Washington would likely never consider working with Syria, Iran or Russia. But when it comes to fighting groups like ISIS, they may be Washington’s only hope.
Members of the Iran’s Revolutionary Guard march during an annual military parade marking the 34th anniversary of outset of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, outside Tehran, Iran. Iran has been leading the ground war against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
WASHINGTON — Against the backdrop of diplomatic and political black hole that is the post-Arab Spring Middle East, Washington’s designated foes — Syria, Iran and Russia — may also be its best chance at effectively confronting terror.
While not all actors might see eye to eye just yet, the threat of Islamic radicalism could prove to be a powerful political incentive for making dramatic, previously unthinkable policy shifts.
As history has already demonstrated Washington can indeed exercise oversight when pressed hard enough. The U.S.-Soviet alliance of 1941-1945 against Nazi Germany proved to be a crucial cog in the Allies’ war machine and it ultimately led to the disintegration of the Third Reich.
“If U.S. officials were to allow pragmatism to take precedent over political propaganda and misplace nationalism, logic would dictate a radical change in alliances in the region,” Rufiz Hafizoglu, head of the Arab News Service for Azerbaijan’s Trend News Agency, told MintPress News.
“Looking at recent developments and how the U.S. not only mishandled the ISIS [Islamic State of Iraq and Syria] situation but actually helped prop ISIS-like militias in the Levant to score political gains against the Damascus regime, it is quite clear a new strategy is needed. Washington certainly needs to wake up from its slumber and address realities on the ground, not wishful thinking,” Hafizoglu added.
While experts have already branded the Obama administration’s strategy in Syria, as well as the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, a disaster, it appears the Pentagon is willing to face the music and adjust its tune.
President Barack Obama recognized as much in September. Speaking during the close of the NATO summit in Wales, Obama said, “We are going to have to find effective partners on the ground to push back ISIL.”
Who these “effective partners” will be remains to be seen, but change seems certainly to be in the cards.
Four years into the war and in light of Washington’s inability to hinder ISIS ground advances in both Syria and Iraq, the Obama administration is softening its tone toward Syrian President Bashar Assad, tacitly conceding that the Syrian president might not have to step down, at least not until a clear transition of power is agreed upon — a process which could take years.
This softening marks a huge shift from previous U.S. positions on Assad. In August 2013, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed that the U.S. military had positioned naval forces in the Mediterranean in preparation for potential direct military intervention. “President Obama has asked the defense department to prepare options for all contingencies. We have done that and we are prepared to exercise whatever option — if he decides to employ one of those options,” Hagel told reporters.
A year before that, in August 2012, Obama threatened Assad with military intervention should he ever dare use chemical weapons against civilians.
None of those threats materialized into actions on the ground, but the narrative has certainly not been conducive to talks. Yet the former hardline approach is turning noticeably less hard, and the U.S. seems ready to return to the negotiating table.
U.S. strategy in Syria
Up until now Obama has mainly played along with his Middle Eastern allies, namely Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, arming those the Pentagon refers to as moderates — Syrian rebel fighters, in particular — to defeat both ISIS militants and Assad.
This very strategy has proven to be both ineffective and dangerous, as it has only served to add complexity to an already impossible situation in Syria.
With so many different armed militias on the ground serving often contradicting agendas, America’s strategy in Syria got lost in political translation, betrayed by the fluidity and the complexity of ground realities.
Since the onset of the war in 2011 the Obama administration has tried in vain to engineer the downfall of Assad without leaving the country in the hands of extremists. It has trained and armed so-called moderate rebel groups, whose agendas Washington decided are more palatable than those of ISIS.
The idea was to exploit militias’ common hatred of the Assad regime, turning a disparate band of mercenary-type militants into a powerful proxy against one designated political foe: Assad. Yet when Arab capitals throughout the region — including Tunisia, Libya and Yemen — witnessed the departure of their despots in the wake of flash revolutions, it became apparent that Syria was never going to be just another Western-backed victory in the Arab Spring.
Unlike Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, Assad did not attempt to broker a political exit from power. And unlike Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, Assad did not run to Saudi Arabia seeking sanctuary. Instead, Assad dug his heels firmly into the ground, using his army as a shield and his supporters as a source of popular legitimacy.
Though Syria’s uprising was quickly lumped into the Arab Spring movement, with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak claiming in 2012 that Assad only had “a few weeks” left on his dictatorial clock, Damascus was never alone. Unlike Cairo, Tunis and Sanaa, Assad had two mighty superpowers behind him: Russia and Iran.
Finding a new route
According to Felix Imonti, a Canada-based political analyst with Geopolitical Monitor and author of “Violent Justice,” Obama is slowly waking up to the flaws of his foreign policy in Syria and the broader Middle East region.
“The U.S. strategy in Syria has been a disaster, as has been the policies through the region. Turkey has been seeking to lure Washington into removing Assad for Erdogan, who has his own objectives that are contrary to American interests. Fortunately, Washington has resisted that plan,” Imonti told MintPress.
He is adamant that Washington has aligned itself with all the wrong players, not only damaging its standing in the region but also weakening its ability to weigh positively on regional dynamics. He emphasized:
“Washington is realizing that Saudi Arabia is the greatest threat in the region. The Saudis created the mess in Syria and Yemen and are abandoning their creation which is leaving their oil fields exposed. Qatar is busy in Libya attempting unsuccessfully to install a Brotherhood regime and is achieving only to compound the disaster. Egypt is occupied with its troubles in the Sinai and is being drawn into a war in Libya, where NATO is considering returning. In the end, the only country that has similar interests to the U.S. is Iran.”
While experts like Imonti have called for a drastic rethink of America’s strategy in the Middle East, what are officials in Washington really doing about it?
The official language from the White House is that while the U.S. remains intent on removing Assad, it will settle for a more gradual approach in order to prevent the formation of a dangerous power vacuum.
The U.S. and other Western countries have publicly welcomed initiatives – one from the United Nations and one from Russia – that postpone any revival of the U.S.-backed Geneva framework, which called for a wholesale transfer of power to a “transitional governing body.” The last Geneva talks, held in early 2014, failed amid vehement disagreement over whether that transitional body could include Assad.
A year later and facing the rise of ISIS, Washington now appears ready to revisit its formerly intransigeant position. This new philosophy has already taken shape on the ground. For example, U.S. and Syrian warplanes are flying together in Syrian airspace, targeting ISIS positions.
While official collaboration remains a long way away, such a tacit agreement of non-aggression between Washington and Damascus could herald more profound changes in the future. Though the U.S. will still train and arm Syrian militants, it will be to target ISIS, not Assad.
Where to, Mr. President?
The implementation of controlled cease-fire zones in Syria is just one of the new ideas that has been put forward. Under the U.N. proposal, as Staffan de Mistura, U.N. special envoy to Syria, devised it, freeze zones would be put in place at key strategic areas, like Aleppo, to allow humanitarian aid to reach the civilian population. The goal is offer a degree of release and relief on the ground to act as a conductor and a platform for future negotiations.
Writing on Mistrura’s proposal in a report for Middle East Eye, Gareth Porter, an American investigative journalist, pointed out, “The fact that the proposal is being taken seriously is especially notable, because it does not promise to achieve the aims of existing policy. Instead, it offers a way out of a policy that could not possibly deliver on the results it promised.”
As for Russia, it wants all actors to return to the negotiating table and broker a power-sharing agreement whereby Assad would concede some powers to the opposition while retaining the presidency at least until new parliamentary elections can take place.
Though such openings present certain advantages for the U.S., this particular method of deconfliction with Damascus might prove too great a political dilemma for the Obama administration to handle, especially since it would mean upsetting several of its most immediate partners in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Joshua Landis, associate professor and director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, is rather blunt on this point. He told MintPress, “It won’t happen, the U.S. will not partner with Syrian President Al Assad.”
But with other actors advocating that Washington does just that, the jury is still very much out. In February, Juliette Touma, Mistura’s spokeswoman, told The New York Times that Assad would need to be an integral part of Syria’s conflict resolution as outlined by Mistura’s U.N. proposal.
“For the de-escalation of violence, he needs to be part of the solution” as a representative of the Syrian authorities, she said.
“Assad doesn’t stand alone,” Tourna said. “He represents the Syrian institutions and these, too, must be preserved — the institutions that have been providing services and will continue to provide services.”
If Assad’s comments in a recent BBC interview are to be believed, Washington is already collaborating with Damascus in the fight against ISIS. Assad flatly told his interviewer that Washington is actively sharing information on coalition strikes via intermediaries, including Iraq.
“Sometimes they [U.S. officials] convey a message, a general message, but there’s nothing tactical,” Assad said.
The Pentagon denies Assad’s allegations. Agence France Presse quoted Rear Admiral John Kirby, a White House spokesman, telling reporters, “We’re not communicating or co-ordinating our military operations with the Assad regime. We’re not doing it directly. We’re not doing it indirectly.”
Nevertheless, the changes on the ground are undeniable and it’s apparent that Washington is slowly changing its policy toward Syria to fight extremism in the Middle East. And in doing so it’s going to need to make some previously unthinkable alliances.
Imonti, the political analyst, told MintPress that it is only through an alliance with Iran that Washington can hope to find a cohesive and lasting solution in Syria.
“In the end, the only country that has similar interests to the U.S. is Iran. Like it or not, Washington will need to come to some type of agreement with Iran. Iran will have to make some compromise on its nuclear program and the Congress will have to restrain itself from imposing more sanctions,” Imonti said.
“It is the wisest course, but I have my doubts that the rational will succeed,” he continued. “There is too much emotion built around relations with Iran.”