Wanted: A comprehensive US policy for Syria

By Claude Salhani

US politicians seem overwhelmed by complicated politics. Since the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, the political situation regarding Syria has become as complex and convoluted as can possibly be found in the Middle East.

Although lawmakers serve on various committees dealing with foreign affairs, the military, intelligence, counter-intelligence, terrorism and related fields, very few American lawmakers can truly claim to have a good understanding of the Middle East, its people and its culture. That shortcoming is reflected in the lack of US foreign policies.

Even the old warrior, the late US Senator John McCain became confused during a fact-finding visit to Syria several years ago when he had his picture taken with members of a group who, it turned out, were opposed to the United States.

This is not surprising. Your typical American politician — not to mention the general public — likes things simple. In this great and vast country that is the United States, there are only two political parties that matter. Most Americans like to keep things in perspective and easy to grasp when it comes to politics: There are good guys and there are bad guys.

In Syria, however, it seems there are just bad guys and even worse guys. Even the not-so-bad guys that the United States supported with CIA funds, trained and armed turned out to be pretty bad bad guys.

Looking at past administrations, US presidents have been consistently wrong on Syria, failing to grasp the essential element of Syrian politics that keeps the current regime going and going and going, like an evil version of the Energizer bunny.

Initially, Washington favoured the Assad dynasty over the plethora of opposition forces, many of which were either affiliated to or supported al-Qaeda or the Muslim Brotherhood. But the main driving force of the Syrian revolt against the regime in Damascus was al-Nusra Front, which the United States supported briefly, until the Americans realised al-Nusra was a lighter version of the Islamic State (ISIS), the ultimate bad guys.

As the war progressed and the Syrian crisis evolved Washington became overwhelmed by the events and lacked solid intelligence on the Who’s Who of the Syrian Civil War.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is by no stretch of the imagination a good guy. The methods employed by his people on prisoners and civilians were horrid. He used torture, rape, starvation and other terrible means against combatants and civilians alike. So that made him a bad guy, which there is no doubt he is.

The one American politician who seems to have had a clear view of the political lineup in Syria was US Representative Tulsi Gabbard, a Democrat from Hawaii, who travelled to Syria and met with Assad early on in the conflict. She was widely criticised at the time and considered by some an apologist.

“Certainly, she was not. Indeed, Gabbard was right all along,” Danny Sjursen, a retired US Army major, who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan with an intelligence unit, wrote on the blogsite Truthdig. Sjursen said “Assad’s civil war is nearly over.”

And with winner — at least until the next civil war erupts — is Assad along with his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah allies. Sjursen said that may not be a bad thing.

A former US military officer saying that it’s not a bad thing that the Syrian dictator and his Russian, Iranian and terrorist allies defeated groups that were backed by Washington? We did mention that politics in Syria was complicated?

Lacking proper intelligence Washington ended up having the CIA backing one group and the US Army backing another only to realise that both rebel groups were infused with, and quickly dominated by, various jihadist fighters.

As Sjursen pointed out: “Yes, Assad is a veritable monster but what of al-Nusra Front (an al-Qaida franchise) and the even more extreme Islamic State — are they not equally deplorable and, frankly, more of a transnational threat to the US. Of course, they are.”

Assad had no intention of going after American interests or targeting the United States itself but we know the intentions of al-Qaida and the Islamic State. Osama bin Laden’s organisation gave a pretty clear preview on September 11, 2001.

On the other hand, Assad, as bloodthirsty as he might be, posed no direct threat to the United States and, despite occasional anti-Israeli rhetoric from Damascus, the front lines where Israeli troops face Syrian forces — with a UN peacekeeping force in between — on the Golan Heights remain silent since US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger negotiated a ceasefire following the October 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Amid the lack of proper direction from the United States, Russia has secured its place in the Middle East and is taking full advantage of the US indecision.

Claude Salhani is a regular columnist with The Arab Weekly and a senior fellow at the Institute of World Affairs.

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