Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1287, (17 - 23 March 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The bankruptcy of US Syria policy

The Plan B episode shows another moment of failed US policy-making on the Syrian crisis, revealing the now-familiar pattern of deep divisions, writes Gareth Porter

Al-Ahram Weekly

US Secretary of State John Kerry provoked widespread speculation last week when he referred in testimony before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee to “significant discussions” within the Obama administration about a “Plan B” in Syria.

The speculation was further stoked by a “senior official” who told CBS News that options under consideration include “military-like measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies to continue their assault on civilians and US-backed rebels”.

But “Plan B” is more complicated than that. A report by CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr on 26 February leaves little room for doubt that the administration’s cupboard of policy options is actually bare. An unnamed “senior US official” at the Pentagon admitted that “Plan B” is actually “more an idea than a specific course of action”. In other words, the administration’s national security policy-makers believe something more should be done in Syria, but they are not at all clear what.

The official said three options are under discussion, none of which is even close to being realistic in the present situation: an increase in US Special Forces on the ground, an increase in arms assistance to fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and a no-fly zone.

The option of adding more Special Forces is only relevant to a counter-terrorism strategy aimed at the Islamic State (IS) group, not at preventing the further weakening of anti-Al-Assad forces. Special Forces are now in Syria to help the one reliable US ally against IS — the Kurdish forces. Sending them into provinces to fight the Syrian army or the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah wouId be an overreach of stunning proportions.

Increasing arms to opposition forces is not feasible as long as the Russians are able to cut the line of supply from Turkey to Aleppo — unless the US is prepared to go to war with Russia by trying to airdrop the weapons, which would involve direct military conflict with the Russian air force.

As for the no-fly zone option, which Turkey and Saudi Arabia have pressed on US President Barack Obama for years without success, the senior official made it clear to CNN that the Pentagon still opposes that option, as it has since early 2012 when it was first proposed. It is even less viable today, according to the official, because it would have to destroy Russian air defence radar rather than just Syrian air defences.

“I can’t tell you that’s off the table,” said the official. “It’s at the end of the table, just not off it.” Translation: someone may still be advocating it but it is not going to be adopted.

Kerry’s invocation of a “Plan B,” on the other hand, was an effort to suggest that there is a serious possibility of a more aggressive US posture in Syria and that he was personally behind such a move.

Just before his reference to “Plan B” in his testimony, Kerry took the unusual step of declaring, “It is well known that I have advocated strong efforts to support the opposition.” And he suggested that “Plan B,” if there is one, will be more “confrontational” than what had gone before.

But he also acknowledged that there will be many stages before anything dramatically different is done, and that this will only come when it becomes clear that there is no way to save the negotiating process.

At the same time that Kerry was sending signals that conflicted with those of the Pentagon, he was also trying to fend off attacks on his ceasefire and negotiation strategy by Republicans in the US who assert that the Russians and the Al-Assad government have already essentially won the war against the opposition.

Ever since it became clear that the Russian air offensive in Aleppo and Idlib was successful in loosening the grip of the rebel Al-Nusra Front and its “moderate” allies along the route from Aleppo to the Turkish border, the political elite in Washington has been buzzing about what the Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent has called the “appearance of allowing Russia to act with impunity” in Syria.

Such language, implying that the United States should be taking action to counter the Russian Syrian offensive, reflects the distorted image of the Syrian conflict in US political discourse. The Obama administration has helped create this distortion by putting forward the fiction of a powerful “moderate” military force in Syria that could be the basis for a negotiated settlement. The premise of the administration’s argument says that Russian planes have mainly targeted US-supported “moderate” forces that the Russians have called “terrorists”.

But the Obama administration had been well aware since early 2013 that Al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, and its Salafist allies supported by US regional allies have been beginning to dominate the secular and pro-democratic forces in Syria. Kerry was well aware in 2015 that the opposition groups in the Idlib and Aleppo provinces to which the United States had been supplying weapons had not only been coordinating their military operations with Al-Nusra Front, but had actually intermingled with it throughout those provinces. Kerry had also depended on the power of the Salafist forces to gain some leverage over the Syrian government in the negotiations.

This unacknowledged Obama administration strategy explains why Kerry tried to get Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to agree that Al-Nusra Front would not be targeted under the ground rules of the ceasefire “at least temporarily until the groups can be sorted out,” according to the Washington Post.

But after Russia rejected that bid, Kerry switched signals, and comments about Syria began to refer to US-supported forces that operate in close conjunction with Al-Nusra. On 22 February, US State Department spokesman Mark Toner even acknowledged the “commingling” of the supposedly independent moderates with the Salafists.

Kerry had apparently concluded that he was better off explaining why the rules of the ceasefire were a response to facts on the ground rather than a US concession to the Russians. He suggested that the US was still a player in the Syrian contest for power.

Regarding the comment by Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, that the Russians had been “accomplishing their ends” in Syria, Kerry argued that the Russians and the Syrian government could take control of Aleppo, but that “holding territory has always been difficult”.

Kerry claimed that the Russians cannot prevent the opposition from getting the weapons needed to continue the war as long as the US and its allies are supporting them. He offered no explanation for that claim.

The “Plan B” episode illuminates another moment in a pattern of failed US policy-making on the Syrian crisis. It reveals deep divisions over Syria in which key players seek to advance their own personal or institutional interests and the desire to maintain a US leadership role trumps the realities of the situation on the ground. If US policy were a company doing business in Syria, it would have gone bankrupt years ago.

The writer is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 UK Gellhorn Prize for Journalism.

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