Containment in Syria

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May 22, 2017

On the surface, the manifestation of Syria’s internecine conflict – entangled in a byzantine web of geopolitical calculi – has made it challenging to draw neat conclusions from. The convoluted composition of anti-Assad forces, in particular, has nurtured a glut of conspiratorial thinking steadily disseminated across the echo chambers of social media.

One of the pervasive myths peddled by the purveyors of “alternative news” surrounding the Syrian opposition is that that Daesh is a creation of the U.S. government and its auxiliaries. The argument is one where the U.S., in cahoots with its regional allies Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have pursued a long-standing policy of regime change in Syria by actively funding and arming proxy militias from whence Daesh would emerge.

So when President Trump ordered the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at the Shayrat airbase in opposition-held Idlib province, ostensibly in response to Assad unleashing yet another horrific chemical attack, anti-war protests across western capitals would come out in full force anticipating the build up to the doomsday scenario of further oriental adventurism. The desire for regime change, distilled through UN ambassador Nicky Haley, seemed back on the table.

This is, and always has been a red herring. It goes without saying that lurid fantasies of the State Department supporting Daesh not only possesses a flagrant evidence-deficit, moreover, the canard of regime change just does not stack up with U.S. policy maneuverings in the region since the Arab Uprisings in 2011.

The reality is that Trump’s attitude towards Syria is not a significant retreat from the Obama Doctrine; the distinction being that until the aerial spectacle on April 6, the U.S. has otherwise avoided targeting the regime in its bombing campaigns. Allusions to pre-2011 U.S. participation are nothing more than conventional soft power projection. Once peripheral discontent in the Syrian hinterlands morphed into a full-frontal revolution, indeed, an attempt was made to assemble a pro-US exile-led opposition – one that ultimately failed in 2012.

Since then, it is hard to levy the charge that the U.S. concretely pushed any agenda of regime change. Consider that the RAND Institute survey stated that Washington insiders appeared to have reached a consensus that “regime collapse” in Syria would represent “the worst possible outcome for U.S. strategic interests”. The post-intervention debacle in Libya thwarted any pretensions that a coherent political opposition could be promptly harvested in the event of fractious contestation.

Which is why the Obama administration, while rhetorically supporting Assad’s removal during the start of the uprisings, did little to ensure its long-term success. This was crystallized in 2013, when the U.S. could have supplied the Free Syrian Army (FSA) with the vital anti-aircraft artillery they required as the balance of forces reached a tipping point. Following the Ghouta chemical attack, Obama’s “red lines” were eventually called bluff. Emboldened, Putin proceeded with his aerial intervention to prop up Assad from collapse in-lieu with an assortment of Iranian-proxy sectarian militias on the ground.

Iran was a key factor. Having gambled his reputation on the Iranian nuclear deal, and fearing provocation of Iranian retaliation in Iraq, Obama found himself having to turn a blind eye to an assertive Tehran in the region. While U.S. strategy against Iran in Syria has centered around cooperation versus Daesh, it simultaneously adopted a parallel policy of slowly bleeding out – economically and militarily – Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Sepah Pasdaran, its foreign operations arm Sepah Qods, along with Hezbollah in the event rapprochement failed.

This has been entirely congruent with U.S. policy, which can be characterized as having a “one foot in and one foot out” approach. In a perfect world, it would have Assad gone but Assadism remain. Further to this, it would be germane to comprehend the U.S.’s stance towards the Arab revolutions as one dominated by an emphasis on stability and managed transition, rather than an outright commitment to swift transformation. In response to the disastrous neocon policies of the Bush years, Obama preferred to implement a cautious yet familiar principle of “offshore balancing” – the guiding logic of U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War.

According to IR scholar John Mearsheimer, “offshore balancing” is a “realist grand strategy” in which “promoting peace” is “desirable” but not the aim. The blueprint of liberal hegemony is considered a “revisionist grand strategy,” because it goes beyond upholding the balance of power: it is ambitiously committed to democracy promotion and defending human rights, which sometimes require military occupation and always involve interfering with local political arrangements. “Offshore balancing” alleviates this problem by eschewing social engineering and curtailing the US’s military footprint on counterproductive crusades, while husbanding its strength so as to prudently intervene when regional hegemons go unchecked.

This containment strategy, at its core, is what accounted for the Obama Doctrine concerning Syria. And until Trump’s tomahawk display last month, the administration has not shown any signs of deviation from its predecessor’s policy. Indeed, following the meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week, Trump came out in favor of the Russia-Iranian-Turkish brokered cease-fire (which secures Russian and Iranian control over safety zones), continuing a tacit coalition where Assad remains a part of any future post-conflict settlement.

If anything is markedly distinct, it is that political oversight on military excursions has become even more lenient under Trump, compared to the fairly rigorous parameters under Obama. He has expanded the war in Somalia and Yemen, and changed the rules of engagement so that swathes of these countries are deemed ‘war zones’ so they can be targeted under the laws of war.

The major significance of bombing Assad’s airfield is that it was a slap in the face to Russia – albeit a gentle one as Moscow was cautioned beforehand. As demonstrated by Trump’s softening on the Iran deal and the departure of Steve Bannon from the National Security Council, a tempering of rhetoric has begun to coincide with the shift undergone within the security brass following the ousting of General Michael Flynn.

As the steady consolidation of the Pentagon’s objectives illustrate, structural pressures will continue to thrust upon the executive an impetus to maintain U.S. interests as a strategic priority, regardless of who occupies Pennsylvania Avenue. In this context, it is unlikely that Trump radically departs from the prevailing consensus on Syria.

Amar Diwakar is a freelance writer and research consultant for Global Risk Intelligence. He has an MSc in International Politics from SOAS and blogs at Splintered Eye.