No quick change in Washington’s Syria policy

No quick change in Washington’s Syria policy

On the same day that the front pages of a number of Turkish newspapers were suggesting that, at long last, U.S. President Barack Obama had got closer to the Turkish leadership’s line that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad must go first, the Hürriyet Daily News’ headline quoted the new U.S. ambassador, John Bass, saying: “ISIL [the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant] is the most acute challenge in Iraq and Syria.”

Bass made clear in his long interview with the Hürriyet Daily News that Washington is still very keen on continuing talks with Turkish officials on a number of issues, particularly the growing instability in the Middle East. Echoing so many other U.S. diplomats, he recalled that Turkey and the U.S. shared a common perspective on the situation in Syria, as both countries believe that “there is no military solution” to the conflict. A future government including al-Assad was not among the objectives outlined in the Geneva Communiqué, he underlined, but he also said, “At the same time, we have a big immediate challenge posed by this terrible extremist organization ISIL. We are very focused right now in ensuring that ISIL and its terrible actions in Syria and Iraq do not further destabilize Iraq and do not further complicate the situation in Syria to a point where we’ll have even a more difficult challenge in reaching that shared vision of the future outcome in Syria.”

From the new U.S. envoy’s remarks, I did not get the feeling that Washington is seeking to revise its policy in Syria. The U.S. priority is to reduce the influence of ISIL in the field by stopping terrorists’ advance to other parts of Syria. As Bass puts it, the objectives of the international coalition are “firstly reducing the amount of space that ISIL has to operate in; secondly addressing some of the capacity challenges that currently exist in the Iraqi security forces and within the landscape in Syria; and thirdly addressing the ongoing challenges from the enormous refugee outflows from Syria and those Syrians who have been displaced within Syria, as well as  trying to deal with the phenomenon of propaganda that ISIL and these extremist groups are using to recruit additional fighters.”

This sounds like a road map of combat to be carried out against a specific terrorist organization. What I understand from my talks with diplomatic sources, it’s more accurate to talk about “adjustments” of U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria, rather than pointing to a radical policy change that puts the al-Assad problem before that of ISIL.

Training and equipping the moderate Syrian opposition is one of the results of this recent adjustment of U.S. policy, after ISIL captured one third of both Iraq and Syria. Turkey and the U.S. are currently holding intense talks to coordinate joint efforts to train and equip the Free Syrian Army (FSA) so that it can have a bigger impact on the ground. From the U.S. perspective, the trained and equipped FSA is not expected to win great victories in the battlefield against the Syrian regime’s army, but rather to facilitate a political transition as suggested in Geneva in 2012.

Despite Ankara’s expectations, the U.S. policy vis a vis Syria does not seem to be undergoing rapid changes.