Syria: A collision course

Hussein Haridy
Thursday 25 Jan 2018

The Trump administration has outlined a new strategy on Syria, one that will put it in direct confrontation not only with Bashar Al-Assad, but Tehran and Moscow

In a dramatic turn, the US administration of President Donald Trump, after one year in office, took the world by surprise on 17 and 19 January.

On 17 January, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gave remarks to the Hoover Institute at Stanford University on the “Way Forward for the United States Regarding Syria.” Two days later, US Secretary of Defence Lieutenant General James Mattis unveiled a new defence strategy for the United States. This article will, however, deal with the Tillerson remarks at the Hoover Institute, which aligns in tone and proposed actions to the essence of the new American defence strategy.

The remarks were very aggressive as to the future course of action of the Trump administration in Syria, leaving no room for diplomatic manoeuvring for Washington on the future and role of President Bashar Al-Assad, and the existing political regime in Syria, in any future political transition in Syria, according to UN Security Council Resolution 2254 of December 2015. Meanwhile, the US Secretary of State did not outline who the alternative would be in Damascus, in case the regime is brought down.

The objective of the Trump administration is a “stable, unified and independent Syria, free of terrorist threats and free of weapons of mass destruction,” as Tillerson stated in his remarks, making it clear that the US approach to Al-Assad’s Syria is directly linked to its strategy towards Iran. He added that the nature of Al-Assad’s regime, “like that of its sponsor, Iran, is malignant”.

From the perspective of the Trump administration the present situation in Syria could be characterised by the following factors:

— The Islamic State group (ISIS), is substantially defeated, but not completely.
— The Syrian government controls about half of Syria’s territory and its population (other sources, official and non-official, say that 90 per cent of Syrian territories come under the control of Damascus.)
— Strategic threats to the United States persist, not only from IS and Al-Qaeda, but from other threats that Tillerson did not spell out, save Iran as a threat to US security interests.

Tillerson added emphatically that Syria remains a source of what he qualified as “severe strategic threats”, and a major challenge “for American diplomacy”. Moreover, he accused President Al-Assad of undermining prospects for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254.

However, the most alarming part in the Tillerson’s remarks was announcing that the Trump administration will maintain a military presence in Syria “focused on ensuring ISIS cannot re-emerge,” assuring American public opinion and the military that Washington, this time around, will not repeat the mistake made by the Obama administration when it had committed to a “premature departure” from Iraq in 2011.

In other words, the military presence that Tillerson talked about in Syria is open-ended, which would prove a highly destabilising factor not only in Syria, but across the Middle East. It goes without saying, that this presence will please Israel and other regional allies and strategic partners in the region, excluding Egypt.

The aim of this open-ended US military presence on Syrian territories is not limited to countering terrorism, but rather related directly to American and Israeli concerns regarding the future military plans of Iran in Syria, with the consent of Al-Assad’s government. The Israelis, the Americans and the Saudis talk about an Iranian arc extending from Iran to Lebanon. Israel is gravely worried in this respect, and senior Israeli officials have, repeatedly, said that they won’t allow the permanent stationing of Iranian forces in Syria. Of late, Israel has intensified its diplomatic offensive against Iran and pro-Iranian militias in Syria, particularly Hizbullah of Lebanon.

In fact, the true mission of this American military presence is not the prevention of the re-emergence of ISIS as such, but rather confronting the presence of Russian troops in Syria, as well as preventing the stationing of Iranian forces or pro-Iranian militias near the Syrian-Israeli borders. It should be said in passing that the stationing of Russian and Iranian troops in Syria comes in accordance with agreements signed between the Syrian government, on the one hand, and the Russian and Iranian governments on the other. Whereas the American military presence on Syrian territory is a blatant violation of the sovereignty of a member state of the United Nations and the Arab League.

Another alarming policy that the United States will implement in Syria is encouraging “local authorities” in “liberated areas” within Syria to offer services to the locals, services that should be the responsibility of the legitimate government in Damascus. This trend comes in direct contradiction to the repeated claims by President Trump and top US officials that the days of regime change and nation-building are over.

Although neither the former Obama administration, in its last year in office, and the present one until now insisted on the departure of President Al-Assad from power as a precondition for a successful political transition in Syria, leaving the issue to the Geneva talks, Tillerson’s remarks have marked a departure from such a realist position. He stressed that the departure of the Syrian president through the Geneva process “will create the conditions for a durable peace within Syria and security along the borders for Syria’s neighbours” — read Israel.

In this context, the US Secretary of State spoke of Iran as a regional hegemon that “seeks dominance in the Middle East and the destruction of our ally, Israel”, adding that it will be “impossible to ensure stability on one end of the Mediterranean, in Europe, if chaos and injustice prevail on the other end, in Syria”. Whether the Europeans would be enthusiastic to join the Americans in confronting Syria, Russia and Iran at the same time in the Middle East remains to be seen, although it is highly doubtful.

What the remarks made by the US Secretary of State missed is the fact that plans to ensure political stability and security in Syria while circumventing the Syrian government have not succeeded. The chances for success of similar plans in the future are slim indeed.

In light of Tillerson’s remarks, taken with the new American defence strategy outlined by Mattis on 19 January, Syria has probably become the primary battleground for the 21st century version of the Cold War.

*Hussein Haridy is former assistant foreign minister.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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