Did the US strikes benefit the Syrian regime?

Bassel Oudat , Wednesday 18 Apr 2018

Last week’s Western air strikes on Syria only benefited the regime and its allies, being all the more ineffective because they were not part of a comprehensive strategy, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

A satellite image shows the Barzah Research and Development Center after being struck by U.S. and co
A satellite image shows the Barzah Research and Development Center after being struck by U.S. and coalition operations in Damascus, Syria, April 14, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

The US, backed by allies France and the UK, was more serious this time in its threats against the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, though in the event these threats only culminated in a handful of missile strikes on alleged chemical weapons targets lasting less than one hour.

Many commentators had thought Washington and its European allies were planning to punish the regime more severely and hurt its Russian and Iranian allies.

The US said the goal of the strikes had not been to overthrow the regime but to curb its ability to produce chemical weapons. In the event, the air strikes were more like fireworks to entertain the regime and its supporters on the streets of Damascus.

US goals are uncertain since the strikes did not do much to impact the regime. It seems a deal may have been made with or through Russia at the eleventh hour similar to what happened in 2013 when the regime used chemical weapons in Eastern Ghouta and killed some 2,500 civilians.

On this occasion, the US made a deal with Russia to disarm Syria of its chemical weapons, and Moscow was able to halt the military operations the then Obama administration had been planning.

Something similar may have happened this time too, and Washington likely wanted to put pressure on Tehran rather than on the Syrian regime.

The possibly major military moves likely forced Russia to intervene and force Iran to reduce its military presence in Syria, halting the supply of fighters and military equipment.

The US missile strikes could now partially weaken the regime’s military capabilities, but they will not change the reality on the ground.

Russia wants to weaken Iran in Syria, and it may have used the US pressure as an excuse to make this easier. The US must also take into consideration Israel’s interests before and after any military strike.

A strong strike targeting the regime would not benefit Israel, which has had covert ties with the regime for decades, but striking Iran would be of benefit to it as it would lessen the Iranian threat.

Before the US strikes there were rumours that the regime and Moscow had proposed removing Iran and its militias from Syria as part of a settlement to prevent the strikes from taking place and starting a new political process.

The rumours are likely to be untrue because neither Russia nor the regime have any credibility with the US.

In the wake of the chemical weapons attacks in Douma outside Damascus, Russia, Iran and the regime made up a story that the opposition had carried out the attacks itself and then insisted that the UN investigate the matter.

In general, the US wants to weaken Iran in and through Syria and create a better climate for a solution to the crisis, while at the same time weakening Iran’s hand in the wider region and ending Tehran’s machinations.

However, the Syrian regime alone is unable to end the Iranian influence or remove the Iranian Revolutionary Guard or sectarian militias from Syria.

Syria is important for Iran because leaving the country would end the country’s ambitions in the Middle East.

Tehran has transformed Syria into a frontline state with Israel and a way of threatening Lebanon and Iraq. It wants to make Syria loyal to Iran and to use the Revolutionary Guard as a launching pad to neighbouring areas.

Current US policy in Syria lacks vision and apparently also knowledge of how far Iran has penetrated the Syrian state, army, economy and society.

Contradictory statements by US officials are evidence of this haphazard policy, including statements by US President Donald Trump.

While the US acted forcefully in response to the deaths of those who died in Douma in Eastern Ghouta as a result of chemical weapons, it did not take such forceful action east of the Euphrates River, which is already under its control.

The Syrian regime has emerged elated from the US strikes because they had a negligible impact on it and boosted its ability to block US “aggression”.

Official media outlets have mocked the weakness of the US and promised that “the Syrian army will stand up to America and halt it in its tracks.”

The regime has loudly protested in the Arab League and the UN against the strikes, calling on the world to condemn the “tripartite attacks” by France, Britain and the US.

Syrian opposition figure Sobhi Hadidi said that “what the US has done is all PR to save the face of the leaders of France, Britain and the US in this seven-year tragedy.

A war criminal like Bashar Al-Assad has been met with silence by the Western democracies or empty words about fighting terrorism.

Meanwhile, forces from across the board, including from Tehran, Moscow and Ankara, continue to pound the Syrian people and transform the country into occupied territory.”

The US strikes were an indirect message to Russia that it is not the only power on the Syrian scene and that the US can take action unilaterally without waiting for a UN Security Council Resolution, he added.

They had also redirected the Syrian crisis to the political track and to negotiations that are essential even though Russia, Iran and the regime had thought they could avoid them.

Washington had reminded all the players on the ground that it has the firepower not to be intimidated by Russia’s improvised positions and that a political solution must move forward.

One positive outcome of the US strikes would be if they could force those involved to return to the negotiating table, especially the Geneva track which is the only one that has international support.

The Geneva I Declaration stipulates forming an interim governing body in Syria with a full mandate. If this were to happen, it would mean the demise of the regime.

The Syrian opposition did not welcome the US strikes because they were superficial and ineffective. It mocked the US by saying that Washington had not targeted the regime but had instead targeted a handful of facilities believed to be developing chemical weapons.

The problem is not so much the regime’s chemical weapons but its artillery and snipers, however. Chemical weapons are not at the core of the crisis, and it is unlikely that the regime will be able to use them again in the near future.

Yet, it will continue to displace people from their homes to serve Iran’s goal of changing Syria’s demography.

Accordingly, no strikes against Syria will be effective unless they are part of a comprehensive strategy aiming to lead to a transitional phase in which Al-Assad is no longer president of Syria. Anything else simply benefits the regime.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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