Contradiction at the heart of Obama’s war on ISIL
NEW YORK // The glaring flaw in the US strategy in Syria — how to attack ISIL extremists in Syria without empowering the Assad regime — has become so clear that even US military planners are publicly voicing concerns.
The US has yet to begin a programme to be based in Saudi Arabia and Turkey that will train and equip 5,000 Syrian rebel fighters drawn from refugee populations over the next year.
Even then, according to recent reports, the new brigades will only be trained to defend territory held by moderate rebels — not go on the offensive against ISIL, let alone the Assad regime.
The White House strategy also leaves out the handful of moderate Syrian rebel groups that have already been vetted and supplied by the US and regional allies with sophisticated weapons such as anti-tank missiles, but with whom the US is reportedly not coordinating attacks or sharing intelligence, according to reports citing Pentagon officials.
How much territory these groups will still control in a year is an open question as Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s regime has used US-led airstrikes against ISIL to step up its bombing of moderate rebels in Aleppo and Idlib provinces who are also under attack by ISIL and the Nusra Front.
On Saturday, Nusra Front seized the last remaining stronghold of the western-backed Syria Revolutionaries’ Front in Idlib after days of fighting.
The White House has denied that its focus on fighting ISIL was benefiting Damascus. “The policy that we have for Assad is really clear: we believe that he’s lost the legitimacy to lead,” spokesman Josh Earnest told CNN on Friday.
His comments came after US defence secretary Chuck Hagel warned the White House in a memo that success in Syria was being undermined by a failure to clarify its intentions regarding the regime, according to a New York Times report.
Mr Hagel declined to detail the memo, but said “the fighting can go on for years and years to what end?”, and stressed the need to integrate “some longer term strategies and objectives”. He also admitted that “Assad derives some benefit” from the coalition airstrikes.
The US ambiguity and reluctance to initiate a strategy that reduces regime violence against moderate rebels and civilians can be explained in part by a desire to safeguard President Barack Obama’s central foreign policy goal: a deal with Iran over its nuclear programme.
Tehran views the Assad regime as key to its regional influence and is its main backer, along with Russia.
“Until the deadline of the negotiations is over, we are not going to see any significant changes” to US policy in Syria, said Lina Khatib, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut.
The US secretary of state John Kerry will meet Iran’s foreign minister for crucial talks in Muscat next week to close what Mr Kerry called “big gaps” ahead of the November 24 deadline.
The fact that the Syrian civil war has turned into a proxy battle between regional powers, with Iran on one side and Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other Arab states on the other, means that even with Tehran and Riyadh engaged in back channel talks about a political solution, an agreement on what would replace the Assad regime could take months or even years to reach.
“I think what is going on now is a process of buying time by the US until it gets a kind of consensus among [stakeholders] in the Syrian conflict,” Ms Khatib said. “Neither Iran nor Saudi can be seen as conceding defeat to the other.”
Mr Obama has been highly sceptical of the benefit of US involvement in Syria, and the narrowly defined parameters of the war on ISIL can be explained by “an aversion to mission creep in terms of the anti-Assad prong of this”, said Michael Hanna, a Middle East policy expert at the Century Foundation in New York.
The lack of help for vetted rebels in Aleppo and Idlib is “mystifying”, Mr Hanna said.
“This wouldn’t necessarily bring us into direct conflict with the regime” and would likely not affect nuclear negotiations, he added.
“It’s as if we are going through the motions to create the appearance of forward engagement.”
The dissent from the Pentagon over Syria came as the United Nation’s Syrian peace envoy, Staffan de Mistura, said his focus was on establishing local truces between moderate rebels and the regime, especially in Aleppo and in Idlib.
The “incremental freeze zone” would allow for a “political process at a local level and then eventually at the national level” Mr de Mistura said.
But local truces that have been established in some areas, particularly Homs, have been little more than camouflage for a rebel surrender and the imposition of terms that the regime has not always honoured.
Rebel leaders say the ceasefires — in tandem with the coalition airstrikes — have been a lifeline for the regime and allowed it to concentrate its tattered forces on more important fronts against rebels in Aleppo and Idlib, Ms Khatib said.
Syrian forces carried out at least 600 airstrikes in Idlib alone in the past week, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, using barrel bombs and even laser-guided missiles
A ceasefire on these key fronts, however, could be a significant boon for the moderate rebels there, freeing them to fight ISIL exclusively.
“This is why the regime is never going to entertain” any UN-brokered ceasefire plan, even if they allowed rebels to press the fight against ISIL, Mr Hanna said.
“They are more than happy to live with the threat of ISIL to an extent,” he added. “They probably feel quite at ease at the moment in terms of where this is all going.”
* With additional reporting by Reuters
Updated: November 1, 2014 04:00 AM