After months of dithering the Trump administration finally appears to be implementing a relatively coherent policy in Syria. The decision to focus exclusively on Daesh and completely forego any kinetic action against the Syrian government is decidedly bad news for the exiled Syrian opposition and the armed groups on the ground.
As much as Washington hates to admit it, this latest policy shift is effectively a declaration of defeat in Syria in as much as after six long years the US has finally admitted it has neither the will nor the ability to overthrow the Syrian government. The effect of this policy shift is already being felt on the ground with the CIA instructed to suspend a covert programme to train and equip anti-Assad forces.
However, a scaling down of ambitions, apparently motivated in part by a desire to cooperate more closely with Russia, does not amount to the end of US influence in Syria. Washington will continue to be deeply involved in the fight against Daesh and will use that as a pretext to consolidate its alliance with PKK-aligned Kurdish forces in Syria.
And most important of all the US has an abiding interest in continuing to counter Iranian influence in eastern Syria, with the undeclared aim of preventing pro-Iranian forces from gaining control of the Iraqi-Syrian border. It remains to be seen to what extent Washington’s latest policy shift (aimed in part at pleasing Russia) impacts Iran; Russia’s partner in Syria.
Abandoning the fight
To be fair, Washington’s policy shift is not as dramatic or sudden as it appears. The previous Obama administration was also inching towards such a position (i.e. abandoning the anti-Assad fight); the only difference being that the current administration is ready to formalise such a position. Whilst the formalisation of this position may be in part motivated by a desire to decrease tensions with Russia, the truth is that this position is in the US interest in so far as the quest of overthrowing Assad is beyond reach, at least for the foreseeable future.
The Syrian government has proven to be far more resilient than initially anticipated, not just militarily but also in the political arena where it has consistently outsmarted the Western-backed exiled opposition. Moreover, this opposition lost its tenuous connectivity with the armed groups on the ground a long time ago and is mostly irrelevant, the latest Geneva peace talks notwithstanding.
Crucial to the Syrian government’s success, and its underlying morale, has been the consistent support it has received from two powerful states. Russia and Iran have optimally coordinated their actions despite significant differences in their desired outcomes to the conflict. Since deploying its air force in late September 2015, Russia made a big impact on the ground by turning the tide against Syrian rebels and jihadists in three key provinces, namely Homs, Hama and Aleppo. Moreover, Russian air power has been pivotal to containing opposition and jihadist remnants to Idlib province.
For its part, Iran has played a decisive role in shoring up Syrian government defences on the ground by deploying its multi-national militias from as far afield as Pakistan and Afghanistan. Iran has also deployed elements of the Quds Force, the expeditionary wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, in addition to smaller numbers of special forces from Iran’s regular military.
By contrast, the US support for anti-Assad forces can best be described as inconsistent, half-hearted and chaotic. American programmes to train and equip client forces have been wasteful and often ended in abject failure. By formally shutting down these programmes the US finally has a chance to place its Syria policy on a relatively stable footing.
The Iran problem
The latest US policy shift also appears to be aimed at driving a wedge between Russia and Iran in Syria. Although not formal allies, Iran and Russia have worked out a smart division of labour in the Syrian conflict which has succeeded in containing Arab and Western ambitions in the war-torn country.
The US appears to be trying to exploit the distinctions in Russian and Iranian deployments in Syria, as well as their divergent views on conflict resolution. Russia’s deployment in Syria is characterised by conventional military deployment primarily designed to secure Russia’s four decades long military and political influence in the country, as demonstrated by the plan to expand the naval base in Tartus.
Iran on the other hand is ideologically committed to Syria, not least because the Alawite-dominated clique at the upper reaches of the Syrian state is the best guarantor for Syria’s continuing support for Hezbollah, Iran’s ideological compatriots in Lebanon. Moreover, Syria is Iran’s sole formal ally in the international system, a legacy of the Iran-Iraq War when Syria dissented from the Arab fold by backing non-Arab Iran.
But attempting to divide Iran and Russia does not necessarily amount to a successful containment of the former. This is especially the case as the US lacks the resources on the ground to decisively contain Iran at sensitive conflict points, notably the areas in eastern Syria near to the border with Iraq. Recent developments, notably repeated American military engagements with pro-Iranian forces in the region, appeared to indicate that the US and Iran may be heading toward a direct clash.
However, all is not well with the American special forces-run programmes concentred in the Al-Tanf base in southern Syria, as demonstrated by the expulsion of a client group for allegedly ignoring instructions to solely focus on Daesh. There are even unconfirmed reports that the US may be getting ready to abandon the Al-Tanf base run by American and British special operators. If this comes to pass then the US will have to own up to yet another policy shift, this time foregoing the option of confronting Iran militarily in eastern Syria.
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