Special contribution for the CRSS Blog by Yasmeen Aftab Ali*
The outcome of six years of an embattled Syria is the growth of Islamic State Group, a fragmented opposition and a disaster of humanitarian nature that has spiraled into a major refugee crisis.
Whether it is Libya, Yemen, Iraq or Syria; nationalism has not been a binding force for these states. The Arab nations all suffer from the malaise of being fragmented into clans, tribes, the local rich and the warlords. Once the state structures are destroyed, it does not bring these forces together on one platform. The uprising against President Bashar al-Assad in 2011 was not one for democracy but for change of regime no matter how much the White House convinced itself otherwise.
Reportedly, USA has supported the Syrian rebel groups logistically and with weapons. Jabhat al-Nusra, emerged as a powerful opposition force willing to go to anything to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s government. In mid-2016, al-Nusra officially spaced away from al-Qaeda and renamed itself Jabhat Fatah al-Sham. It then merged with Tahrir al-Sham, the so-called moderate Syrian rebels.
In 2016, a video had appeared online; it showed terrorists from Syrian Aleppo uncovering grenades, anti-tank missiles and weapons of mostly American make. The weapons of American origin showed American UN0181 missiles, US-made anti-tank missiles system (TOW 2A) and US-made 81mm mortars. (RT August 4, 2016) Reportedly, in 2015, Syrian rebels titled Division 30 trained by Pentagon handed over the weapons to terrorists of al-Sham.
So what is President Trump’s policy for Syria? “My attitude was you’re fighting Syria, Syria is fighting ISIS, and you have to get rid of ISIS. Russia is now totally aligned with Syria, and now you have Iran, which is becoming powerful, because of us, is aligned with Syria … Now we’re backing rebels against Syria, and we have no idea who these people are,” Trump said, referring to the IS by its other acronym, which stands for “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “We end up fighting Russia, fighting Syria, and “if the US attacks Assad, he told WSJ.” (DW November 16, 2016)
Trump, in his campaign speeches spoke about an “America First” pivot; rather than acting the Global Policeman. However, later touched and moved at the pictures of Syrian children who lost their lives in gas attack in early 2017, 59 missiles were fired in Syria by US. Trump was nonetheless careful to choose the “narrowest targeted strike” out of all options available. This was meant to be a strong warning to Bashar al-Assad to not to use chemical weapons again.
After occupying the White House Trump seems to have undergone a degree of change including his views about war in Syria. From presidential campaign speeches in which he had repeatedly reiterated his desire to fix the American economy rather than policing the globe, he decided to charge ahead reacting to the chemical weapons reportedly used by Assad. What does surprise one is the fact that is certainly not the first time Assad used chemical weapons. Reported examples of his handling and the result have been available. “Unlike chemical weapons, barrel bombs — typically oil drums filled with explosives — are used with vicious regularity in the Syrian civil war. According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, the government dropped 495 barrel bombs in March alone, and 12,958 in 2016.” (Boston Globe Aril 11, 2017) One can only be amazed at Trump’s treating this as a first.
On the face of it, America does not have to have a war policy in Syria. The consequences of American adventurism has been exhaustive, there seems to be no cut-off time to handling this crisis. Not only by US but also by the other players involved. The step taken by Trump is more reactive in nature to an incident taking place than a well-thought out cogent strategy to deal with the Syrian situation. There seems to be no “thinking out” of the steps to take Syria out of the pit it has been led into.
An excerpt from the joint statement between Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the United States of America, “The two sides emphasized the importance that the Syrian regime adhere to the 2013 agreement to eliminate its entire stockpile of chemical weapons.” (Release by White House May 23, 2017) This is an interesting statement. It implies an agreement towards a long term (time unlimited) excursion into Syria reinforcing the support of the ‘moderate’ camp.
Iran is definitely not the new American President’s best nation on earth. . “Iran is a very big problem and will continue to be. But if I’m elected president, I know how to deal with trouble.” (March 21 speech in Washington, D.C) In his first trip outside his home shores, Trump used a lot of vitriol-laced arrows against Iran, much to the delight of Saudi Arab and Israel.
Iran has recruited and sent thousands of forces to Syria to fight by Bashar al-Assad. The presence of these forces ensures Iran’s presence in any equation to resolve the situation. The rebels in Syria, with support by America and the Sunnis from Saudi Arab may want to see the end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule but this is nothing but a pipedream. An option of taking on Iran head-on in any arena will make any solution in Syria a very difficult proposition, if it is not one already.
The solution to Syria lies midway between both the opposing forces for which Syria is the Ping-Pong ball. For any solution to be reached, the regional allies of both sides of the divide will have to be involved in reaching any peace based solution. Different players exercise influence in different areas of Syria and must work towards a cease fire in their respective areas. Trump will have to swallow his obvious dislike of Iran and sit with Tehran on the table. Trump will also have to broker a deal with Russia. Any counter-terrorism effort by American must be supported by Russia. Without Russia, any peace settlement that American wants to achieve will be a mirage. America under Obama did try to initiate working out an equation with Russia but it did not work out. That was then. Now is now. The effort is worth a try. That is, is that what the players involved want?
The writer is a lawyer, academic and political analyst. She has authored a book titled ‘A Comparative Analysis of Media & Media Laws in Pakistan.’ She can be contacted at: email@example.com and tweets at @yasmeen_9