Preparing for a US showdown in Syria

October 30, 2015 9:26 AM (UTC+8)

 

Washington’s current approach to the Syrian war reflects its contradictory view that two seemingly opposing words, “desolation” and “peace,” have the same meaning. Its diplomatic and military moves in recent weeks hint strongly that it’s prepared to bring peace to Syria by destroying it. Desolation and peace, therefore, appear to go hand in hand in formulating US regional policy.

The emergence of the self-styled Islamic State highlighted a remarkable failure of US policies with regard to Iraq as well as Syria. The irony is that the very reason for the 2003 US invasion of Iraq and the removal of Saddam Hussein was to bring “peace” to the region. What we have today is nothing but utter destruction that continues to expand both geographically and psychologically in scope.  The serpent that emerged out of the ashes of the US-Iraq war has now become powerful to entangle the world’s major powers against a backdrop of escalating military engagements.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov
US Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov

While Russia appears overtly committed to defeating and dismantling ISIS, US policy makers continue to express their “grave concerns” over Russia’s “true intentions.” For them, Russia’s military campaign against ISIS and other terrorist groups, including the so-called “moderates,” is in fact, only a cover to hide Russian expansionism under Putin. It’s from this basic assumption that Washington seems to be concluding that the US must re-engage in the Middle East.

The US clearly needs to follow a different regional strategy. But the alternatives being suggested by some policy experts on the US side are fraught with dangerous pitfalls.

An example of such an alternative policy can be found in an article recently published by Brookings Institute — a left-leaning but corporate-funded policy think tank. Its policymakers have helped craft upper-level strategy for the Iraqi, Afghan, Libyan, and now Syrian conflicts as well as policy toward Iran.

Pavel K. Baev, a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings, has argued in a recent piece against the decision in mid-October to begin withdrawing batteries of US Patriot surface-to-air missiles from Turkey in view of Russian “entanglements” in Syria. Baev is a Norwegian political scientist and security scholar.

Perturbed as he is by the Russian campaign against what he characterizes as the “Turkey-backed and CIA-trained opposition groups,” the author goes on to suggest new strategy for the US amid such changed circumstances:

“Finally, the United States and its allies could deliver a series of airstrikes on the Hezbollah bands around Damascus. That would be less confrontational vis-à-vis Russia than hitting Assad’s forces. Hezbollah has already suffered losses in the Syrian war and is not particularly motivated to stand with Assad to the bitter end, away from [its] own home-ground in Lebanon. (Israel would appreciate such punishment, too.)”

Obviously, the author is not suggesting a strategy to defeat ISIS — an organization that the US itself is supposedly fighting. Baev, on the contrary, seems to be suggesting that the Russian campaign in Syria is a much bigger threat to US interests than ISIS. Hence, the urgent need to make life so difficult for the Russians in Syria that they’ll be forced from the country.

However, if Baev’s strategy is followed, the US may end up fighting Hezbollah as well as Iran—a country that the US signed a nuclear deal with and which it has vigorously engaged. Similarly, such belligerent action will most likely galvanize the group and ensure it will fight to the bitter end with the Syrian army at its side. This will be the opposite effect of forcing Hezbollah to scale back its involvement in Syria. Airstrikes on Hezbollah could also potentially provoke a retaliation against the US, further escalating a conflict that already involves a bevvy of regional and international powers.

The suggestion that the US should bomb Hezbollah—a group that has been successfully resisting ISIS—again highlights the fact that many in the US policy establishment don’t want the US to fight ISIS  —  at least as long as it does not pose a direct threat to US interests. So far, ISIS hasn’t actually posed such a threat. The only real threat the US is facing, by these lights, is from the Russian military campaign against US “friendly forces.”

Were the Russian campaign to succeed in Syria, it might actually be a prelude to the end of “Pan-Americanism” or US geopolitical dominance in the Mideast . Whether it happens or not is still a moot question. However, what is quite obvious and completely obscured by US media coverage of the conflict, is that ISIS has nothing against the US and neither does the US have anything against ISIS. Hence, the veiled policy proposals by US experts to protect ISIS through the creation of “buffer zones.”

In yet another article by Michael E. O’Hanlon, Brookings outlined how such buffers zones could be used. It’s important to note that this paper (and the plan it proposes) was published before Russia’s military campaign in Syria had begun. As such, it underscores how US policy makers are bent upon defeating anti-terrorist rather than terrorist elements in Syria.

O’Hanlon is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, specializing in defense and foreign policy issues.

O’Hanlon says in his piece that “the idea would be to help moderate elements establish reliable safe zones within Syria once they were able. American, as well as Saudi and Turkish and British and Jordanian and other Arab forces would act in support, not only from the air but eventually on the ground via special forces.”

Prior to the publication of papers touting this line, the policy rationale behind such “zones” was the protection of refugees and to fight ISIS. The hidden truth, which is now out in the open for all to see, is that these “zones” are designed to pave the way for NATO’s eventual entry into the Syrian conflict and facilitate the occupation of the Syrian land.

The territory thus seized would be used as springboards to launch attacks still deeper into Syrian territory until that nation is either permanently Balkanized or destroyed. Despite O’Hanlon’s claims that a national government would eventually emerge and stabilize the territory under its control. However, a look at all other NATO interventions, invasions, and occupations (i.e. Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya) clearly shows that Syria’s future will be anything but stable and well-governed.

As the Brookings’ article itself explicitly states: “The end-game for these zones would not have to be determined in advance. The interim goal might be a confederal Syria, with several highly autonomous zones and a modest (eventual) national government. The confederation would likely require support from an international peacekeeping force, if this arrangement could ever be formalized by accord. But in the short term, the ambitions would be lower — to make these zones defensible and governable, to help provide relief for populations within them, and to train and equip more recruits so that the zones could be stabilized and then gradually expanded.”

What emerges out of these papers is that US policymakers are disinterested in two major factors that have drawn Russia into the conflict in the first place: ISIS and the incumbent Syrian Government. By chalking Syria into “zones” US policy makers, for sure, appear unwilling to come round to the idea of recognizing the legitimacy of Syrian Government, as Russia and a number of other countries do. Nor are US policy makers prepared to entertain even the possibility of resolving the crisis through political means.

A military solution through Syria’s Balkanization is what they seem to be happy with. This was clearly the point retired US Army General John Keane made during a recent Senate Committee hearing. He even went on to suggest using Syrian refugees as a means of deterring Russian airstrikes in Syria. Given the success of the Russian campaign against the terrorists, there is every possibility that the US might start seizing Syrian territory. Washington would do this to expand these zones to destroy Syria as an entity well before Russia and Syria can eliminate ISIS and other terrorist outfits.

If the US started Balkanizing Syria with the help of its regional allies and in the name of “peace,” it would not only exacerabte the suffering of its people, it would destroy the entire civilization of that country as we know it today. ISIS has already done great damage to Syria, the US seems to be preparing to drive the final nail in its coffin.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at salmansheikh.ss11.sr@gmail.com

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