Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1174, (28 November - 4 December 2013)
Tuesday,21 August, 2018
Issue 1174, (28 November - 4 December 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Double guessing in Syria

America’s rhetoric on promoting democracy has not been matched by its actions in Syria, where its hesitations have been taking a heavy toll, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

When it comes to Syria, Washington has found it easier to talk about principles and ideals than to formulate policies. Unable to decide what to do, American officials have changed their attitudes on the Syrian question every couple of months, leaving the opposition wrong-footed and disillusioned.
There have been five stages to US policies over the past 30 months. The first stage started with the beginning of hostilities in the country in March 2011 and lasted for about six months. During this time, the Americans acted in a way that suggested a certain tolerance for the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, calling on the latter to introduce reforms, meet public demands, and launch a transition on the road to democracy.
The White House used the strongest of terms to denounce the atrocities committed by the Al-Assad regime, but it stopped short of taking any tangible measures to discourage the regime from clamping down on its opponents. The ambiguity of Washington at this stage left Syrians wondering, with many of them being puzzled to see Washington, which had sided with the revolutions in Egypt and Libya, hedging its bets in Syria. Apparently, not all revolutions get the same treatment, some said.
Then came the second stage, which spanned about six months in late 2011 and early 2012. During this period, the Syrian regime committed further atrocities in its bid to stay in power, and it became clear to all that Al-Assad was neither capable nor willing to change his brutal actions or embrace the reforms the Americans were advising.
As the revolution spread across the country like wildfire, Washington began to think that Al-Assad’s fate was sealed. The US no longer called on the regime to introduce reforms, but instead began blaming Al-Assad for the situation, insisting that he step down. However, it seems that the US still did not foresee a full-scale political change in the country at this stage, just a few changes at the top and everything, the Americans seem to have thought, would be alright.
According to sources within the Syrian opposition, the Americans tried to stage a military coup in Syria but failed. Then they tried to break the regime by threats, sanctions, and subtle persuasion, aiming at turning top officials in the regime around. This strategy could have worked in other countries, but the Al-Assad regime in Syria, entrenched as it is in clan politics, managed to survive. It was around this time that the armed resistance began, and for the first time revolutionary armed factions sprang into life across the country.
This ushered in the third phase of US policies in Syria. At this stage, the US resorted to attrition tactics, allowing everyone to fight until they were tired and bleeding. The policy aimed at weakening the regime, Iran and Hizbullah, all long-time adversaries of Washington, and the Americans made sure that the revolutionaries could get their hands on proper weaponry and also monitored and rationed the arms supplies sent by the Arab countries.
By doing these things, Washington allowed the regime time to recover. Several peace initiatives, Arab and international, surfaced at this time, but none succeeded. Meanwhile, the Americans sat on the fence, watching as Al-Assad bombed one town after another. When they did threaten the regime, it was about its potential use of chemical weapons, something that US President Barack Obama called a “red line”. Simultaneously, the Americans tried to encourage the opposition to form an alliance that could replace the regime after its fall.
The fourth stage started in early 2013 and lasted until September. During this stage, the Americans seemed to envision a hybrid regime, one made up partly of the existing one and partly of the opposition. However, this was a tricky form of cosmetic surgery that no one got excited about aside from US officials. The regime was not about to compromise, and the opposition had no interest in making peace with a regime that had blood on its hands. This stage gave birth to the Geneva I Conference and its sequel, Geneva II, which has yet to take place.
The fifth stage came about with a bang, when the regime actually crossed Obama’s so-called “red line”, with a chemical weapons attack that could not be ignored. The Americans were incensed, but beyond threatening aerial action against the regime, little else transpired. In fact, US officials went on public record with assurances that a military strike against the regime would aim to weaken rather than to remove it.
Much drama followed, with Al-Assad suddenly allowing inspectors into the country and declaring his willingness to scrap all Syria’s chemical weapons. The Americans clapped, while the Syrians looked on in puzzlement. Suddenly, their country’s problems, expressed in the fighting and the killings and the incredible destruction that was going on all around them, seemed to have been forgotten, as if the whole revolution and its aftermath had been about chemical weapons and nothing else.
Soon the US stopped calling for the overthrow of the regime and began pressuring the opposition to agree to a compromise solution. Reversing its earlier policies, Washington allowed Russia to take the lead in the mediation efforts, which meant that Damascus was off the hook for a while. The Russians started talking to Al-Assad, their long-time ally, not about his removal from power, which the opposition demanded, but about his terms for a political settlement in Syria.

RHETORICAL GIMMICKS: While the US was giving its rhetorical support and exploring diplomatic options, Al-Assad’s friends in Moscow, Tehran, and Beirut’s southern suburbs were sending him money, men and material.
The Friends of Syria Group, which is led by the US and includes representatives of 114 countries, made a lot of promises: money that never came, weapons that never materialised, and political support of the shaky and forgetful type.
Not only did the US decline to offer the Syrian opposition any substantial aid, it also told its allies in Europe and the Gulf to keep out of the crisis. The US monitored and rationed the delivery of arms to Syria from the Arab countries, and when it sent hardware to the opposition, this was confined to “non-lethal” equipment, like night-vision glasses, flak jackets and other items.
The opposition demanded more, and the Americans rejected their demands: there were to be no international protection, no flight zones, no safe havens, and no humanitarian corridors. Sometimes the answer was not a straight no, but instead was a sort of maybe, something which kept the opposition hopeful, yet bleeding.
Then Washington placed the opposition Al-Nusra Front on its list of terrorist organisations, ordering a ban on any arms weapons to be sent to this group because of its Al-Qaeda connections. This decision may have pleased some people in the West, and even in Syria itself, but it was devastating for the armed opposition. Not only did it undermine its efforts on the ground, but it also started a process of alienation and infighting that split its ranks in half.
The ostracised Al-Nusra Front, at one point the toughest fighting force in the country, had won the trust of at least some of the opposition’s armed groups, partly because it had pledged to act only according to a domestic, Syrian-only agenda. The Front also refrained from any actions or rhetoric that could have been interpreted as anti-American.
Its ostracism was the cue for which the extremist Islamists were waiting. These now flooded into the country from the four corners of the earth, adding a new complexity to an already entangled conflict.

SOLIDARITY OR POWER PLAY? The Syrian revolution started to buckle under the pressure. With its image tarnished, short of weaponry, politically divided, and now split among the Islamists and non-Islamists, the way ahead was getting rougher.
The ideals of the revolution were all about bringing down a tyrannical regime and replacing it with a free and democratic one. The revolution was not about chemical weapons, and it was not about the jihadists. It was not even about the Americans or the Russians. In fact, during the initial protests, the Syrians had been careful not to demonise any nation. They didn’t burn American flags, and they didn’t insult or assault the Russians, many of whom were still in the country.
Instead, the Syrians wanted to focus on one thing, the introduction of a free and democratic regime, and now the Americans were ignoring this one thing and bringing many others onto the table. This whole myriad of international considerations, and some domestic as well, may have mattered to Washington, but they hardly did so to the Syrians who were dying and fleeing the country in their thousands.
The US initially took a positive view of the revolution. Four months into the protests, US ambassador to Syria Robert Ford visited Hama, where the city’s inhabitants gave him a warm welcome and tossed olive branches onto his car. Two months later, Ford and other western envoys visited Darya, a town near Damascus, to offer their condolences to the family of a peace activist who had died under torture.
This moral support was much appreciated by the revolutionaries, many of whom were beginning to revise the image of a demonic America that the regime had propagated for decades. However, many Syrian veteran politicians also saw through the Americans, warning their compatriots not to be too optimistic. As a superpower, America would inevitably act according to its interests, not its rhetoric, when push comes to shove, they said.
So why has Washington kept changing its tack on Syria? One reason could be US public opinion, which, after two foreign wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, is reluctant to endorse another military adventure abroad. The US elections and the US financial crisis must also be factored in to understand the hesitant mood of the US administration.
A second reason has to do with the interests of Israel, America’s best friend in the region, which wants stability across the borders, something which, for all its rhetoric, the existing regime has so assiduously offered.
A third reason is Syria’s strong ties with some of America’s most powerful adversaries in the region. Taking on Syria would be like taking on Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon together, not something the Americans are eager to do. When Tehran at one point vowed to defend Al-Assad’s regime no matter what, the Americans would have been paying attention.
A fourth reason is that the Americans are afraid of the alternative to the current regime in Syria. Worried by the increasing influence of hardline Islamists in the country, the Americans want to go easy on regime change until they are sure the outcome will be in their interests.  
It is a fact that there are many jihadists in Syria today, and many more are packing their bags to go there. But this was not the case in the first 18 months of the revolution, and it is happening now because the revolution did not get the help it needed during those 18 months, and now Syria is up for grabs — or so the jihadists imagine.
It was the tardiness of the US and the West in general in deciding what to do in Syria that whetted the extremists’ appetite for gains in a weakened land. It is the prospect of protracted guerrilla war that has turned Syria into an all-year summer camp for hot-headed Salafis from across the world.
Moreover, as the conflict has continued suddenly nothing has been more on the US mind than chemical weapons. This obsession with chemical weapons came as a puzzling development for the Syrians, who were already being killed in their thousands by a reliable variety of non-chemical weapons.
Washington had promised to take action if Al-Assad were to use chemical weapons. But it turned out that this was a promise that it wasn’t eager to keep. The military strike it had contemplated evaporated as soon as the Russians and the Iranians offered their own separate forms of diplomacy.
Today, Washington, instead of offering help to the opposition, is pressuring it to sit down and negotiate. When the opposition abroad, which Washington once did everything it could to prop up as Al-Assad’s potential successor, refused to oblige, Washington began approaching the home-based opposition, thinking it to be more practical and down-to-earth.
As soon as the US decided to mend fences with Iran, things went from bad to worse for the Syrian opposition. With Washington negotiating with Tehran, Al-Assad’s main bankroller, the Syrian opposition braced itself for the worst. And Washington was fast losing sympathy not only in Syria, but in the Gulf as well, where the Saudis are reassessing their traditional rapport with America.

THE ROAD AHEAD: The Syrian people are now suspicious of Washington. Many of them suspect that the Americans would be happy to see their country bleed to death, which is perhaps what the Israelis want as well.
The Americans have been watching Syria closely, have got involved in its national and international affairs, and have initiated diplomatic activities regarding its future. What they have not done has been to stay on one course of action, to act in a comprehensible manner, or to show concern for the true interests of Syria. Now they are obsessing about chemical weapons, about Al-Qaeda, and about Iran. This does not augur well for the Syrians, for the opposition, or for the forthcoming diplomatic efforts in Geneva or elsewhere.
It was conceivable that democratic change in Syria would help heal the country and bring it closer to America in the future. But this is not where things are heading at present. Now all the Americans want is to talk about Iran. The bloodshed in Syria seems not to be a primary issue, and nor does democracy.
Iran is a big fish compared to Syria when it comes to US politics. And it is conceivable that the Americans may make promises to Iran that contravene Syrian interests and slow down the potential fall of the Damascus regime. If Iran promises to halt its nuclear programme, there is no telling what Washington might give the country in return.
Indeed, it is possible that the revolution in Syria has helped Washington more than it has helped the Syrians themselves. It has weakened Israel’s traditionally powerful adversary next door, offered an opportunity to scrap Damascus’ chemical weapons stockpiles, and provided US diplomats with a bargaining chip in their negotiations with Iran.
When it comes to superpower politics, what the Syrians want, need, or deserve can wait.

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