US ramblings in Syria

US ramblings in Syria

The Russian military build-up and bombing in Syria has added to the already existing tension between Russia and the West since the former’s occupation of Crimea, and has prompted a new confrontation area on NATO’s southeastern flank in addition to difficulties on the eastern flank. Russia’s deliberate violations of Turkish airspace, targeting opposition groups rather than Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces, and the usage of cruise missiles launched from the Caspian Sea are indications of Russia’s flexed muscles in the Middle East, where it has been absent since the end of the Cold War, except keeping a rundown base at Tartus, Syria. 

Following the intensification of the Russian bombings, the U.S. yet again reconsidered its strategy in Syria. Since the outbreak of the civil war, the Barack Obama administration has been hesitant to get involved and tried several policy options that failed, drawing the U.S. more into the quagmire each time.

After a brief hands-off policy, the U.S. strategy was limited for a long time to providing only “humanitarian and non-lethal” support to opposition groups. This was in line with President Obama’s main foreign policy line that prioritized negotiation and cooperation instead of interventions. However, it also meant that the U.S. stopped playing a leadership role in the region and preferred others to take the lead, sharing the burden. Though the strategy partially worked in Libya, it failed in Syria, ending in increased assaults by the Syrian regime and several million refugees.

As the problem grew, the U.S. gradually blundered into the conflict, not by design but in reactive responses to what happened on the ground. Thus, when various diplomatic initiatives failed and chemical weapons were used, which Obama had declared as a red line, the U.S. started to provide military support to the opposition.

The advances of ISIL in Syria and Iraq forced the U.S. to announce a new strategy in September 2014, including airstrikes against ISIL targets and supporting opposition groups. Although the strategy also called for a “train and equip” program for moderate opposition groups in cooperation with Turkey, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, it was doomed from the start and was shelved in failure as the Russian bombing started.

So the U.S. yet again hastily put together a new strategy – this time calling for more ammunition and weapons to the groups actually fighting ISIL in Syria by using the remaining budget of the train and equip program. Accordingly, the U.S. planes airdropped the first batch of equipment to “groups in northern Syria” on Oct. 11. Although the U.S. claims, due to Turkey’s sensitivity toward the Kurdish groups, that the target of the program is both Kurds and Arabs in northern Syria, it is only the Kurds that are fighting ISIL and organized enough to benefit from the program. While the program would undoubtedly empower the Kurds, it is doubtful whether the later will be able to drive out ISIL with U.S. air support alone. It is also doubtful whether they would take the offensive if they were left alone in the fighting, as there is no reliable Arab force on the ground. Then what would happen to all those guns and ammunition supplied to them, asks Turkey, which has already strongly protested the latest U.S. move.

It is clear that the U.S. strategies in Syria have not been planned with an end goal in mind, but sprout from the need to be seen doing something while avoiding putting U.S. soldiers on the ground. This has been a failing approach, drawing the U.S. into the conflict incrementally and achieving nothing in return. The Russian involvement in the Middle East for the first time since the end of the Cold War might finally force the U.S. to consider an all-around strategy with an end game in sight.