The U.S. administration has a coherent policy for none of them.
Since it evolved from the early Arab Spring-style demonstrations in some Syrian cities, to what is now, in the words of Bashar Assad, “a real state of war from all angles,” the Syrian conflict has drawn in nearly every interested party in the Middle East, leading to a confused and tumultuous situation with multiple interests at stake for every party.
Indeed we may be better served to talk about the multiple “conflicts” taking place in Syria, if we want to have any kind of accurate understanding of the situation as it now exists. Not all of them are shooting wars, but there are serious military and political conflicts being played out in Syria which will have consequences for the future of the entire region.
The first and most obvious conflict is that between the Syrian rebels and the regime of Bashar Assad. Taken as a whole the Syrian rebels’ position has improved substantially. Institute for the Study of War Fellow Joseph Holliday suggests that the Syrian opposition is reaching the point where it will control more territory than the regime, and has reduced the ability of Assad’s forces to maneuver outside of the urban territory they control in Damascus, Homs and other key areas. FSA commander Riad Al-Asaad stated in a recent interview that morale in the Syrian army was considered low and that in particular the elite 4th Armored Division, the Syrian Praetorian guard commanded by Bashar relative Maher Assad, had "completely collapsed." Because of the rapid changes taking places within Syria, a plan for a buffer zone on the Turkish-Syrian border to protect Syrian refugees is now considered irrelevant by the FSA, which considers itself to be on the offensive now against Assad even as it complains of weapon and ammunition shortages.
Another growing potential conflict is between Turkey and the Syrian regime following the downing of a Turkish fighter jet somewhere near the Syrian border. Syrian officials and anonymous members of U.S. intelligence have suggested that the Turkish jet was likely inside Syria proper when fired upon, while the Turks have vehemently maintained that the jet was fired on in international waters. In response, the Turks have reinforced their positions on the Syrian border, including scrambling fighter jets in response to Syrian aircraft on the Syrian side. British papers have reported that the Syrian Air defense may have been assisted in downing the Turkish aircraft by Russian technicians. According to the reports, the downing of the aircraft was intended as “warning” to NATO not to risk intervention.
This hints at another existing conflict – Russia versus the United States. While it engages in talks in Geneva with Western diplomats, the Russian bear continues to take steps to keep its Syrian client engaged and in the fight. Reports of Russian troops moving into Syria have continued at a steady pace since March, while the U.S. State Department complains ineffectually about the flow of Russian arms to Syria. The U.S. sees distancing Russia from Syria to be the key to solving the crisis. This has resulted in repeated efforts to produce joint agreements, such as the recent Geneva compromise. This latest effort was promptly rejected by the Syrian opposition since it was watered down to secure Russian cooperation to the point that it failed to call for Assad to leave power despite calling for a “transitional” government. It’s high time the U.S. recognize that its interests in Syria are in direct conflict with Russian interests, and that Russia cannot realistically be expected to act as a partner in securing an Assad-free Syria.
Then there is the struggle for the soul of the Syrian opposition. As reported by The New Republic, the Free Syrian Army, led primarily by former Syrian officers, is concerned about the growth of jihadist elements in Syria, which led them to execute the “Emir of Homs” Walid al-Boustani, a Lebanese-born jihadist with ties to Al-Qaeda-linked Fatah-Al-Islam. Fortunately the history of cooperation between the Syrian regime and jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda, means that there is a strong element of distrust for these groups among the Syrian populace as a whole. However if the FSA should prove unable to effectively engage in opposition to Assad, while jihadist forces succeed in taking the fight to the enemy, this support may change.
The New York Times reported on the role of the CIA in Syria, which is seeking to keep arms from flowing to Al Qaeda-linked militants as outside forces, most notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, begin to traffic arms to the Syrian opposition. Unfortunately, it seems that the U.S. is intent on seeing arms directed to the Muslim Brotherhood, through its control of the Syrian National Council. The SNC has made clear in repeated statements that it intends to dominate the rebel forces in country by serving as the primary channel for foreign arms assistance. To that end it has established a “military council” to “support, organize and oversee” the FSA, a move backed by the U.S. The SNC has repeatedly stressed, in their own words, ”the importance of the SNC providing the political cover to avoid the uncontrolled distribution of arms as well as be able to control it later on.”
While U.S. pundits may continue to quibble over the role of the Brotherhood within the SNC, the Syrians themselves have largely acknowledged it. “They are saying that there are weapons in depots here (in Turkey) but they won’t release them to us because we are not pledging allegiance to them. They want us to follow Saudi Arabia or a big organization like the Brotherhood,” said one Syrian arms broker speaking to Time magazine. “We are refusing this. That’s why the next batch of weapons has been delayed. Either we follow them, and get lots of weapons, or we don’t and die.”
The prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Syrian rebellion has led to yet one more conflict of interests playing out inside Syria, between the Sunni Arab regimes in the region. Currently there is no “upside” for U.S. interests in this crucial conflict, largely because the Obama administration continues to insist that the Muslim Brotherhood is an acceptable regional actor, and has put the U.S. on the side of the Muslim Brotherhood in the regional conflict between the Brotherhood and the old guard Sunni regimes. This is due to a misconception held by the Obama Administration, which views the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate Islamist opposition to jihadist forces represented by Al Qaeda. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have both expressed concerns regarding the growth of Brotherhood power in the region, while Qatar and the Turks have largely supported it. The Saudis and their allies may have an interest in seeing some other force than the Brotherhood winning in Syria, which may lead them to back other forces, particularly if the FSA is subsumed by the Brotherhood-controlled SNC. Of course it is equally possible that they may see a Muslim Brotherhood-held Syria as a better option than Assad remaining in power.
The final conflict is between the Sunni and Shia. A defeat for Assad would be a defeat for Iran, the leading Shia state, and in that sense the Syrian conflict can also be viewed through the lens of the Sunni-Shia competition and the Sunni states fear of an aggressive Iranian regime. For many western analysts, this has been the conflict to which many are most attuned. Assad is an ally of Iran, and if Assad goes, Iran is weakened, ergo Assad should fall, whatever the cost.
In sum, the United States’ Syria policy has been deeply confused, in each of the numerous conflicts now taking place around Syria. In the fight for control of the Syrian opposition, the U.S. has backed the Muslim Brotherhood over overt jihadists, which insures an Islamist victor ideologically hostile to the United States over other more preferable actors. It has failed to recognize the interests at play for Russia, leaving the U.S. continuing to seek Russian complicity in a series of negotiations which are ultimately doomed to failure. Its desire for agreement with the Russians has led it to neglect the goal of ousting Assad and dealing a setback to Iran, which alienates the U.S. among the very rebels we seek to support. In dealing with Turkey, The U.S., through NATO, has both supported Turkey, while casting doubt upon its claims at the same time.
Ultimately as we began the piece by noting, the situation in Syria is made up of multiple interwoven conflicts. The U.S. has a coherent policy for none of them.
Kyle Shideler is a research fellow for EMET (Endowment for Middle East Truth).
Freedom Center pamphlets now available on Kindle: Click here.