by Graham E. Fuller
Every once in a while President Trump manages to get something right. This time it is the decision to call off the broad US covert assistance to the Syrian opposition forces fighting against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Assad has been notoriously brutal in putting down the armed rebellion against his regime. Well over 300 thousand Syrians have died on all sides, at least a million made homeless. For the West the flight of Syrian refugees has shaken the very core of the EU political order, threatening to create a xenophobic backlash—which only by dint of good European political common-sense they have so far largely avoided.
But the administration’s choice makes every kind of political sense. If Assad was going to fall he would likely have fallen within the first year of the Arab Spring in 2011. But he did not, partly because of his brutality in crushing the rebellion. But also because significant elements of the Syrian population —Alawis, Christians, Kurds, Druze, the elite Sunni business classes—may dislike Assad’s rule, but have far deeper grounds to fear whoever might succeed him. Given the way the war was going, Assad’s successor would very likely come out of the jihadi militias. Then, when things got tough for Assad, the Iranians and then the Russians decided to intervene to help the regime survive.That ended any realistic US prospect of overthrowing Assad.
Washington never had good choices. It has sought to overthrow the Assads—father and son—for decades as one of the few states resistant to Israeli hegemony and as a strong force of anti-Western Arab nationalism, especially when the West was trying to overthrow them.
There may have been a time early on when there were some anti-Assad forces that were moderate, secular and not hostile to the West. But genuine moderate pro-western democrats among the overall opposition were few. And, as moderates, they simply lacked the intestinal fortitude, or killer instinct, to match the radical jihadis as a powerful a fighting force. These radical jihadis were additionally supported to varying degrees by Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and Turkey. There was no doubt that the radical jihadis, many even closely aligned with al-Qaeda, were a far more effective fighting force. Even the US itself seems to have been willing to dally with al-Qaeda-related forces in the interests of dumping Assad.
As the civil war dragged on it had increasingly become a struggle among proxy forces of other powers—Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, Russia, the US. The Syrian people themselves ended up the biggest losers as their homes, livelihoods and populations were destroyed by these competing proxy forces. And, in the end, even if the anti-Assad forces could have eventually overthrown Assad, competing jihadis very likely would have continued conducting their own savage internecine war for dominance for some time. The US would have swapped out a secular Assad for a jihadi regime with no guarantee of peace.
From a humanitarian point of view the war should have ended yesterday. It is simply unethical to fight on till the last Syrian, all in the increasingly vain hope of dumping Assad. More lives by far will be spared, and refugee flow diminished if Assad restores control and order over the country. For those who live in war zones almost any peace is better than almost any war.
Yes, Russia will have a powerful voice in the future Syria. Guess what? They have had strong political influence and a naval base there going back to the late 1940s. CIA’s Pompeo talks like this is a new thing. China too is likely to have a growing voice in Syrian affairs. This situation poses real heartburn mainly to Israel and its supporters in the US as well as to neoconservatives for whom any Russian gain is an automatic US setback and vice versa. The concept of a possible outcome that is reasonably decent settlement for everybody seems alien to their thinking.
The US and Russia both want to see an end to ISIS and any jihadi allies that might emerge. Both the US and Russia want stability in the region. Continued chaos, war and anarchy are guaranteed recipes for more radicalism, more rage, more jihadism, more misery. Whatever we may think of them, Assad father and son have been confirmed secularists from day one and do not play the ethnic card.
Some will object that Iran will still retain an ally in Assad. Yes, that is true, but Tehran’s influence in Syria grows in direct proportion to the degree Assad is hanging from a thread and desperate. And the longer the US and Israel proclaim Iran to be the greatest threat in the whole Middle East—a line pushed in particular by Netanyahu and by CENTCOM chief Joseph Votel—the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The increasingly ambitious young Saudi ruler-to-be would also not regret watching a US-Iran war.
For better or for worse, Iran is destined by dint of geography to be a significant player in the Middle East till the end of time. It is probably as stable, if not more so, than most other regimes in the Middle East. Might it not be better to deal diplomatically with Iran on a regular basis rather than ensure that the relationship is permanently confrontational—which current US-Israeli pronouncements promote? Meanwhile most of the rest of the world disagrees with the US-Israeli position, leaving us seriously isolated and verging on international irrelevance on Iran—unless we choose to start a real war.
The faster this brutal civil conflict comes to an end, the better for nearly everyone, and certainly for the Syrians above all. The last thing the US needs is to be dragged into another Middle Eastern war. Obama understood that. Surprisingly, Trump seems to understand that now as well, and has gone one more step in undercutting US subversive operations in Syria. US undercover operations have not been successful, and most in Washington know it.
The powerful Russophobe lobby in Washington will undoubtedly see this move to cut US covert aid to “friendly jihadis” as another sign that Putin controls Trump. But then who controls the neocons?
Graham E. Fuller is a former senior CIA official, author of numerous books on the Muslim World; his latest book is “Breaking Faith: A novel of espionage and an American’s crisis of conscience in Pakistan.” (Amazon, Kindle). Printed, with permission, from grahamefuller.com. Photo: Bashar al-Assad meeting with Vladimir Putin