Uncertain of his future when the civil war began, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (above) now feels confident enough to remain in office for another term.
According to a May 15, 2014, New York Times article entitled, “US Projects Tough Stance to Both Sides of Syria War,” the administration of US President Barack Obama has sought to project a toughened posture in reaction to the fact that Syria peace prospects are collapsing. Conducting military exercises with both air and ground forces in neighboring Jordan was one way used to project that posture. The exercises were held in and around the Muwaffaq Salti Air Base in eastern Jordan, which has long been regarded as a likely staging ground for any possible US military intervention in Syria. That event took place as US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was making a visit to the Middle East. Part of his itinerary included conferring with senior Jordanian political and military leaders. Another way the Obama administration sought to project a “toughened posture” was having the US Treasury Department designate Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni, of Saudi Arabia, and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, of Iraq, both of whom are leaders of Syrian jihadist groups, as “global terrorists.” They were also accused of exploiting the mayhem in Syria to advance the influence of Al Qaeda and its affiliates. This step by the Obama administration was meant to serve as warning to other members of the Western-backed insurgency fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime that they should not have any dealings with Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli.
These steps came a day after the resignation of Lakhdar Brahimi, the chief UN diplomat assigned to mediate a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. There was no immediate information provided on who might succeed him. When news of Brahimi’s resignation came to light, US Secretary of State John Kerry and his counterparts from allied European and Arab nations that support the moderate Syrian opposition were preparing to meet in London. They were gathering without a clear plan for reviving a diplomatic solution to the Syrian civil war. It is estimated that 150,000 people have been killed in the conflict since it began in March 2011.
Although the Obama administration might argue that it was getting tougher with the both parties in the Syrian conflict, the reality is those steps will not shape events on the ground in its favor. The main stumbling block to achieving both Obama administration’s objectives in Syria has been Islamic militant groups affiliated with Al Qaeda. Certainly, the US is in a position to do much more, especially militarily, on behalf of the Syrian opposition’s Free Syrian Army (FSA), the umbrella organization under which opposition groups fight. Yet, that is not likely. The Obama administration never guaranteed that it will stand with the Syrian opposition to that extent. What will likely be seen from the Obama administration is much more of its tame effort. It will remain busy at allocating funds, providing equipment, and deploying some very capable intelligence and military personnel on Syria issue, but hold back enough as not to be truly invested or fruitful in the endeavor. That will certainly be to Assad’s benefit.
General James Jones, former National Security Adviser in the Obama administration described the White House as being delinquent on Syria. During the four years of civil war, the Obama administration: has backed away from red-lines on chemical weapons use; taken a dogmatic position on Assad’s removal which has only served to harden the positions of parties to the conflict; struggled to organize a string of talks in Geneva that have proven less than promising; and, has engrossed itself in time consuming policy debate on the issue.
The removal of Assad and his regime has been the expressed desire of the Obama administration, but it appear to be in a hurry to achieve that goal. In his famous August 16, 2011 speech, Obama made the direct statement, “Assad must go!” However, the Obama administration’s actions to date indicate a lack of commitment to that goal. Assad’s removal has not been established as part of a national security directive. In fact, the US still recognizes the Assad regime, and has never hinted that it would withdraw its recognition of it while Assad was in power.
The Syrian opposition, from which the leadership of Syria would ostensibly come in a transitional government, has many problems. Its membership has not done anything to demonstrate the ability to take power in Syria. They have not proven to be politically astute. There is always some form of infighting underway. It takes weeks for opposition groups to organize its meetings in Istanbul, which members often refuse to attend. No serious effort to form a shadow government has been made by the US or Western powers.
The Obama administration has made public its efforts to support the FSA against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad with arms and equipment and a moderate degree of training. The Obama administration provided its support with the hope that Assad could be pressured to the negotiating table by FSA advances and eventually agree to step down under a settlement. Cynics might say the Syria effort by the US, as well as the EU, and Arab states has appeared more like an effort to simply hassle the Assad regime, Russia, and Iran. The Syrian opposition could not fully appreciate the limited extent of the US commitment. Commanders and fighters have been very impatient with the Obama administration over the degree of its efforts. They constantly point to the size and scope of efforts from the US and other Western benefactors as the cause for their lack of truly significant success against Assad’s forces and allies—the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), IRGC Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militia brigades. However, the real problem has been the lack of military capabilities among the FSA units and their resulting inability to act decisively. In addition to their failure to defeat Assad’s troops and allies, mainstream FSA units have found themselves constantly under the attack of Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda. Consequently, FSA efforts became split between fighting Assad and rogue Islamic militants.
Forcing Assad to surrender his chemical weapons stockpile was a big step. However, it was done with international consensus. Russia, Iran, and China were just as happy as the US to get chemical weapons out of Assad’s hands. Assad, himself, may have recognized that having such weapons in country with little ability to exploit their potential, and sacrificing forces to protect them, was not doing any good for his cause. Besides, the whole matter provided Assad with the opportunity to be seen as the leader of Syria, implementing an agreement his regime reached with the major world powers.
The resignation of Brahimi as explained by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon came as the result of a collective failure by parties to the conflict. The secretary-general suggested Brahimi was overwhelmed by both the Syrian government’s inflexibility and the inability of the Security Council to take assertive action to support his efforts and alleviate civilian suffering. All of that was topped off by Assad’s defiant announcement that he would seek a third seven-year term in elections held in June, in which his victory is considered assured. Since the removal of Assad was considered key to allowing a transition of government to occur, his announcement to run for the presidency again resulted in the collapse of Brahimi’s peace efforts. Syria’s official news media welcomed Mr. Brahimi’s departure, accusing him of bias favoring Assad’s political opponents. The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency quoted Bashar al-Jaafari, the Permanent Representative of Syria to the UN, as saying Brahimi had committed many errors, “including his interference in Syria’s internal affairs.” However, only outside efforts, far beyond what he is already receiving, would Syria be able to cope with the Al Qaeda linked Islamic militants, a threat to the Assad’s regime more immediate than US military intervention: .
Islamic Militant Groups
The current size and strength of Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant factions in Syria is considerable. Allowing them to become a fixture in Syria would hobble a transitional Syrian government, and lead to its eventual collapse. Unlike the secular groups and moderate Islamists in the Syrian opposition, it is inconceivable that the Islamic militant groups linked to Al Qaeda would cease their struggle under any peace agreement with the Assad regime. The Islamic militants’ goals were never compatible with the concepts and intent of the Syrian opposition’s leadership. While mainstream FSA forces are directed at creating the basis for a transition to a democratic style government in Damascus for all Syrians, rogue Islamic militant groups seek to create a separate Islamic state on Syrian territory, under Sharia law. Indeed, in towns and villages of the rather large segments of Syria that they control, rogue Islamic militant groups have imposed a strict form of Sharia law on their inhabitants. Infractions of that law have resulted in merciless abuses and gruesome murders of Syrian citizens. Syrian military personnel and regime supporters are rarely spared by the rogue Islamic fighters.
Such atrocities have been well documented by the US, the EU, Russia, the UN, NATO, nongovernmental organizations, humanitarian organizations, and especially the news media. A rift between that foreign fighter laden Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Syria), and Jabhat al-Nusra, a mostly Syrian member Islamic militant faction, once surfaced as Syrians of Al-Nusra grew angry at the foreign fighters mistreatment of Syrian citizens as well as their announced plans to create their own Islamic state Syrian territory. It was reports of horrific acts by ISIS against Syrian civilians that led Al Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, to renounce ISIS’ activities as being too extreme to tolerate. With every passing day, the mistreatment and killing intensifies. Islamic militants have poured into Syria at a rate so high that the FSA cannot contend with them alone.
Obama’s Military Option
Despite stating that the military option remains on the table and conducting military exercises in Jordan, it seems unlikely that Obama would ever give the order for military action in Syria, even against Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant groups. As Obama’s foreign policy agenda is rife with challenging issues, including Ukraine and Iran, using political capital and vital resources now on Syria would hardly be in the cards. Obama was skeptical that military force would be useful in the Syrian context once the civil war began. Within the Obama administration, it was truly believed that Assad would simply fall away. Among those statements expressed by administration officials about Assad were: “Assad is toast!”; “The winds of change would sweep Assad off the stage!”; and, “Nature would take its course!”
Obama’s thinking on military action today is most likely still guided by ideas he expressed in August 23, 2013, when he backed away from military action for the Assad regime’s alleged use of chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. Obama recognized that the US military was over-extended in the previous Bush administration and he wanted avoid making that same mistake. Obama stated: “Sometimes what we’ve seen is that folks will call for immediate action, jumping into stuff that does not turn out well, gets us mired in very difficult situations, can result in us being drawn into very expensive, difficult, costly interventions that actually breed more resentment in the region.” Obama did not indicate, even at that time, any intent to have US forces engaged in a long term action in Syria. Obama’s thinking was also influenced by his background as a legal scholar and his concerns over international law. Obama went on to explain that there were “rules of international law” guiding his response. He went on to state, “You know, if the US goes in and attacks another country without a UN mandate and without clear evidence that can be presented, then there are questions in terms of whether international law supports it, do we have the coalition to make it work, and, you know, those are considerations that we have to take into account.” Further, Obama was concerned with what US interests truly were in Syria. While he admitted that there was some criticism and push for strong action by some Members of Congress at that time, Obama explained, “What I think the American people also expect me to do as president is to think through what we do from the perspective of, what is in our long-term national interests?” With those words, Obama signaled that getting involved militarily in Syria was not in the long-term interests of the US.
The Way Forward?
In designating Abd Al-Rahman Muhammad Zafir Al-Daysi Al-Juhni and Abd Al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli, David Cohen, the Under Secretary of the Treasury responsible for sanctions enforcement, was quoted as stating the decision “sends a strong warning to the legitimate Syrian opposition and those who wish to support it” to avoid any dealings with them. However, the degree of harm that will be caused to those individuals by impounding assets they have in US jurisdiction and banning any commercial contact with them by US citizens should be considered sensibly. Such steps will unlikely lead to tragic consequences for their groups. There are a variety of other sources, known and perhaps some unknown to the US, their groups might continue to seek aid from in the future. Interestingly, a few months before this step was taken, there was an idea discussed and acted upon by the Obama administration to negotiate with the Islamic militants. This approach was non-starter. It seemed questionable to think in 2014 that results could be achieved through formal talks with jihadists. As was discussed in the July 11, 2013 greatcharlie.com post entitled, “Opposition in Syria continues to Fracture, Yet This May Create a New Option for Its Allies,” only through military action, unilateral or multilateral, could the US relieve Syria of a barbaric Al Qaeda linked Islamic militant threat. A transitional Syrian government will not have the means to eject rogue Islamic militants from sovereign Syrian territory. As long as the rogue Islamic militants remain active in Syria, it will remain a state hampered by disunity and conflict.
The US effort in Syria hinges on how it responds to the Islamic militant presence. The Obama administration needed to see this truth early on. The administration seemingly closed its eyes to this fact. Without military action, US policy will not be advanced. However, it seems the ship has already sailed on the use of force in Syria. The Obama administration appears willing to let the entire Syrian episode pass, while continuing a small, questionable assistance effort, projecting toughness through legal maneuvers and military exercise, never taking military action, and allowing Assad to remain in power. Perhaps in 2017, a new US administration might implement a policy in which the US is more invested in Syria.