America’s failure to commit resources has enabled a multiplicity of players — Iran, Russia, Islamic State, Hezbollah — to muddy the bloody waters of the civil war, says Christopher R. Hill
GIVEN that most of the Middle East is now in turmoil, US secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, should be commended for keeping the Syrian conflict in mind, during his recent trip to the region.
His job hasn’t been easy. American diplomacy has been all but invisible in the Middle East, and the US State Department does not seem to have any ideas or, more importantly, funding with which to take the lead.
If the United States is serious about addressing the increasingly deadly crisis in Syria, it needs to start showing sustained interest, and start putting its money where its mouth is.
The complexity of the situation in Syria has far-surpassed the world’s capacity to master it. Rapidly changing events, a growing number of players, and constantly shifting battle lines all point to a quagmire.
Just six months ago, there were two clear trends in the conflict: Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, with the support of Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah, was on his way to victory; and the Islamic State (IS) was about to be soundly defeated by a US-led coalition.
Today, the successful campaign against IS seems Pyrrhic, at best. Hundreds of thousands of lives have been lost, and a resolution of the larger conflict is nowhere in sight.
If anything, the world is even more on edge, now. In recent weeks, Israel has clashed with Iranian forces in southern Syria to show that it will not allow Iran to establish a presence there.
And Turkey has launched a bold campaign against Syria’s Kurds, whom it hopes to drive out of the northwest province of Afrin to prevent them from linking up with Turkish Kurds across the border.
Assad has come to terms with reality and indicated that he would cede territory to the Syrian Kurds. But Turkey remains unwilling to countenance an autonomous, Kurdish entity along its border.
The US, for its part, has spent the past six years marshalling various groups of Sunni Arab fighters, under the auspices of the so-called Syrian Democratic Forces, an offshoot of what was previously called the Free Syrian Army.
Some elements of the SDF have been more effective than others, and have even fought alongside the Kurds against IS. But now they find themselves in the crosshairs not just of Assad, but also of Russia and various Iran-backed Shia militias.
The US was right to focus on defeating IS; but now it faces a much broader mission: to ensure the survival of its various allies on the ground.
This raises the prospect of a direct conflict with other powers, not least Russia. In fact, the US might already have killed dozens of Russian military contractors in a recent airstrike.
The US and its European partners have been reluctant to come down hard on their Nato ally, Turkey, and have merely urged Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to show restraint. But jawboning, one of the US’s favourite diplomatic tools, rarely works on those in the heat of battle.
Moreover, Turkey doesn’t seem to care what its allies think. For example, it recently raised eyebrows within Nato, yet again, by purchasing new-generation, Russian S-400 anti-aircraft batteries.
This does not bode well for any future peace process. After all, Western countries will need Turkey to counterbalance the Russians, whose broader strategic agenda goes well beyond the Middle East.
When historians look back at the Syria conflict, they will praise both former US presidents, Barack Obama and Donald Trump, for relentlessly pursuing IS. But they will fault the US for not comprehending the larger war.
The Obama administration didn’t know what it was bargaining for, when, without thinking about what would come next, it called in 2011 for Assad’s removal.
In July of that year, Robert S Ford, the US ambassador to Syria, was sent to the Sunni town of Hama, where Assad’s father had ordered a massacre 30 years earlier.
According to the US State Department at the time, the point of the visit was to “[express] our deep support for the right of the Syrian people to assemble peacefully and to express themselves.”
Did the administration really not foresee that Assad — like his father before him — would react to a popular uprising with violence?
When the US took a side against Assad, seven years ago, it was asserting its national interest in Syria, while ignoring the interests of other key players, such as Turkey, Russia, Iran, and Israel.
And now, with the US vacillating, there is a very real danger of a full-fledged US-Russian proxy war.
So far, the Trump administration has not been spurred to action by the humanitarian catastrophe confronting Syrian civilians.
But perhaps it would do more if it considered the threat the conflict poses to the entire region.
If the administration wants to show leadership, it should start by consulting the other regional powers to understand their interests and determine if they can be reconciled.
Tillerson may be trying to do just that. But even before asking the regional players what they want, the Trump administration should ask itself the same question. With the stakes in Syria rising fast, one can only wonder where America stands.
Christopher R Hill, former US assistant secretary of state for East Asia, is chief advisor to the chancellor for global engagement, and professor of the practice in diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of Outpost. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.
What is Ghouta?
Ghouta is an informal name for the suburbs of the Syrian capital, Damascus (which form around the Barada River), and for towns in its eastern reaches, including Douma, Kfar Batna, and Saqba.
The residents of eastern Ghouta were among the first to rise up against Bashar Assad’s rule in 2011. The area was taken over by rebels a year later, as the unrest turned into an armedinsurgency, then civil war.
They held on ferociously, determined to preserve the rebel position closest to the capital, denting thenarrative of an Assad victory in key places. Today, it is the last majoropposition enclave in the area,surrounded by areas firmly under government control.
Historically an agricultural area,it has been partially besieged by the government since 2013 and completely since mid-2017. The rebel-held suburbs endured a devastating sarin gas attack in 2013, which killed hundreds of people. Over the years, residential buildings, hospitals, schools, and warehouses have all been destroyed.
According to the UN, there are 393,000 residents in eastern Ghouta, many of them internally displaced from other parts of the country, accounting for 94% of all Syrians under siege today.
UN aid convoys rarely make itinside, and the lack of access has led to severe food shortages, starvation, and malnutrition, and a sharp rise in food prices.
Why has Eastern Ghouta eluded Assad for so long?
Thousands of battle-hardened militants are entrenched in Eastern Ghouta, including the powerful Army of Islam group, based in Douma, and the ultra-conservative Ahrar al-Sham and Faylaq al-Rahman groups. Haya’at Tahrir al-Sham, a rebel coalition affiliated with al-Qaida, also has a presence in the area.
Despite its proximity to Assad’s seat of power, in Damascus, Syrian troops, stretched thin by the scale of the rebellion, overlooked Eastern Ghouta for the first years of the civil war, while they focused on recapturing areas deemed more crucial for the government’s survival, including Homs, Aleppo, and areas near the border with Lebanon.
The militants of Eastern Ghouta had years to dig in, amassing an abundant reserve of weapons and ammunition from supply lines that stretched to the Syrian desert. From there, the rebels frequently lob mortar shells into Damascus neighbourhoods, including dozens of shells on Tuesday that killed eight civilians and wounded others.
Because the region is agricultural — and once the source of most of the capital’s sugar, rice, fruits and vegetables — the militants were able to grow their own food, diminishing the need for supply lines.
They’ve also built a labyrinth of secret, underground tunnels, beyond the reach of airstrikes. Some supplies get in this way, but utilities have been decimated.
What is happening now?
With Russia and Iran’s help, Assad has turned the war decisively in his favour, recapturing key areas of the country from rebels and Islamic State militants.
The renewed assault on Eastern Ghouta is part of a broader escalation on several fronts, in recent weeks, as Assad and his allies step up their efforts to finish off remaining pockets of resistance — including Idlib province, in the north, which houses many evacuees from Aleppo.
The government has recently sent Brigadier General Suheil al-Hassan, also known among his troops as “Tiger”, to Eastern Ghouta to lead the effort. He has led elite forces to many victories against insurgents, since the conflict began, including in Aleppo and most recently in Deir el-Zour, against Islamic State militants.
For Assad, victory in Eastern Ghouta would remove a longstanding threat and nuisance, going a long way toward ending the seven-year rebellion against him.