The moment America expanded its anti-Isis war into Syria, President Bashar al-Assad gained more military and political support than any other Arab leader can boast. With US bombs and missiles exploding across eastern and northern Syria, Assad can now count on America, Russia, China, Iran, the Hezbollah militia, Jordan and a host of wealthy Gulf countries to keep his regime alive. If ever that creaking old Arab proverb – that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” – contained any wisdom, Assad has proved it true.
In his Damascus home, the Syrian leader can reflect that the most powerful nation on earth – which only last year wished to bomb him into oblivion – is now trying to bomb his most ferocious enemies into the very same oblivion. Sunni Saudis whose “charity” donations have funded the equally Sunni “Islamic State” now find their government supposedly helping the US to destroy it. As Shia Iran and its Hezbollah protégés battle the Sunni executioners and throat-slashers on the ground, US bombs and missiles rain down to destroy the enemies in front of them.
Not since Churchill found himself an ally of Nazi Germany’s erstwhile friend Stalin in 1941 can a president have found a fearsome antagonist transformed so swiftly into a brother-in-arms. But – and it’s a very big “but” – the Baathist Syrian regime is not so stupid as to take the word “friend” at face value. Neither should we. Obama is the last person with whom Assad would want to associate himself – as Vladimir Putin doesn’t need to remind him – and the Syrian regime will be watching with the deepest concern as America’s promiscuous use of air power spreads inexorably to include more and more targets outside its original stated aim.
Quite apart from the civilian casualties in Idlib province, America’s targeting of the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra suggests that the Pentagon has more than Isis in its sights. How soon, for example, before a missile explodes in a Syrian regime weapons depot – by “mistake”, of course – or other government facilities? Since the US has decided to fund and train the so-called “moderate opposition” to fight Isis and the Syrian regime, why should it not bomb both sets of enemies? And how will Syrians who support whatever is left of these “moderates” react to the American bombs in Idlib which killed their fellow civilians rather than Assad’s forces – bombs, indeed, which appear to have been just as lethal as the munitions dropped on them by Assad’s aircraft?
As for the Gulf Arabs, not one has so far shown evidence that it has physically bombed any targets in Syria. Only Jordan has claimed to have attacked Isis; the rest of King Abdullah’s allies in the Arab “coalition of the willing” – how quickly we have forgotten that this was George W Bush’s expression for those nations which supported his 2003 Iraq invasion – appear to have limited their co-operation to providing airstrips, refuelling planes and perhaps patrolling the peaceful waters of the Gulf. In his hearings on Capitol Hill last week, the Secretary of State John Kerry was given an impatient grilling from Congressmen over just how many Arab aircraft would be dropping ordnance on Isis. Kerry fluffed his answers.
The Gulf Arabs, after all, have been here before. They remember clearly the exaggerated claims of military success in the air – of smart bombs that did not slaughter civilians, of cruise missiles that destroyed bunkers and training camps and “command and control centres” in 1991 and 2003. It all proved to be a very dodgy war menu. Yet now the Americans are re-cooking these old snacks for the Isis conflict.
Were these Islamist “warriors” really sitting around – drinking tea, perhaps – at “training camps” so that the Americans could kill them? Does Isis boast anything like a “command and control centre” – a bunker of computers and blinking target indicators – rather than just a clutch of mobile phones? Yet a “command-and-control centre”, no less, was said to have been destroyed.
And, as so often amid the excitement of yet another conflict escalation, the “experts” and decrepit ex-ambassadors on our screens need to leaf through a history book or two before explaining “our” actions. The “Islamic State” was created out of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which absorbed the anti-American resistance to American occupation, which in turn followed the illegal 2003 Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. If Messrs Bush and Blair had not embarked on their Iraqi adventure, does anyone think the US would be helping Assad to destroy his enemies today?
“Irony” doesn’t measure up to the words of the Middle-East’s “peace envoy” who this week transformed himself into a war envoy by holding out the prospect of more Western troops in the Muslim world. Is the Syrian regime supposed to laugh or cry?
Robert Fisk writes for the Independent, where this column originally appeared.