The U.S. (dis)engagement in Syria

By Laura Rufalco,

Trainee, GREMMO

After years of direct involvement in the Middle East, the United States is expected, by many analysts, to be less concerned by Middle Eastern affairs. Years of disastrous wars, a financial crisis and a shale oil revolution would be a bunch of reasons pushing the U.S. away from the Middle East and towards the Pacific, in a new context of emerging powers being more active and competitive in international affairs. The U.S. positioning towards the Syrian war, mostly characterized by a lack of action, is another argument commonly presented by those who defend the idea of an American disengagement in the Middle East. However, may this disengagement be real or not, the Syrian war could not be representative of it, since the lack of a strong commitment of the United States in supporting the rebels can be explained by numerous factors.

First of all, it is important to underline the fact that there was different positioning concerning the role the U.S. should undertake in supporting the rebels, even inside the Obama administration itself. Obama was elected with plans of disengaging the U.S. army from Iraq and Afghanistan, two wars that were extremely expensive in terms of image, money and soldiers. Being more active in Syria would represent a big risk for Obama, who was always reluctant to give a strong military support to the rebels – even though he would openly support them in his speeches, demanding Assad to resign. Meanwhile, the former secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, wanted to supply the rebels with weaponry to allow them to overthrow Assad. With the arrival in the conflict of Islamists groups labeled as extremists, the idea of arming the rebels become more controversial, as the U.S. government feared those weapons could end in the possession of these groups. It is however believed that the refusal by Obama of arming the first opposition groups reinforced extremist groups, financed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.  Recently, Robert Ford, former U.S. ambassador to Syria, left his post, claiming that he could “no longer defend the American policy” towards Syria, because of the inaction of Obama’s administration.

The American Policy towards the Syrian crisis was not derived of disengagement in the Middle East. It was calculated in terms of risks and benefits the outcome of the conflict could bring to the U.S. foreign policy. Syria was never a top priority to the U.S. government: the country was relatively important to the U.S. since it was deeply tied to Iran, as well as considered as a security threat to Israel. At the beginning of the conflict, the U.S. expected the Assad Regime to fall as quickly as those of Ben Ali or Mubarak, which could be benefic for the U.S. positioning in the region: defending Israeli interests and depriving Iran of one of its most important ally in the region. However, the Iranian and Russian support allowed Assad to counterbalance the power of the rebels. As the conflict become more fragmented, with the engagement of Islamists groups, the U.S. become more fearful of any possible outcome. If the Syrian conflict put the U.S. and Russia to the worst state of their relations since the end of the Cold War, with the election of a new president in Iran, the U.S. reopened the nuclear negotiations. A deeper involvement in the Syrian conflict could jeopardize this new talk with the Iranian government. If the U.S. is now able to approach a sworn enemy, the Syrian crisis shacked the long-lasting relations between the U.S. and Israel and the U.S. and Saudi Arabia. The Gulf monarchy has several times pressured the USA to further engage in the conflict, but the U.S. refused to take a larger involvement – even after Assad regime attacked its own population with chemical weapons. The country that once used the pretext of weapons of mass destruction to attack Iraq was the country that turned a blind eye to a chemical attack in Syria.  There were no red line that Assad could cross to make Washington react.

Washington is not, however, completely inactive in what concerns the Syrian crisis. Even if any U.S. direct intervention has been discarded, for the desperation of Saudi Arabia, the American government is providing some humanitarian assistance – about 1.7 U$ billion to the Syrian population, plus non lethal help and light weaponry to some of the rebel groups, taking precaution that those weapons don’t fall in the hands of Islamists. In the words of Michelle DUNNE:

“As the Syrian conflict has evolved, so have Washington’s policy responses. The United States principally used rhetoric and sanctions against the Syrian government in the first year or so of the conflict, shifting to more active diplomacy in 2012 and 2013. Then it gradually transitioned to covert and then more overt supply and training of rebels in 2013 and 2014.”

The U.S. has been highly criticized for not intervening military in Syria, but the tricky thing about the Syrian conflict is that a military intervention by the U.S. could have been as harmful as not reacting. We will probably never know how Russia or Iran would react to an open attack of the U.S. in the Syrian territory – and the fall of Assad in the actual context can bring to power some dangerous groups. The western fear of Islamists, especially Al Qaeda, makes Assad look like the lesser of two evils.

Concerning the Syrian crisis, the U.S. have different priorities and different plans when compared to its typical allies in the region, Israel and Saudi Arabia. However, for the United States, as for any other country directly or indirectly engaged in the Syrian conflict, the humanitarian tragedy the Syrian population is facing is not a top priority. Those countries are not deeply concerned about the death toll of the conflict; they do not really care about the displaced people inside Syria. Refugees are a matter of concern because of the financial, societal and political cost they generate, and not because of the suffering they are enduring. In a context of realpolitik, the international and regional actors of the conflict calculate the benefits and damages the conflict may bring them, the impacts and risks they are facing. Under this perspective, the conflict can only linger: the different external actors that are supporting the numerous internal groups fighting this war don’t work in order to achieve a peaceful solution for the Syrian people. Instead, they are using this war to attain their own goals and, moreover, to protect themselves of dangerous outcomes. This means that powerful actors find themselves without having a clear strategy to address the conflict, which is the case of Turkey and even of the U.S. Washington is now divided between different scenarios that may be contrary to the U.S. interests in the region: the maintain of the regime, the fragmentation of Syria or the rise of extremists groups would further destabilize the region.

Now it may be too late for the Obama administration to give a more effective support to the rebels to overthrown the regime: they are more afraid of what would succeed to Assad than of Assad himself. At present, they can only expect to put the rebels in a stronger position, as a way to pressure the regime to negotiate – but Assad’s regime has several times proven that a peaceful solution is not their favorite option. Meanwhile, other international actors will keep supporting the different parts of the conflict, without taking in consideration the real cost the Syrian population is paying for them to achieve their geopolitical goals. This pessimistic, dark vision implies that the conflict will last for years to come, putting the Syrian War as the bloodiest conflict of this Century, endangering the entire region, as well as the actors involved.



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