Just before President Obama delivered his speech last week announcing a strategy to “degrade and eventually destroy” the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the blogger NotGeorgeSabra posted a column expressing caution, given the past three years of US policy on the Syrian conflict.
His concern still holds after the speech, with a lack of clarity as to what the US will do next in Syria: “The US…[has] provided rebel forces with just enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win.”
Obama [has announced] a grand strategy to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS, or Daesh) one year after he sold Syria’s rebels down the river and betrayed his own self-imposed “red line.”
This strategy will be billed as comprehensive, encompassing all elements of American imperialism’s tremendous national power — military, economic, diplomatic, political — but there are unresolved contradictions with the Syrian aspect of this grand strategy that, taken together, will add up to the kind of strategic and political incoherence that Daesh will surely exploit to survive and persist in their Syrian safe haven for years, a safe haven created by Obama’s do-nothing-but-stupid-shit policies.
The central problem with Washington’s policy from the standpoint of ending Daesh is the U.S. goal of a negotiated settlement between the revolution and the counter-revolution in Syria, one that removes Bashar al-Assad from the presidency but preserves the state he and his father built intact.
Why is this a problem? Judge a policy by its results — a ruinous, intractable war that has resulted in the biggest humanitarian catastrophe of the century, a weak and divided rebel movement starving for weapons and money, Western passports!
How did America’s preference for a negotiated, peaceful settlement in Syria lead to endless war and bloodshed?
Simple: the U.S. (tandem with its regional allies) provided rebel forces with just enough weapons to keep fighting but not to win.
Engineer a military stalemate between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and Assad’s forces and eventually, the thinking went, both sides will realize they can’t win and sue for peace. Here’s how this policy shaped U.S. actions from 2011-2014:
- When the rebels were winning in 2011-2012, the U.S. and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) imposed a blockade on heavy weapons shipped in from abroad to check rebel momentum.
- When that worked and the rebels lost their momentum, the regime regrouped (with massive Iranian intervention) and went on the offensive in 2013, the U.S. and its allies allowed some heavy weapons to get through to FSA. However, anti-aircraft missiles known as MANPADS continued to be blocked and they are the only type of weapon that might stop the regime’s barrel bombing campaigns and even they are no substitute for a no-fly zone since planes and helicopters can fly even higher out of range from ground missile fire.
- In 2014, (after some slick politicking by Syrian opposition coalition president Ahmed Jarba) the U.S. and its allies began directly and steadily supplying select factions of FSA with heavy weapons, some 40,000 men or so in Idlib and Daraa governates, after U.S. efforts to achieve a negotiated settlement at Geneva 2 ended in miserable failure.
Hobbling the rebels is what allowed Daesh to smash the rebels and expel them the oil-rich province of Deir Ezzor in the first place, allowing Daesh to set up the world’s first completely self-financed terrorist state.
Keeping the rebels starved for weapons and cash is the best way to make sure they keep working alongside Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al Nusra whose vehicle-born suicide bombers act as a replacement for the heavy artillery and close air support that warfare against a well-armed enemy like the Assad regime requires.
Pushing for a “half-way” revolution has led the U.S. into a strategic impasse in Syria and narrowed the range of options available to American policymakers to choices that are either really really bad or really really REALLY bad.
Yes, there’s a lot of excited talk about U.S. airstrikes in Syria but look at a map — where can the U.S. attack Daesh where 1) it won’t benefit the regime and amount to collaboration and 2) won’t run the risk of triggering the regime’s air defenses?
- Attacking Daesh positions in the eastern province of Deir Ezzor will relieve pressure from the few regime bases that are holding out there after the rebels were defeated and expelled by Daesh.
- Attacking Daesh’s advance on Aleppo on the rebels’ flanks as the regime encircles the rebels risks Damascus shooting down an American plane either with Russian surface-to-air missiles or with MiGs (yes, it’s a long shot given the regime’s total inability to hit any of the Israeli jets that have attacked Syria with impunity on at least four occasions since 2011, but the regime could get lucky and they have announced that the U.S. needs to ask permission before flying over the country).
- Attacking Daesh’s capital, al-Raqqa, is strategically worthless since there are no FSA boots on the ground to coordinate offensives with. Besides, the regime is already engaging in these strategically useless operations by bombing targets in al-Raqqa in an effort to quell anger among its Alawite base of support.
Thus, America’s pursuit of a negotiated settlement in Syria has made such a settlement impossible by creating the conditions for Daesh to flourish and expand. They will never accept such a settlement given their global expansionist ambitions and aggressive nature and Obama himself has acknowledged that a containment policy will never work and therefore they must be defeated.
Vanquishing Daesh in Syria totally and permanently requires a well-armed, well-supported FSA as Syria’s only hope to establish the kind of stable, democratic, and inclusive governance that extremism cannot gain any traction in on a mass basis. Only a strong, united FSA and a competent, functioning interim government operating securing therevolution’s rear can put an end to masked and unmasked fascism.