Doublespeak: Unpleasant Reckoning Looming for America’s Syrian Strategy

The lands of the Eastern Mediterranean region are storied for their historical lore. Birthplace of Christianity and home for the holiest shrines of Islam and ever increasing Muslim population, the region previously was the focus of the great crusades seeking religious-political transformation. Here occurred the carving up of the last of the great empires centered in Constantinople to the implantation of a Zionist colony later state whose creation continues to fuel controversy. Once again Washington has been drawn into its vortex if on this occasion only at half throttle. Seldom has there existed a more confused and convoluted array of players and purported objectives. Seldom has Washington’s response to a regional political crisis been dissected with greater intensity and controversy.

Social-political transformation emerged from the discontent of the masses, initially in Tunisia but soon spread throughout the region causing great excitement in the Arab-speaking world and elsewhere. What began with high hopes and much enthusiasm soon stuttered to a slow shift once the Gulf rulers and the United States among others recognized some of the negative collateral implication to regime change. Military rule and trusted often pliant civilian leadership was more reliable than what many viewed as mob rule with no consideration for political alliances or special interests. Long standing dictatorial rule was at risk as was the region’s s geopolitical fabric.

Early at risk were the Egyptian-Israeli linkages resulting from the 1973 war and follow-up endeavors by President Carter in the Camp David meetings with President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin. Initial euphoria for free elections in Egypt and the arrest of President Mubarak soured early in President Morsi’s s tenure. He sought a different parameter for external relations, Israel and Hamas in particular. This clearly was of concern in Washington. Whether the United States had a hand in Morsi’s s overthrow is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that the military takeover of the country’s s first elected president, while condemned, did not stop Washington from renewing military assistance and providing diplomatic recognition. Was Washington’s s about face due to incidents related to persecution of Coptic Christians or sabotage of gas pipelines serving Israel’s s energy needs? Anti-Israeli incidents were increasing and Morsi’s s government seemed unable or unwilling to bring the situation under control.

From the outset, Syria seemed to be a special problem. Scores of disaffected citizenry rallied to the spirit of the Arab Spring; poorly thought out heavy handed responses by Damascus served only to inflame an increasingly combustible situation. Relying heavily on Alawites and other minority confessional groups for substantial core support, the government nevertheless was faced with significant opposition from within the majority Sunni population including many moderates and most fundamentalists. The Assad regimes had long maintained control with force and exhibited little tolerance for Islamic fundamentalism in a heretofore religious tolerant country with numerous ethnic and confessional flashpoints. The outgoing American Ambassador in Damascus admitted that approximately 60 % of the country’s s population supported the Assad regime. Defections from the Syrian army and widespread popular disaffection in the beginning of the Arab Spring added to the ranks of those in opposition to Assad rule. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that the combined opposition groups ever were in the majority. Unlike Tunisia, Egypt or Algeria in its earlier ill-fated prelude to an Arab Spring where the citizenry seeking change clearly were in a majority, the situation in Syria was less clear. This is given still greater credence by various assessments that the great majority of Syrians who fled civil war into neighboring countries would choose to live in government controlled areas were they able to return. These figures can but have increased with the well documented extremism exhibited in areas controlled primarily by non-Syrian jihadists fighting the regime.

Foreign fighters threatened to shift the balance of power between government and opposition forces. Generally speaking these foreign jihadists proved to be dedicated fighters and ruthless. Damascus in 2011 clearly underestimated their strength, increasing attractiveness for new recruits worldwide and their growing impact on numerous battlefields. Fighters from the Gulf States often were sponsored by radical imams, wealthy private citizens and most likely official agencies. What is known is that many if not most recruits were provided with travel funds, usually to reach Istanbul and I-phones. These latter would be used to keep their sponsors up to date on their activities and successes. When killed in battle with government and allied forces, confiscated I-phones provided Damascus with vivid photographic evidence on just how ruthless some of these foreign jihadists had been. Some village officials and Syrian soldiers were beheaded and their bodies dumped into wells to poison local water supplies. This rising crescendo of violence led to ruthless retaliation by government forces.

Civil war in Libya let at least one genie out of the bottle. Tripolitania and Cyrenaica had long been competing centers of geopolitical power, coexisting and held together in a unitary state only with a strong ruler. The question needs to be asked. What had Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi done to bring the Gods of Western-led and militarily fueled retribution to his land? He voluntarily gave up his nuclear ambitions, he paid the families of those killed in the Lockerbie Pan Am explosion (the question of responsibility for this air explosion has not been definitely resolved. Was al-Qaddafi falsely judged?) and, in part to ingratiate his regime with influential critics, had invited western technology back to Libya to reinvigorate the country’s oil infrastructure. Was Libya a test case for future regime change? Numerous Western leaders demanded political change when government forces sought to silence the Benghazi rebels in revolt. The American Central Intelligence Agency set up shop in Benghazi to coordinate distribution of weaponry furnished by Qatar and shipped by sea to Cyrenaica. This same CIA station later took lead responsibility in providing much of this weaponry to cadres of the Free Syrian Army by way of Turkey and Jordan. Libya also was a model of what can happen when journalists are given uninhibited access to a war zone. A French general admitted than many of them were intelligence operatives using I-phones and other portable devices to provide assessments of Government military formations and arms depots for coalition bombings. Damascus took note of this once Syria was embroiled in conflict. Unfortunately, denying the international press access to events on the ground gave the opposition free reign in getting their message out to the world while preventing the government perspective access to the same audience. Pictures sometimes are worth a thousand words.

Why this ganging-up on the Syrian regime? Religion, neighbors, politics domestic and international, timing and geography all played a role. Alawite influence in government allowed radical Sunni leaders in the Gulf States and elsewhere the opportunity to prick the Syrian government wherever possible. Syria’s proud ecumenical history and government’s proven willingness to hit hard at domestic extremism served to mobilize opposition within certain radical communities throughout the region. Syria’s open relationship with Iran only made conservative Gulf Sunni religious and political leaderships and wealthy individuals more strident and determined in their condemnation and actions. Syria’s willingness to stand up to Israel’s expansionist endeavors and its treatment of Palestinians alienated both Israel and Washington. Those prepared to force regime change were increasing in number both regionally and internationally. Anyone who believes that Israel is seriously prepared to give up the Golan Heights for some form of local disarmament is living in a dream world. Syria’s links with Lebanon drew French anger due to their historical championing of Lebanon’s Maronite community.

Fragmentation of states that emerged from the Sykes-Picot agreement surely ranks high in the Israeli government’s wish list for the region. Nevertheless, a fragmented Syria could well be regretted in Israel and elsewhere were a jihadist umbrella to cover the Middle East replacing nation states with predictable aspirations, strengths and weakness. Sad to say but anything desired by Israel seems automatically something also desired by the Americans. Location of a cohesive and strong Syria in the western Mediterranean region is a threat to an expansionist Israel. The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia has led to results few could have imagined at the outset and few likely can envision for the future

The growing strength of jihadists fighting in Syria likely surprised the government. What happened in northern Iraq when a rag tag army of jihadists in pick-up trucks caused an Iraqi army purportedly of several well equipped army divisions to flee in disgrace from Mosul and environs surely sent shock waves through the Syrian regime. The event clearly shocked Washington. Well publicized beheadings of selected American and British hostages captured in Syria mobilized American public opinion behind a military response on the part of Washington and its Arab allies.

First, some background on these American allies. Washington was able to coax a few aircraft and air crews from Saudi Arabia and the UAE for appearances of solidarity. Qatar’s role is less conspicuous. Saudi Arabia and the UAE were among the Gulf States openly funneling fighters into the so called ISIS-Islamic state vortex. Had their leaders experienced some manner of epiphany? Had they begun to appreciate how ISIS might impact their own populations? Had the Americans promised to get tough on the Syrian regime and not repeat what happened at the time of the most publicized and most detrimental to the regime chemical weapons incident? At that time President Obama’s previously stated ‘red line’ regarding use of chemical weapons was made irrelevant when Moscow arranged for Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile to be removed.

One suspects that the Americans saw red flags everywhere. Who would replace the Assad regime if the country’s political infrastructure and will to resist collapsed? Was the external leadership of the free Syrian Army competent to maintain the country’s cohesion if they came to power by default or through the battlefield? Lastly, who best might combat the jihadist invasion? Even today, Washington claims to have scores of vetted opposition fighters in training throughout the region (Saudi Arabia and Jordan) but remains suspicious of the loyalty of these men and whether many are potential additions to the jihadist ranks. It seems a stretch to assume that the same Saudi leadership proven to be supportive of sending radicalized recruits into the jihadist ranks in Syria will not try to influence these new Syrian ‘Free Army’ recruits being trained in Saudi Arabia and to some degree by Saudis to at least listen to their line of reasoning. Jordan is essentially an appendage of the CIA dependent as it is upon American financial support.

What does Washington hope to achieve now that military attacks have begun on ISIS targets? Washington for now appears to have a more pragmatic view of Turkey’s value, both to NATO and to American aspirations in the region. Turkey never sealed its Syrian border and is rightly accused of facilitating the transfer of jihadists using Istanbul’s airport to join the war in Syria. Ankara’s dislike of the Assad regime is well known (might there be some connection to Turkey having constructed massive hydro-irrigation dams on rivers vital to its southern neighbors?) but to openly encourage and facilitate the possible collapse of a sovereign neighbor places international discourse in unusual territory. Perhaps it has something to do from the period of the Ottoman Empire when Syria was ruled from Constantinople or concern for the manner in which Turkey acquired Iskenderun from the French occupiers of Syria as a bribe to keep Turkey out of World War 2. Or, is this attitude linked to the religious fervor of the Anatolian peasantry whose electoral support is critical for the present government in Ankara? Perhaps Ankara rightly foresees Washington’s future support for a Kurdish state carved from the region largely at Turkey’s expense.

Sooner or later the role of Turkey in the theft of Syria’s petroleum reserves needs to be addressed. Scores of tanker trucks are moving oil round trip from ISIS controlled areas in Syria to refineries and petroleum marketing firms in Turkey. The portion exported from Turkey is in the hands of brokers worldwide and perhaps some of this hijacked oil eventually finds its way into the gas tanks of American automobile owners. The complexity of the interlocking components in this illicit trade can hardly be secret and one can reasonably pose the question why Washington and other western governments are so silent.

Perhaps the better question is what Washington seeks to accomplish by waging war on the self-proclaimed Islamic State? The present American administration worked hard to eradicate the American military from Iraq and Afghanistan. Selected beheadings of western captives taken in Syria by jihadist groups sickened public opinion in most countries but in themselves were not sufficient to cause Washington to return militarily to the Middle East. Nor was the likelihood that ISIS might control a significant portion of Iraq’s oil the reason for returning to the region. Rather, it was the speed of the Shiia dominated Iraqi military collapse in the Mosul region that set off alarms. A radicalized Sunni heartland in northern Mesopotamia could be a magnet for the disaffected throughout the region as well as an attraction for disaffected Muslims in Western Europe and elsewhere. Disaffection with insensitive and unresponsive leaderships in all the regional countries and the continuing cancer caused by Israel’s birth and its continual abuse of Palestinians were always there. Hezbollah’s successful countering of the 1996 Israel invasion of southern Lebanon and the recent resistance by Hamas in Gaza showed Muslims that perhaps guns and not words were the best response to non-Muslim intrusions into the region.

Osama bin-Laden is viewed starkly different by the Muslim and western streets. The self- immolation of a frustrated Tunisian set off a cry for change that has had vastly different responses. The speed in which military rule returned to Egypt made a mockery of the West’s support for democracy and free elections. A vast and increasingly frustrated Arab society residing under various flags seeks better guidance and leaders with proven success records than is the case with many of their present ones. ISIS offers some of what is desired. It is difficult for many who lost friends and family to American bombs and Israeli cannon to be unduly upset with brutal beheadings. Oil revenues may or may not have been fairly allocated but few doubt that these revenues have given opportunity to the well placed few to benefit at the expense of the many. New governance is sought and ISIS/Islamic State model should not be dismissed out of hand; it holds a certain promise to the disaffected.

This among other issues is the stimulus for Washington’s response. It also helps to define the dilemma and disillusion soon to unfold. Unwilling to recommit American troops to the region the United States sought to rally regional allies to partake in a modern version of the old French Foreign Legion. Anger with Damascus precludes a Turkish contribution. In any reasonable head-to-head land conflict with ISIS the Saudi, Kuwati, UAE and Qatar militaries would be devastated if ever able to mobilize and relocate in the field of conflict. Enter a reconstructed Free Syria Army amply armed, supposedly vetted and trained by American and allied advisors in Saudi Arabia and Jordan and, once in action, to be supported with American technical assistance. Washington has implied that it sees this force as a political component in resolving Syria’s civil war and as a military element in bringing down ISIS. These probably are unrealistic objectives.

First off, surely no one should expect the regime in Damascus to meekly accept hostile new and powerful armies on both southern and northern flanks and then to, ignore their threat once presence has been verified. In all likelihood these new formations will clash with the Syrian Army before clashing with ISIS. Then what? Will the Americans withhold air support to avoid antagonizing Damascus but at the risk of seeing their new formations destroyed or badly bruised? Whatever the vetting of these new recruits, there is the risk of defections to ISIS. What manner of chessboard could be more confused than the one potentially forthcoming for Syria’s battle scared landscape? Why should Damascus agree to a resolution of the country’s civil war contingent upon the presence of these new formations trained, equipped and directed by non-Syrians?

The official opposition at the time of the Geneva meetings refused to accept an Assad led regime in Damascus. First the existing government had to go and only then would the opposition negotiate the structure of a new government. This background suggests but three realistic routes for a cease fire and eventual peace in Syria. First, the various militaries fight it out and the last group standing establishes the government. What little of Syria not yet damaged or destroyed would in all likelihood be ruined. Second, a properly prepared and adequately monitored election might be held under the auspices of the United Nations. Such an endeavor would require thousands of neutral monitors and their protection would necessitate still greater numbers of police and troops from throughout the world. A cease fire would be necessary beforehand and even then few could promise universal adherence. The United States, Russia and Iran would have to support such a plan as would the entire UN Security Council. The Gulf sheikdoms would have to be brought along if by duress if necessary. ISIS for one would see no advantage in it. Third, the country is divided into quasi-militarized mini states based largely on religion or ethnicity but only if ISIS is subdued. Even then, third power security guarantees would be necessary. What is increasingly clear is the dead end of the present conflict. Only the vultures picking at the dead seem destined to ‘win.’

As for American involvement, consider the prospects if and when captured American, coalition pilots or ground advisors are beheaded and the scenes distributed worldwide on the internet. Washington and its European allies have known for at least three years of the flow of their nationals to the Middle East to join jihadist groups fighting against the Syrian regime. Only recently have these same governments expressed alarm at the prospects for domestic violence at such time that battle hardened jihadists return home. Suffice to say that Syria has been confronted by such individuals since 2011. Rather than raise an army to fight the Syrian regime some thought could be given to joining this very regime in the common struggle while at the same time seeking to moderate issues separating Syrians.

William R. Stanley, a retired political geographer from the University of South Carolina, just returned from his second visit to Damascus and environs.