Danger Ahead: Syrian Quagmire
President Trump’s decision to send American missiles over Syria sparked new speculations about Syria’s future and the role of the United States in shaping it. Unfortunately, what passes for public discussion within the country’s political leadership of both major political parties is based on partial facts and popular myths. Most U.S. observers look at the horrible conditions in Syria of the last six years and blame foreign individuals and forces without ever questioning their own liability, large or small, in this human tragedy.
Most seem to forget that for the thirty or so years in which Syria was led by Hafez Al-Assad, the current President’s father, relations between Syria and the U.S. ranged from mostly normal to tense. The U.S. had few problems dealing with a country ruled by a Shiite minority or a strongman system. In the First Gulf War (1990-1991) Syrian troops joined forces from the United States and other nations to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait. Despite American reservations about Syrian violations of human rights within its borders, the U.S. encouraged the Gulf States and Japan to provide generous aid to Syria.
The Bush administration courted the Syrian regime and acknowledged Syrian support in restraining “terrorist” attacks on U.S. troops. The U.S. and Syria engaged in serious discussions to end the Lebanese civil war, including eventual withdrawal of 40,000 Syrian troops then in Lebanon. The death of Hafez Al-Assad on June 10, 2000 did not end the era of improved U.S.-Syrian relations. His successor, Bashar, was trained as a physician in Britain, who married a Britt. He was welcomed by many U.S. leaders as someone who would be less brutal than his father, and who would carry out his father’s commitment to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon. When the attacks of September 11, 2001 came, Syrian intelligence agents cooperated with their U.S. counterparts against Al-Qaeda.
Worsening relations began soon after the U.S. decision to invade Iraq. Regime change and imposing a new U.S. view of the Middle East became the guiding lines of U.S. policy promoting “change through chaos,” or “creative chaos.” The U.S. listed Syria in 2002 as part of the “axis of evil.” In 2004, the U.S. imposed economic sanctions accusing Syria of supporting terrorism and failure to stop entry of Arab “volunteers” into Iraq. By 2006 the U.S. government decided that a regime change was needed in Syria; the decision was not based on what Assad did or did not do.
In December 2006, William Roebuck, the political counselor at the American Embassy in Damascus, sent a classified cable to Washington, later released by WikiLeaks, proposing “actions, statements, and signals” that could help destabilize the Assad regime. He proposed raising the Iranian threat to attract Saudi and Egyptian support, playing on Sunni/Shiite tensions that were building in post-occupation Iraq. His ideas found and audience in Washington and Riyadh where the King’s new national security advisor was Prince Bandar Bin Sultan, long-term ambassador to Washington and a friend of President Bush. U.S. media outlets began an exaggerated campaign to describe the evils of the Syrian regime that were way out of proportion to anything happening within Syria.
Nature was not kinder to Syria. A major drought hit the country 2006-2010 causing serious shortages and forcing over a million farmers to leave their villages and congregate in cities, where jobs and food were not available. The U.S. imposed sanctions did not allow any external aid to help the Assad government. Many believe that the unprecedentedly severe drought may have contributed to the current civil war.
Current civil conflict in Syria began in 2011. This conflict has never been a strictly Syrian conflict; other powers have been heavily engaged directly providing funds, weapons and fighters. Initial “peaceful” demonstrations soon turned bloody. The Assad regime sent tanks and troops to suppress an uprising in May. The Arab League did not help: it took an unusual step almost immediately in suspending Syria’s membership and imposing sanctions in November 2011.
The National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Force was eventually formed in 2012. This coalition was recognized as the legitimate representative of the Syrian people by the United States, Britain, France and the Gulf States. In July 2013 the Saudis nominated the head of the coalition. All of these powers began to arm, finance and provide fighters to numerous groups to participate in an effort to defeat the Assad regime. Hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars were appropriated by the U.S. Congress to help the anti-regime fighters. The Washington Post estimated U.S. contribution to the anti-Assad forces to be about one billion dollars per year. A Qatari general was stationed in Turkey to coordinate the flow of fighters and weapons.
The Assad regime was not friendless. First came help from the Shiites in Lebanon in the form of fighters from Hezbollah, and then came volunteers from the Shiite militias in Iraq followed by strong support from Iran. The Russians eventually intervened upon the invitation of the Assad regime. The Russians wanted to protect their foothold in the country and military bases in the eastern Mediterranean.
The U.S. reaction was mixed and hesitant. Some U.S. policy makers did not want to see any Russian presence in the Middle East. Others wanted to accept the likely triumph of the Regime. Still others wanted to do what has now become an easy way out: divide Syria, pretty much along the administrative units proposed by the colonial French in 1922, with the addition of a Kurdish region. Public as well as the professional foreign policy elites, in and out of government, were divided on the question of U.S. military involvement. President Obama was opposed to military involvement but not to arming and training anti-regime fighters. He wanted Assad out but had no alternative in mind. Samantha Powers, then U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., urged the president to adopt her concept of “responsibility to protect,” meaning disregarding Syrian sovereignty to protect Syrian citizens against their government, but the president declined.
In essence, President Obama did not consider the Syrian civil war as a vital American interest. For Obama, the price of direct U.S. action would be higher than the price of inaction. But U.S. support for anti-regime forces has been crucial in continuing the bloody civil war, killing hundreds of thousands, dislocating millions, and causing anti-U.S. resentment in the region. It is ironic that the Trump regime seems to be implementing what Samantha Powers advocated and her then boss rejected.
The assumptions behind a policy of intentional fragmentation must be questioned, and the consequences of fragmentation must also be seriously considered. Dismembering Syria arises from several fallacies generally accepted blindly by Western leaders. There is no clamoring for Syria’s partition among the overwhelming majority of Syrians. Even the so-called “free Syrian” militias are opposed to partition. Calls for dismemberment are coming mostly from U.S. and European politicians and so-called think tanks.
Advocates of partition generally propose dividing Syria along ethnic or sectarian lines. While there is no agreement on exactly how many new states should emerge, up to eight have been suggested, the most expounded plans foresee the following divisions: an Alawite State, a Sunni State, a Kurdish State, an Israeli-annexed Territory, and a Turkish control zone. There is no chance that Syria’s partitioning can be reached through amicable means. The country’s population is not now divided neatly along ethnic or sectarian lines; even in the area where Kurds are the majority there are significant numbers of Arab and Turkoman minorities. The country’s dismemberment will cost hundreds of thousands of casualties, in addition to the 400,000 who have died in the last six years. There will be large-scale ethnic and sectarian cleansing; many more will be thrown out of their homes to join the already staggering number of refugees. It is easy to predict a long period of violent conflict among the emerging statelets. It is equally certain that these conflicts will involve regional and global sponsors. The likelihood of U.S. military involvement in one or more wars in Greater Syria becomes almost a certainty.
Who benefits from Syria’s partitioning? Given the risks of partitioning Syria as outlined above, why should the U.S. lead the charge for such a venture? Syria is not a vital U.S. interest. The risks associated with Syria’s partition outweigh keeping things as they are, or seeking alternatives to partition. There is no possible scenario based on partition that argues for greater security for America or for Americans. Bloodshed will continue for decades. Extremist groups will not be defeated but would rule greater territory. Militias will continue to mar the political landscape.
America’s prestige will not be enhanced. Large-scale wars become more likely. U.S. men and women will die in a plethora of wars involving U.S. clients. If anyone is likely to benefit from segmenting Syria, it is not the United States.