available to the United States for making such changes briefly include:

Cooperation with Russians

One of the options available to American officials is to cooperate with Russians. Moscow has been trying for a while to create a regional coalition to fight ISIS; a coalition which would include both Saudis and Iranians, both armed groups opposed to Assad and Syria army, and both Moscow and Washington. However, a major bone of contention between Moscow and Washington is about the future of Assad. Russians believe that only Syria’s government forces are able to defeat ISIS and imagining a future for Syria without Assad cannot be realistic. Americans, on the other hand, have clearly stated that there is no place for Assad in future Syria. In addition, accepting to take part in a coalition with Moscow would be against the United States’ exceptionalism; a reality, which is the cornerstone of the United States foreign policy.

Revival of diplomatic efforts

Another option is resumption of diplomatic efforts and restarting “friends of Syria” conferences and so forth. However, this is a failed experience whose repetition will certainly neither restore the lost trust of Washington’s allies, nor would be able to solve Syria’s problem.

Returning to the Middle East

The last solution is for the American military to return to the Middle East. This is a solution that Obama has been so far trying to avoid. However, just like what Michael Corleone said in the famous movie, The Godfather Part III, “when I thought” I was “out of the picture,” I was “obligated to step in.” In a similar manner, Obama, who thinks he has avoided intervention in the Middle East, will finally have to return to the region once again.

* Alireza Rezakhah
Doctorate in Political Science; Political and International Analyst

Source: Khorasan Newspaper
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

Iran Review

Iran Review is a Tehran-based site that is independent, non-governmental and non-partisan and representing scientific and professional approaches towards Iran’s political, economic, social, religious, and cultural affairs, its foreign policy, and regional and international issues within the framework of analysis and articles.

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