Two Ambassadors to Beirut, Lebanon, from major European countries, chastised me early last year for my reports for The Hindu and Frontline on Syria. They said that these reports exaggerated the role of extremists, notably al-Qaeda affiliates and the newly emboldened Islamic State (Daesh). Stalemate was the tenor of the Syrian civil war, and Daesh had not yet burst into public consciousness (that would happen when its forces seized Mosul, Iraq, in June 2014). These Ambassadors, well-informed in their own right, felt that the Syrian rebels would soon deliver the knockout blow against the government of Bashar al-Assad.
The policy implication of such a view is that the West, led by the United States, continued to provide diplomatic support to the Syrian opposition and to funnel arms and logistical support for the various fighters. Criticism of this strategy was met with the canard that the critic was an apologist for the Assad government. Pipelines of money and arms to these rebels from the Gulf Arabs, Turkey and the West enabled them to persist in a war that seemed on the surface to be headed more towards a bloodbath than a clear result. Massacres on all sides shattered the social landscape of Syria. Peace manoeuvres by the United Nations had few takers, and thus resulted in the resignation of two well-regarded envoys (Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi). War remained on the agenda, and peace was regarded as naïve.
A sober reality
A U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) intelligence report from August 2012 suggests, however, a much more cold and sober reality. The report came to light in mid-May because of a lawsuit brought by the conservative group, Judicial Watch, with regard to the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. A senior intelligence official, who cannot go on the record, said that the report is only one among many. Other reports would likely have contradicted its assessment — although it is one that is highly informed and was circulated across the intelligence community. The DoD assessment, coming a year into the Syrian civil war, is sober. “Events are taking a clear sectarian direction,” it notes. “The Salafist, the Muslim Brotherhood, and AQI [al-Qaeda in Iraq] are the major forces driving the insurgency in Syria.” The Muslim Brotherhood, largely weakened in Syria by the crackdown in 1982, was the least of these (although it had a disproportionate role in the exiled political opposition coalition). The most important fighters were the Salafists and al-Qaeda in Iraq, who, the DoD notes, are “familiar with Syria. AQI trained in Syria [in the mid-2000s] and then infiltrated into Iraq.”
The most startling assessment in the report is its recognition that AQI has roots on both sides of the Syria-Iraq border. “Their sectarian affiliation unites the two sides when events happen in the region,” it says, and the porousness of the Syria-Iraq border will “facilitate the flow of materiel and recruits”. Iraq had already become the sanctuary and recruiting ground for AQI’s actions in Syria (under the name of Jabhat al-Nusra) and the Syrian chaos became a catalyst for emboldened actions inside Iraq. “If the situation unravels,” wrote the DoD analysts, “there is the possibility of establishing a declared or undeclared Salafist principality in eastern Syria.” This is precisely what occurred with the 2013 seizure by Daesh of the provincial capital of Raqqa, a major conduit along the Euphrates River. The DoD even forecast that such a situation would create “the ideal atmosphere for AQI to return to its old pockets in Mosul and Ramadi”. This is what happened in 2014 (Mosul) and 2015 (Ramadi). Daesh, the DoD wrote, “could also declare an Islamic State through its union with other terrorist organizations in Iraq and Syria”. The foresight is chilling. The callousness of U.S. policy is that despite such an assessment the U.S. government continued to support the “rebels,” who had now largely been recruited into extremist groups. U.S. President Barack Obama’s refrain — “Assad must go” — was not shared by these DoD analysts, who suggested that Assad’s “regime will survive and have control over Syrian territory”. The exiled opposition hoped to create “safe havens under international sheltering, similar to what transpired in Libya”. But those “safe havens”, located in areas that the DoD had already seen as al-Qaeda and Daesh territory, would hardly have provided the base for a moderate opposition to Assad. By 2012 it was unlikely that the UN Security Council, burned by the adventure in Libya, would provide international cover for another dangerous escapade. Unwilling to back away from the maximum position against Mr. Assad, the West denied, in public, that the rebels had been overrun by the extremists and continued to fan the flames of a heartless war.
No negotiating space
Former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford, whose commitment to the maximum (“Assad must go”) position was illuminated by his presence at the early demonstrations, has now come to the conclusion that the moderate opposition should “negotiate a national political deal to end the conflict without Assad’s departure as a pre-condition”.
The absence of such negotiating space was precisely what blocked the political dialogue in the early years of the war. It now appears as if the U.S. had intelligence that their public narrative was false, and that a more modest approach toward Syria’s future could have prevented both the large-scale suffering and the expansion of Daesh.
The credibility of the West’s ambassadors, who have far too much power to frame this conflict, is, at best, strained. The West, the Gulf Arabs and Turkey, with their diplomatic and military assistance, kept the fires of the conflict burning, creating the conditions for the rise of the extremists. That this coalition should now be seen as the fire-fighters of the conflict is mystifying.
This article originally appeared in The Hindu.