Superpowers must act: The puzzle of US action in Syria

Bassem Aly , Friday 29 Aug 2014

As the US mulls military involvement in Syria, Ahram Online untangles the diplomatic web of consequences behind direct strikes

Al-Assad, Obama
Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and US President Barack Obama (Photo: Reuters, AP)

Many reports this week have suggested the hesitancy of US President Barack Obama over military involvement in Syria against fierce jihadists. Ironically, the administration of the US president was ready to launch a military strike against Bashar Assad's regime in September of last year in order to deter its troops from using chemical weapons against civilians.

A last-minute deal saved the situation as the Russians, Assad's key international ally, persuaded him to surrender his chemical stockpile. Now, 11 months later, Obama is talking about US airstrikes against the Sunni militants of the Islamist State (IS) who control large parts of Syria and northern Iraq.

But will airstrikes leave the regime untouched? And could the US get closer to an anti-western regime after decades of enmity? Experts have stressed the need for a multi-dimensional vision and plan which must be finalised in advance.

Studying action, but not with Assad

Indeed, IS's regional threat has become intolerable for the international community. The threat is big enough for Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallem to admit that Syria is ready to "cooperate and coordinate" with any side, including the US. Yet he said that any unilateral move, uncoordinated with the Syrian government, would amount to "aggression."

Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov put it clearer. "The west will have to choose what is more important: to change the regime and satisfy personal antipathies with the risk that the situation will crumble, or find pragmatic ways to join efforts against the common threat, which is the same for all of us - terrorism," Lavrov was quoted as saying in Moscow.

The US rebuffed the offer. US State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki pointed out on Tuesday that "we're not going to ask for permission from the Syrian regime." That statement came a day after the White House revealed that Obama has not made a decision to launch military operations against IS militants in Syria.

In an interview with Ahram Online, Daniel Serwer - a former minister-counselor at the US State Department - explained the rationale beyond the US's decision to avoid direct, joint cooperation with the Syrian regime. Serwer sees Assad as part of the problem in Syria - and not the solution.

Syria's uprising against the regime has turned into an ongoing, bloody civil war between government troops and rebels in the last three years, causing the death of more than 170,000 people and a huge refugee crisis that has put a strain on neighbouring countries.

"Cooperating with Assad in any way would ruin any chance of attracting Sunnis away from supporting IS. That would wreck any chance of defeating the Islamic State," said the ex-foreign official.

Even indirect collaboration does not interest Serwer. He said the only available "third parties" on good terms with Assad are Iran and Russia. "The Americans won't be asking the Russians too many favours, given what is going on in Ukraine. And Washington has more important issues than Syria to discuss with Iran," he said.

Steps taken, so far

Until now, Obama has only approved surveillance flights - not military action - over Syria. The US military, however, has launched airstrikes against IS militants inside Iraq since early August. Sources told AFP on Tuesday that the US is sharing intelligence about jihadist deployments with Syria through Iraqi-Russian channels. These comments came a day after the Syrian foreign minister's statements over willingness to cooperate.

Wayne White, a policy expert with Washington's Middle East Policy Council, claimed that even US communication with Assad's regime through an intermediary is "highly risky." He indicated that the US government is prone to leaks, and as such any indirect contact would probably be "leaked and cause great embarrassment for the administration."

"The (Assad) regime might not react to the airstrikes (despite harsh protests) because it also benefits from any weakening of IS and does not want to lose more combat aircraft and experienced pilots," White said.

Last Monday, US chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, said once he determines that IS militants in Iraq have become a direct threat to the US homeland, he will recommend the US military to move directly against the group in Syria.

White described aerial strikes as the "only logical step" after surveillance flights. Moreover, White argued that increasing aid to so-called "vetted non-extremist rebels" - especially in terms of quantity and quality - could serve as an on-the-ground alternative to airstrikes.

"They need much heavier firepower against IS, such as anti-armor weapons and heavy mortars. The controversial issue of shoulder-fired ground-to-air missiles is not in play in this case: IS has no air force," said the ex-deputy director of the State Department's Intelligence and Research Bureau for the Near East and South Asia.

Who's in?

US news outlets have lately unveiled the preparatory steps for a potential war in Syria, including the available options. State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told CNN's Wolf Blitzer on Tuesday that the US administration is having a "constant conversation" about what options could be necessary to "go after IS" whether in Iraq, Syria or "wherever they train or operate."

One of these steps - according to anonymous administration officials who spoke to the New York Times - is mobilising a broad coalition of allies prior to launching military operations. The report pointed out that the White House started a "diplomatic campaign to enlist allies and neighbours in the region to increase their support" with Syrian moderate opposition groups that back US operations.

These countries include Australia, Britain, Jordan, some Gulf states and Turkey, which possesses military bases that might be used, the same officials said.

Radwan Ziadeh, director of the Damascus Centre for Human Rights Studies (DCHRS), told Ahram Online that any US operation in Syria has to be built upon two main points.

First, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - the military wing of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC) - should be supported in a manner that allows its members to push IS out of areas controlled by its militants.

Second, Ziadeh called for cooperation with Syria's opposition figures in order to "boost the political process, just as what happened in Iraq, in order to achieve an organised transfer of power."

"Otherwise, the whole operation will be useless," claimed Ziadeh, a former member of the anti-regime SNC.

Nevertheless, he admitted the difficulty of simultaneously ending the on-ground presence of jihadists and regime troops in order to pave the way for a transitional period handled by the SNC.

"Unfortunately, there are no serious guarantees for any of these demands, but what all Syrians care about is putting an end to this tragedy and returning displaced people and refugees - but not the US's interests," he concluded.

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