The US returns to Syria: Two looming questions

Mohamed El-Said Idris , Thursday 19 Apr 2018

A US Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational re
A US Air Force B-1B Lancer and crew, being deployed to launch strike as part of the multinational response to Syria's use of Chemical weapons, is seen in this image released from AlUdeid Air Base, Doha, Qatar on April 14, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

With French President Emmanuel Macron’s announcement on 15 April that he had convinced US President Donald Trump to renounce his previously declared plans to withdraw from Syria as soon as possible, two interrelated questions loomed.

The first is what was the real purpose of the tripartite US-French-British attacks (or “strikes” as the Western media prefers to call them) against Syria? Was it really to punish the Al-Assad regime for the crime, as yet uncorroborated by concrete evidence, of having used chemical weapons against Douma in Eastern Ghouta, as the US president, French president and British prime minister claim? Or were there other ends that motivated the strikes?

The second question is related to the first and may help to answer it. Is there a connection between the hasty US-French-British attacks on Syria, launched on the very morning that the Fact Finding Mission (FFM) team of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) was due to arrive in Damascus, and the outcomes of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish summit in Ankara on 4 April?

A few days before this meeting on 29 March, Trump told supporters in Ohio of his resolve to withdraw US forces from Syria “very soon.” These had done their job in the war against the Islamic State (IS) group, he said, so it was time to bring them home. He said that the US had spent $7 trillion on wars in the Middle East and “got nothing out of it.”

However, apparently this was a personal decision taken outside the framework of the institutions concerned with foreign policy decisions, and Trump quickly backtracked after a meeting of the US National Security Council attended by new national security adviser John Bolton and the US secretaries of defence and state.

The results of the meeting give one the impression that the US president was searching for a way to save face while justifying his reversal on the withdrawal.

The pretext was expressed by White House Spokesperson Sarah Sanders in a “clarification” at a press briefing.

While “the military mission to eradicate IS in Syria is coming to a rapid end… the US and our partners remain committed to eliminating the small IS presence in Syria that our forces have not already eradicated,” she said.

Once again the White House used the Islamic State group to justify the US intervention and continued presence of its forces in Syria.

As for the reference to the “small IS presence” remaining in Syria, that was to cover Trump’s claim over recent months that IS had been defeated.

Sanders therefore stressed that the ultimate aim remained the total defeat of IS and that only when this was accomplished could responsibility be handed to domestic forces and US forces withdrawn.

The statement threw into relief the unprecedented confusion that reigns in the White House and the desperate scrambling to come up with smokescreens to conceal the real motives for the reversal of the decision to withdraw US forces.

Other members of the administration then chimed in. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo cautioned against a rapid withdrawal from Syria.

Secretary of defence James Mattis and other senior officials agreed. A complete withdrawal would “jeopardise the gains the US had achieved in the fight against IS,” they said.

Regardless of how members of his administration attempt to cover up for his off-the-cuff remarks, Trump could not conceal the reasons behind his determination to withdraw from Syria and his subsequent U-turn.

It is clear that Trump is looking for a new “agent” in Syria. Trump is a businessman forever on the lookout for deals. He draws no distinction between the world of business and the world of politics.

In Syria, he is looking for a “financier” not just to pay for the continued presence of US forces there, but also to ensure the US reaps gains in return.

This is why he has agreed to keep US forces in Syria for a longer period, as long as other countries in the region chip in to ensure that IS does not return and to fund the reconstruction of Syria.

Trump apparently reversed his position on the withdrawal after having received funding pledges on the part of regional powers with an interest in keeping the US in Syria. According to news reports, he spoke with a number of regional leaders to urge them to commit $4 billion to Syrian reconstruction.

However, the French president’s announcement, coming only 24 hours after the US-French-British attacks against Syria on 14 April, that he had succeeded in persuading Trump to keep US forces in Syria “for a long time” and the support this received from Britain plus the confirmation furnished by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley indicate that Washington has other reasons for remaining in Syria that may outweigh the “deal” that Trump won from regional powers keen to keep the US in Syria and prevent the expansion of Iranian influence.

As Haley put it, the US would not pull its troops out of Syria “until its goals were accomplished”. These included ensuring that chemical weapons were not used in a way that could jeopardise US interests, that IS was defeated, and that the US was in a good position to monitor Iranian activities.

Other Reasons

It is clear that it is difficult to separate Trump’s reversal on the US troop withdrawal from Syria from the results of the summit meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara.

The idea is to outmanoeuvre them through what was framed as “making progress in the political process”.

In the aftermath of the tripartite strikes, French officials said that “the time has now come to revive diplomatic activity aimed at reaching a political solution in Syria with the help of all the parties, including Russia.” The position was translated into a UN Security Council Resolution calling for the creation of a new mechanism to investigate the use of chemical weapons, deliver humanitarian aid, and restart Syrian peace talks under UN sponsorship.

The position is consistent with the hardliners’ outlook in Washington. They hope to use the results of the strikes to promote US projects in Syria by engineering a strategic shift in the US role.

It was little wonder, therefore, that discussion of the first UN Security Council Resolution after the strikes was preceded by new US sanctions against Russia on the grounds of Moscow’s “continued support for the Syrian regime”.

Further expressing this outlook, Haley said in an interview with the US channel Fox News that the US would not enter into direct negotiations with the Syrian regime and that it would not withdraw its troops from Syria until it had achieved “all its goals”.

She reiterated the three mentioned above and added that “[our goal is] to see American troops come home, but we are not going to leave until we know we have accomplished those things.”

It is here that we find the connection between the possibly new US outlook on Syria and European (French and British above all) and perhaps US anxieties over the results of the Ankara summit.

They fear that this may lay the groundwork for a new strategic alliance in the Middle East led by Russia, Iran and Turkey and that may in future include Iraq and Syria.

The summit addressed three issues, the first of which was countering secessionist agendas (the Kurds) that threaten the unity and territorial integrity of Syria and that could jeopardise the national security of Syria’s neighbours (Turkey, Iran and Iraq).

The second was countering attempts to impose a new reality in Syria behind the guise of fighting terrorism.

The reference here is to the US military presence east of the Euphrates River and its alliance with the predominantly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces that Turkey brands as “terrorists”.

It also alludes to the US bases in the Syrian provinces of Raqqa, Hasakah and Deir Al-Zor. These are located near the Syrian border with Iraq and in oil rich areas.

The implication is that the US seeks to promote an autonomous Kurdish region that includes these provinces and advances partition.

The third issue addressed by the summit was the commitment to the sovereignty and stability of Syria and to the resolutions of the Sochi Conference as a basis for any political solution to the crisis.

For the West, this alliance, which includes Turkey, a NATO member, is deeply worrying, especially as it comes in tandem with Russia’s hasty conclusion of the S-400 missile deal with Turkey that NATO members regard as tantamount to an act of aggression.

This has required rapid countermeasures, which have taken form in the creation of the US-French-British partnership launched through the military strikes against Syria and intended to contain the tripartite alliance that Moscow seeks to forge with Tehran and Ankara.

The idea was voiced by Nicholas Burns, former US under-secretary of state for political affairs, who called for an “American-European diplomatic alliance” to “counter the negative influence of the Russian-Iranian-Turkish trio in Syria.”

However, to make this possible, pressure needs to be brought to bear to ensure that US troops remain in Syria over the long term, as the hardliners in Washington want.

US Difficulties

However, this outlook faces a number of difficulties, the first being that it does not have the full backing of the US administration.

There is another camp that does not believe that the tripartite strikes against Syria mark, or should mark, a change in US policy. Indications to this effect can be found in leaked information from the US administration to Syrian opposition factions regarding the strikes that state they were not preliminary to a drive to topple the Syrian regime, as the opposition factions had hoped, or even to impose an alternative political course to the one that Moscow has spearheaded in Syria.

As one message reportedly transmitted from the US Embassy in Jordan to factions of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) put it, the strikes “do not in any way signify an end to the de-escalation agreement” in southern Syria signed between the US, Russia and Jordan.

Nor do they signify “any change in US policy towards Syria”. The US Embassy in Amman also took pains to make it clear to the Syrian opposition that “the recent strikes were a reaction to the Syrian regime’s use of chemical weapons” and that “the US cannot condone the use of such weapons.”

US Foreign Relations Council chair Richard Haas reiterated the message in a tweet by saying that “there is no visible change in US policy towards Syria, i.e., the US did not act to weaken the regime.”

Secondly, the political escalation in the aftermath of the tripartite strikes is an essentially French and British trend. It was Macron above all who took the initiative to telephone Trump in order to persuade him to keep US troops in Syria, and the French ambassador has been the most active promoter of the latest UN Security Council Resolution on Syria.

After the strikes, “it is now for the United Nations Security Council to take the initiative again on political, chemical and humanitarian questions in Syria,” Macron said.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said that Paris wanted to restore the initiative to the Security Council in order to ensure progress towards a peaceful settlement to the Syrian crisis.

British Prime Minister Theresa May seconded that view by saying that the military operations were not sufficient. “The political solution remains the best hope for the Syrian people,” she said.

Thirdly, Syria and its Russian and Iranian allies now appear to have adopted tougher views since what they have referred to as the Western “aggression”.

The Syrian regime has sought to leverage the strikes towards a shift in tack from the “war against terror” to the “war for liberation and independence” from the “US occupation in eastern and southern Syria”.

Now that the regime has completed the “liberation of Eastern Ghouta,” it has turned to the task of liberating the southern outskirts of the capital and the Yarmuk Refugee Camp, after which it will move to the outskirts of Homs and Idlib.

But its latest stance is that eventually it plans to take on the “American occupation” in the east and south of the country.

The Russians and Iranians support this approach. Both Moscow and Tehran are convinced that they need to strengthen their cooperation over Syria, as can be read in Rouhani’s message to Putin expressing Iran’s readiness to “accelerate steps for cooperation with Russia in a bilateral [Iranian-Russian] or trilateral [Iranian-Russian-Turkish] framework to resolve the Syrian crisis.” Rouhani added that “the Western nations do not want the situation in Syria to stabilise easily.”

Russia, whose foreign minister stressed that the tripartite strikes “will not rest without consequences,” may not readily respond to French, US and British pressures to return to the Geneva track at the expense of what it has accomplished at Astana and Sochi.

It may back the Syrian regime’s ambitions to expand its control over areas where Syrian opposition forces are still located, thereby reducing the influence of the opposition and its allies in reaching a solution to the Syrian crisis.

These challenges not only stand in the way of Washington’s ambitions to remain in Syria for a long period, but they also shed light on the nature of the risks that jeopardise the hoped-for political solution in Syria.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly  

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