In his State of the Union address Tuesday, U.S. President Barack Obama mentioned Syria only twice. On both occasions he did so in the context of the American-led battle against ISIS. No mention was made of the cruelties of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, let alone how its crimes have driven extremism in Syria.
Despite reports that the United States intends to start training “moderate” Syrian rebels soon, there have been numerous signs lately that the Obama administration is changing its attitude toward Assad. Whereas it had previously insisted that any solution in Syria required him to step down, that no longer seems to be the case.
Last week, after meeting in Geneva with the United Nations envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry expressed support for a Russian peace proposal for Syria, saying it “could be helpful.” While details of the Russian plan are unclear, nothing indicates that it calls for Assad’s departure, especially as the Syrian regime has accepted it.
Kerry’s subsequent remarks reinforced the view that Washington is no longer insisting that Assad must go. “It is time for President Assad, the Assad regime, to put their people first and to think about the consequences of their actions, which are attracting more and more terrorists to Syria, basically because of their efforts to remove Assad,” the secretary told journalists.
The remarkably duplicitous formulation, by placing the onus of stepping down on Assad himself and asking that a mass murderer and his entourage should somehow “think about the consequences of their actions,” was immediately interpreted as confirmation of an American shift.
In Lebanon, a news item further lent credence to this view. The Druze leader Walid Jumblatt leaked to Al-Joumhouria that when he met in London last December with Jeffrey Feltman, the U.N. undersecretary-general for political affairs told him that Assad’s removal was no longer a U.S. priority. “He’s staying for now,” Feltman said of Syria’s president.
The aim of the American program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels is not for them to fight Assad’s troops, but rather to fight ISIS in coordination with the American military. In other words the rebels, abandoned for years by Washington in the face of Syria’s army, are now slated to become cannon fodder in America’s war against a terrorist organization.
Only someone naive would assume that the moderates, if they ever manage to survive as an effective militia, have the same urgencies as the Obama administration. Almost certainly, those participating in the U.S. program would have been persuaded to do so on the grounds that the weapons and training they receive will eventually be turned against the Syrian regime. Washington will have to address this disconnect.
The Obama administration still doesn’t get it. Its Syrian allies, when and if they become a serious fighting force, will struggle to regain legitimacy if they are seen by Syrians as primarily focused on fighting ISIS and not the Assad regime.
Worse, with the United States not wanting now to be rid of Assad – a widely-shared view in Syria – its Syrian allies can only suffer as a consequence. This will push the “moderates” into a dilemma of either striving to appeal to their own population or to the gray suits in Washington. They will choose the former. That could undermine the cohesiveness of the rebels and cause them to slowly break away from the American grip.
What would the U.S. do then? Cut off assistance, after the millions of dollars spent to bolster the rebels? Abandon potentially valuable allies, and in that way lend further momentum to ISIS and Nusra Front?
The American scheme is so disconnected from the reality in Syria, from the suffering of millions of Syrians left to face a miserable fate for almost four years, that it is bound to fail. The arrogance of the Obama administration in this regard is breathtaking. Rarely has the United States been so indifferent to the destiny of a people subjected to the worst abominations. Americans have, understandably, been appalled by the savagery of ISIS. But how does one square that attitude with their utter disregard for the systematic slaughter carried out by the Syrian regime and its army and security services?
The Syrians are not stupid. Like everyone else, they know an American regional priority today is to conclude a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. It is increasingly apparent that one of the byproducts of this arrangement will be that Washington is less likely to challenge Iranian stakes in the Middle East, particularly in Syria. That was implicit in a letter Obama wrote last October to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Such an arrangement would little please Turkey or the Gulf states who feel threatened by Iran’s regional power. That means that the conflict in Syria is likely to escalate as the Gulf states attempt to claw Syria away from Iran. Their only weapon may be to help more hard-line groups that have been effective in fighting the Syrian regime. By disregarding such dynamics American officials are undermining their own stated objectives.
By accepting that Assad remain in place, the Obama administration is digging deeper the hole of its abysmal Syria policy. The problem is that by the time the true extent of American failure becomes apparent, Obama will have left office.
Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR. He tweets @BeirutCalling.