The Fallacy of U.S. Policy in Syria
As all hope of an agreement between world powers on the proper course of action to take in Syria disintegrates, the shortcomings of U.S. policy are becoming increasingly obvious. Support for the insurgency by the U.S. and its allies is bolstering radical Islamists groups such as the Islamic State (IS) and Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), and will lead to the continued expansion of radical Islam throughout the Middle East. In order to prevent this, the U.S. must reverse its course in Syria and pursue policies which will promote peace and stability in the region.
The Anti-Assad Coalition
Since the start of the Syrian uprising, the U.S. has backed the insurgency; even when that insurgency became dominated by radical Islamists. Despite the fact that groups such as IS and JN are now the driving force behind the Syrian uprising, the Obama administration continues to funnel money and arms to the “moderate” rebel factions in order to topple Bashar al-Assad.
This trend of arming radicals in Syria is not unique to the U.S. alone however. Turkey for instance is a staunch supporter of radical groups in Syria such a IS, whom it uses in its campaign against the Kurds along its borders with Syria and Iraq. Using proxies allows Turkey to wage a full out war against the Kurds without the international condemnation it would receive if it were to use its armed forces. Also, Turkey buys stolen oil from the insurgents at bargain rates.
Saudi Arabia is also a primary supporter of radical militants in Syria. For them the old adage “One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter” rings true. For many Saudi’s, IS and JN represent the will of Sunni Muslims, and are the champions of their faith. Not only are IS and JN helping push the Shiites and other “infidels” out of Syria, they are also seeking to reestablish the Umayyad Caliphate; which interestingly enough had Damascus as its capital. The kingdom views Assad’s Syria as a strategic Shiite bastion and a threat to Sunni dominance in the region. Saudi Arabia is also using these radical proxies to check the Houthi insurgency in Yemen, and to destabilize Iraq.
The Odd Man Out
Despite this trend of international support for radical Islamists in Syria, Russia, in usual fashion, is ignoring international policy trends and has decided to support the Assad regime. This move makes sense for numerous reasons. First, Syria, before the insurgency, was one of the most tolerant/moderate countries in the Middle East. The citizens of Syria enjoyed many freedoms that people in countries like Saudi Arabia do not; most notably, freedom of religion. Second, Syria has been an essential ally in battling extremists throughout the region. In fact, following 9/11, Syria provided vast amounts of intelligence to western governments that ultimately helped take down al-Qaeda. Third, there is no negotiating with radical Islamists. For them, there will be no peace until all non-believers and heretics have been eliminated and a global caliphate has been established. Finally, Russia has realized that the Shiites and Kurds are essential allies in reestablishing stability in the Middle East. If the Assad regime falls, Syria, like Libya, will become another staging area for radical Islamists in their strategy of establishing a global caliphate. If the Shiites and Kurds get pushed out, there will be nothing to stand in the way of this goal.
Assad Must Go
Since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the U.S. has wholeheartedly supported the overthrow of the Assad regime. For the U.S., Assad’s relationship with Iran is problematic. While the U.S. is willing to accept Lebanon and Iraq’s alliance with Iran, when combined with Syria, this tripartite that composes the Shiite Crescent makes the U.S. nervous, as it allows Iran to project its influence throughout the Levant. Therefore, when the insurgency kicked off in Syria, the U.S. jumped at the chance to create instability in the country with the hopes that it would check Iran’s ambitions in the region. However, this strategy comes with a heavy price tag. It is well known that IS and JN are no friends of the U.S., and if Assad is ousted, they will fill the resulting power vacuum. It is likely that the Obama administration is pursuing its current strategy because they believe that the threat that radical Islam poses pales in comparison with a united Shiite coalition led by Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Also, it is likely that the U.S. is concerned that if it supports the Assad regime, relations with Saudi Arabia and Turkey will deteriorate further; potentially leading to the loss of numerous strategically essential military facilities in these countries.
The current problem with U.S. policy in Syria is that the it views the threat of Iran’s expanding influence as outweighing the long-term threat posed by radical Islamists, fails to recognize the will of the Syrian majority who support the Assad government, and doesn’t acknowledge the fact that the line that separates the moderates from the extremists in Syria is blurred at best.
While it is certainly true that Iran is no ally of the U.S., the influence it exercises over its Shiite partners is overestimated. While Lebanon, Iraq, and Syria receive support from Iran, the scope of this collaboration is limited to small scale military assistance – mostly training and advising from Quds Force operatives – and intelligence sharing, and is unlikely to expand any further; with the exception of increased energy cooperation. If Assad is overthrown, the new regime will be controlled by radical Islamists who will use Syria as a base of operations to spread instability throughout the region in the hope of toppling governments and reestablishing the Umayyad Caliphate. This will lead to increased instability both regionally, and globally as the influence of radical Islam expands.
In addition to underestimating the threat posed by radical Islam, the U.S. has failed to recognize that the Syrian insurgency is being spearheaded by a small Sunni minority within Syria; it is not a “popular uprising” as many have framed it to be. The truth is, the majority of Syrians support Assad. Shiites vastly outnumber Sunnis in Syria, and Assad’s Alawite government has always received widespread support from the majority of citizens. The strength of the insurgency is largely due to the vast number of foreign fighters within its ranks and the funding, training, and weapons the insurgency is receiving from foreign supporters such as the U.S. Without foreign assistance, the insurgency would likely fizzle out in a matter of weeks.
Finally, the U.S. has ignored the fact that the lines are blurred in regards to the various elements of the insurgency. Groups such as the Free Syria Army (FSA), JN, and IS frequently work in tandem (conducting joint operations, swapping fighters, and providing each other with material and logistic support). The insurgency, instead of being considered a single entity, is viewed as being composed of moderates and extremists with no regard as to how these groups interact. While it is true that there is fighting between the factions, the issue that gives rise to this infighting is not ideological – the various elements of the insurgency, for the most part, are ideologically aligned – it is political. While most insurgents agree on what shape Syria will take if/when Assad falls, they disagree on who will take charge once that happens.
First, the U.S. should begin talks with both Vladimir Putin and Assad to discuss a concerted effort to eliminate the insurgency. Russian airstrikes in Syria have seriously hindered insurgent operations in the region, and U.S. forces, working in conjunction with Russia and Syria, will significantly weaken the Syrian opposition.
Second, U.S. involvement should be limited to air support and humanitarian assistance. Sending in ground troops would complicate efforts and could lead to an Iraq-like situation; one in which the U.S. is viewed as an occupier rather than an ally. Technology allows the U.S. to conduct effective and precise strikes against various targets of opportunity and would be able to severely cripple the Syrian opposition. Humanitarian assistance would help those effected by the war, and would augment counterinsurgency efforts to regain stability in Syria. U.S assistance for the insurgency has resulted in widespread death, destruction, and human rights abuses. We owe the citizens of Syria assistance to rebuild what has been destroyed by our misguided efforts.
Finally, the U.S. needs to pressure both Saudi Arabia and Turkey to cease providing assistance to radical Islamists in Syria. While many countries, such as Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, and Yemen have seen a large number of citizens leaving to fight in Syria, their governments have largely remained out of the fray, while Saudi Arabia and Turkey openly support both IS and JN. The U.S. must pressure both nations to reduce support for Islamist militants in Syria. For Saudi Arabia, this will mean encouraging the kingdom to strengthen anti-money laundering/counter-terrorist financing efforts through instruments such as the Middle East and North Africa Financial Action Task Force (MENAFATF), and preventing its citizens from traveling to Syria to join the insurgency. For Turkey, it will mean encouraging a peaceful solution to the ongoing conflict with the Kurds on its borders, and immediately halting oil purchase from the insurgency, which remains a large source of financing for the Syrian opposition. This will not be an easy task. However, it will be an essential component in counterinsurgency efforts, as the opposition is almost completely reliant on foreign support for personnel, financing, weaponry, and training.
The reality is, the Assad regime represents the will of the Syrian people, and has served as an example for other Muslim nations in the Middle East; promoting religious freedom and championing women’s rights. The Assad government has also proved an invaluable resource in combating radical Islam. With this reality in mind, allowing Assad to remain in power will prove essential in reestablishing stability in the Middle East. In order to achieve this, the U.S. should reverse its policy of supporting the Syrian opposition, and its various radical elements for one glaringly obvious reason; if Assad falls, a radical Sunni regime will take its place. This regime will be vehemently anti-western, and will use its newfound territory as a springboard to spread radical Islam throughout the region. The abuse of human rights that will take place will be extraordinary, as IS – which is now the driving force behind the insurgency – believe in the extermination of everyone who does not adhere to their ideology (Shiites, moderate Sunnis, Christians, etc.). It is likely that if Assad falls a genocide campaign will take place. Torture, rape, and slavery will become systemic. This future can be avoided if Assad manages to regain control of Syria.
While achieving rapprochement with Syria will likely be extremely difficult given the Obama administration’s support for the Syrian opposition, and Syria’s friendships with Russia and Iran – which have flourished due to U.S. support for the overthrow of Assad – it may be possible. If the U.S. begins to assist Assad in regaining control of Syria it will strike a major blow to radical Islamists in the region as Syria is currently their main front. If the insurgency fails in Syria, radical Islamists will find themselves isolated in Iraq and Yemen; unable to move fighters and resources freely throughout the region. What will happen after that is hard to predict, yet one thing is certain; it will be a significant strategic victory against radical Islam, and an important step towards stability in the Middle East.