If you like confusion in foreign policy take a new look at Syria, the country that has the worst civil war since the one that raged in Angola in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Syria is now a near total wreck. Four of its historically important Christian cities are in ruins. More than half a million civilians are dead and many more wounded. Millions are without jobs. This legacy that happened on the watch of Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump now lands in Joe Biden’s in-tray.
For reasons very much its own, during the Cold War the US turned Syria into an enemy, and it has remained so. But Syria at no point in its life has been a threat to the US.
Syria’s borders were scratched on a map following the agreements made at the Versailles Conference at the end of World War 1. The purpose was victors’ justice and one target was the Ottoman Empire that had fought on Germany’s side. Messrs. Picot and Sykes of the French and British foreign offices mapped the new borders of large parts of the Middle East. Modern Syria was one of its outcomes, to be ruled for a while by the French until it gained independence in 1946. It was hardly, to use that common American phrase, “nation building”. Syria ended up with a majority Sunni population and a minority Shi’ite living in the same state despite having been in conflict with each other for 1,300 years. The straight lines of new Syria that the Sykes-Picot ruler drew on the map also encompassed Christians, Alawites, Kurds, Druse and Yazidis. No wonder that 100 years later it easily fell apart. No wonder that in the 1960s Hafez al-Assad was easily able to overthrow the regime and establish himself as head of an anti-American, anti-Israeli and pro-Soviet Union but also a non-religious, secular, state. (At the at the same presiding over a big improvement in live expectancy and much lowered infant and female mortality.) When he died in 2000 his son Bashar al-Assad took over and it has been on his watch that the civil war began when his police clamped down on a non-violent protest organized by schoolchildren.
It was the time of the Arab Spring and all eyes turned to Syria as the non-violent demonstrations grew in size. Assad, fearful of being seen as a weak leader, seem to loose his cool and ordered his law enforcement officers to use violence. Then violent protestors pushed the non-violent ones aside. The Western media, an Arab Spring cheer leader absorbed in ensuring the protestors would win, gave the violent demonstrators most of their coverage, ignoring the non-violent ones, thus helping shunting them aside. The fickle eye of television is drawn to violence. (Watch tonight’s news when the small wars in Ethiopia and Armenia/Azerbaijan will fill up much of the program’s space, at the expense of many worthwhile positive stories we are not told about.)
Senator John McCain and the CIA lobbied Obama to be forceful. He refused to send in troops but did send in the CIA and financed and armed anti-regime militants. Mistakenly, the CIA armed jihadists who later turned out to be Al-Qaeda and ISIS supporters. By September 2015 Assad was on his back foot and appealed to Russia, a friend from Cold War days, to come to his aid. It did and over time has wrecked much havoc, albeit it helped in the squashing of ISIS.
Earlier, in 2012, Obama had a showdown with his conscience. When Assad used chemical weapons against his opponents, despite the lobbying by his cabinet and the mainstream press, he decided not to send troops in. For this he was, and still is, publically pilloried. Of his immediate advisors only Biden supported him. Obama did not want another major “never-ending” war when he had already inherited the one in Afghanistan and was trying to deal with the often violent fall-out from the Iraq ones.
In July 2017 the new president, Donald Trump, tweeted that the US’s policy hitherto in Syria was “massive, dangerous and wasteful”. A dying McCain denounced Trump, “The Administration is playing right into the hands of Vladimir Putin”.
Moscow maintains that its primary purpose in aiding Assad was to defeat ISIS and indeed in the beginning there was some Russian/American coordination on this. But Russia was soon drawn in further by Assad’s greater need, to win the civil war against a multitude of enemies. Putin has been sucked in probably deeper than he wanted to be. Fortunately Obama didn’t decide to massively intervene. Doubtless, it would have led to a big power clash. And who knows how that would have ended up?
Fortunately too, Trump didn’t want to raise the stakes. In his first year in office he closed down CIA operations in Syria. But for his first three years he kept some American boots on the Syrian ground. Two years ago Trump finally decided that this was going nowhere and even though Assad was being helped by Russia and Trump’s sworn enemy, Iran, it was better to disengage from Syria. That is what has supposed to be happening since December 2018 but a recent scoop in Defense One, an on-line publication, revealed that Trump’s diplomats responsible for Syria have connived not to implement his orders. Without informing him they have slowed the run-down of the exit of American military personnel. Estimates suggest that around 600 US troops remain in Syria, but it could well be more.
This is the state of play that Biden inherits. During a campaign speech in the U.S. state of Iowa in October, Biden described President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Syria as a “complete failure,” saying that such a withdrawal would leave the Syrian Kurds open to attacks from Turkey, which views Syrian Kurdish fighters as terrorists. What began as an anti-Assad operation in a civil war which had nothing to do with the Kurds, now Biden appears to suggest, should have as its raison d’etre the support of the Syrian Kurds.
One surmise, held by people who watch Syrian events carefully, is that Biden will want to continue the present low level US military presence in Syria, combined with the economic sanctions now in place. But Trump, knowing that, may pull them all out over the next two months, preempting Biden, assuming the military and the diplomats obey his orders.
What will happen to Syria next? Putin, also tired by the never-ending war, may well wind down Russia’s presence. He has indicated that that is a real possibility. For their part, the Kurds will feel abandoned, as the Kurds everywhere regularly are. They are not going to get their own territory. They have no choice but to negotiate with Assad (and also Turkey) some form of autonomy.
If withdrawal is done, Assad, the victor, can get on with re-building the country, hopefully without rancor towards his enemies. It will take billions and billions of dollars to re-build Syria. Russia has already made it clear it can’t help much. Its military aid has already cost it too much. The West is spending lots on dealing with the Corona virus and is in no mood to bail out a tyrant. Assad’s friend Iran is broke, reeling from Western sanctions. Yet no one wants to see an embittered Syria sunk in its own rubble and chaos.
The only light in the tunnel is Biden’s desire to restore Obama’s agreement with Iran- which Trump broke- on sharply reducing its nuclear research. Then sanctions can be quickly removed and oil can be legitimately sold. If Iran’s economy gets going again it can then afford to pay some of Syria’s bills. To protect peace in their neighborhood the Gulf countries together with Saudi Arabia must contribute.
If Biden sticks to his old Obama-time instincts he will not get involved in a new armed struggle on the side of the Kurds, despite what he said in Iowa. If he goes along with America’s final withdrawal from Syria, he will end up as the peacemaker who helped end a terrible civil war that has brought Syria low. But, to be fair, he will have to share the accolades with Trump.