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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 September 2018

US looks set to take a backseat in Syria conflict

With Washington cutting off its support for the rebels fighting Bashar Al Assad, the US seems to be stepping away from a proactive role in helping resolve the conflict 

Anti-war protesters shout slogans against US president Donald Trump during a demonstration in front of the Trump Tower in New York on April 7, 2017, to protest the US air strike in Syria. Jewel Samad/AFP Photo
Anti-war protesters shout slogans against US president Donald Trump during a demonstration in front of the Trump Tower in New York on April 7, 2017, to protest the US air strike in Syria. Jewel Samad/AFP Photo

When US president Donald Trump launched cruise missiles at a Syrian air base in April, many supporters of Syria’s rebels changed their social media profile pictures to photos of Mr Trump emblazoned with the words “we love you” in Arabic.

After years of asking the United States to help them in their fight, Washington had finally come through and attacked the Syrian government.

However, those who praised Mr Trump just three months ago probably no longer have fond feelings for the man they called Abu Ivanka - or Father of Ivanka - after he cut CIA aid to moderate rebel factions, destroying the last US link to regime-change efforts in Syria.

The decision to cut this support, reported by the Washington Post, shows the US is preparing for an exit from Syria after the defeat of ISIL, as Washington is unlikely to want anything to do with the continuing civil war to overthrow the government of Bashar Al Assad. Abandoning the chronically troubled train-and-equip programme is part of the exit plan, ridding Washington of its last ties to regime change and telling the rebels that they are now on their own.

Mr Trump never wanted to get involved in Syria’s complicated civil war. On the campaign trail, he openly criticised the train-and-equip programme, telling his followers that Washington did not know who the Syrian rebels they were supporting really were and that they could not be trusted. Overthrowing Mr Al Assad, he warned, could lead to an even more dangerous group taking power.

His tune changed when the Syrian government used sarin gas on the town of Khan Sheikhoun on April 4, killing 74 people. In an abrupt change of heart, the man - who once said he would tell war-affected Syrian children to their faces that they could not come to America -now spoke of the humanitarian imperative to take action in Syria.

Read more: Why didn’t the US crater Syria’s runways?

But the US attack on the Shayrat air base on April 7 was a one-off, motivated by a burst of emotion and, perhaps, Mr Trump's desire to succeed where his predecessor had failed in enforcing a red line on chemical weapons in 2013.

After the strikes, his administration seemingly went back to being uninvolved in the civil war - until recent weeks.

Before heading to the G20 summit earlier this month, US secretary of state Rex Tillerson extended an invitation to Moscow to cooperate with Washington on no-fly zones, humanitarian aid and ceasefire observers in Syria. Mr Tillerson said that by working together, the countries could “lay a foundation for progress on the settlement of Syria’s political future”.

Soon after, the US and Russia hammered out a ceasefire deal covering southern Syria that Mr Trump said “will save lives”.

The Trump administration, which had stepped away from a proactive role in resolving Syria’s conflict, was now trying to project itself as a peace broker.

Read more: Trump to shutter CIA aid to Syrian rebels fighting Assad

But Washington's sudden interest in peace in Syria soon appeared to have more to do with a desire to improve relations with Moscow, seeing the Syria crisis as one area where they could work together.

The Syria issue had raised tensions between the two countries, but was also perhaps the easiest disagreement on which they could find common ground. Both Washington and Moscow want the conflict to end, finding their military commitments there much deeper than planned.

With the offers of cooperation, the ceasefire and now the decision to end support for rebels, the US is showing that it will back away from Syria as it tries to get on Moscow’s good side.

Militarily, the ending of CIA support for rebels will have little effect on the battlefield. The train-and-equip programme has been a failure since its launch in 2013, unable to create groups large enough to have a major impact. Moderate units armed and trained by the US were routed by rivals. Some even surrendered their weapons to extremists to secure safe passage.

Instead, the end of CIA support sends a firm message to the rebels that they no longer have US backing. This has been known for some time, but hopes lingered that the US could come to their aid. The CIA programmes provided a direct conduit to moderate rebel forces that the US could choose to expand.

But, if anything, Mr Trump’s foreign policy - and particularly his Syria policy - is malleable. It is the product of whims influenced by the last person he spoke to, which advisers he trusts most on a given day, the personal appeals of his family - even by what he watches on TV.

With so many about-turns on Syria already, it can never be certain what is final in a White House that lacks the rigidity in foreign policy of past administrations.

And if the US wants to challenge Iran’s expanding power in Syria - something Mr Trump’s administration has been keen to do - they will need the help of the rebels that they have now cut off.

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