Can Obama Untangle from Syria’s Civil War?

President Obama appears open to a UN strategy of negotiating local ceasefires in Syria as a step toward a political solution to that civil war, but he remains tangled in the demand from Israel, Saudi Arabia and other U.S. allies for “regime change” in Damascus, writes Gareth Porter.

By Gareth Porter

Contradictions between the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and realities on the ground have become so acute that U.S. officials began last November discussing a proposal calling for support of local ceasefires between opposition forces and the Assad regime in dozens of locations across Syria.

The proposal surfaced in two articles in Foreign Policy magazine and in a column by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius. Those indicated that it was under serious consideration by administration officials. In fact, the proposal may even have played a role in a series of four White House meetings during the week of Nov. 6-13, to discuss Syria policy, one of which Obama himself presided over.

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

President Barack Obama speaking to the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 24, 2013. (UN photo)

Ignatius, who usually reflects the views of senior national security officials, suggested that the administration have nothing better to offer than the proposal. And Robert Ford, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria until last May and is now a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, told David Kenner of Foreign Policy that he believes the White House “is likely to latch onto” the idea of local cease-fires “in the absence of any other plan they’ve been able to develop.”

The proposal also appears to parallel the thinking behind the efforts of new United Nations peace envoy, Steffan de Mistura, who has called for the creation of what he calls “freeze zones” – meaning local ceasefires that would allow humanitarian aid to reach civilian populations.

The fact that the proposal is being taken seriously is especially notable, because it does not promise to achieve the aims of existing policy. Instead, it offers a way out of a policy that could not possibly deliver on the results it promised.

But the implication of such a policy shift would be a tacit acknowledgement that the United States cannot achieve its previous stated goal of unseating the Assad regime in Syria. The Obama administration would certainly deny any such implication, at least initially, for domestic political as well as foreign policy reasons, but the policy would refocus on the immediate need of saving lives and promoting peace, rather than on unrealistic political or military ambitions.

The U.S. government’s Syrian policy lurched from Obama’s abortive plan to launch an air war against the Assad regime in September 2013 to the idea that the U.S. would help train thousands of “moderate” Syrian opposition fighters to resist the threat from Islamic State in September 2014.  But the “moderate” forces have no interest in fighting the Islamic State. And in any case, they have long-ceased to be a serious rival of the Islamic and other jihadi forces in Syria.

It was no accident that the alternative policy surfaced in November, just as the Free Syrian Army (FSA) had been completely routed from its bases in the north by Islamic State forces. Post columnist Ignatius, whose writing is almost always informed by access to senior national security officials, not only mentioned that rout as the context in which a proposal was presented in Washington, but quoted from three messages the desperate FSA commander under attack sent to the U.S. military, requesting air support.

The author of the paper that appears to have struck a chord in Washington, Nir Rosen, is a journalist whose depth of knowledge of human realities on the ground in conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and Lebanon, is unmatched. His personal encounters with the people and organizations that fought in those conflicts, recounted in his 2010 book, Aftermath, reveal nuances of motives and calculations that can be found nowhere else in the literature.

Rosen now works for the Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue in Geneva, which was active in bringing about the local ceasefire in Homs, considered the most significant such achievement so far. Rosen gave Robert Malley, the senior National Security Council official responsible for Syria, a 55-page, single-spaced report, making the case for a policy of supporting the negotiation of local ceasefires, which also calls for “freezing the war as it is.”

The report is based on the twin premises that neither side can defeat the other militarily, and that the resulting stalemate strengthens the Islamic State and its jihadi allies in Syria, according to James Traub’s story in Foreign Policy.

Negotiating local deals under the conditions of the Syrian war is devilishly difficult, as an examination of 35 different local deals by researchers at the London School of Economics and the Syrian NGO Madani shows. Most of the deals were prompted by the Syrian regime’s strategy of besieging opposition enclaves, which meant the regime’s forces were hoping to impose terms that were nothing less than surrender.

Sometimes local pro-government militias frustrated potential deals, because of a combination sectarian score-settling and because they were gaining corrupt economic advantages from the sieges they were imposing.  (In other cases, however, the pro-government NDF militias lent their supportive to local deals.)

The Syrian regime ultimately recognized that its interests lay in a successful deal in Homs, but the researchers found that the farther military commanders were from the location of fighting, the more they clung to the idea that military victory was still possible. The primary source of pressure for ceasefire, not surprisingly, was from the civilians, who suffered its consequence most heavily. The study observes that the larger the ratio of civilians to fighters in the opposition enclave the stronger the commitment to a ceasefire.

Both the LSE-Madani study and the Integrity Research paper say that international support in the form of both mediators and truce monitors would help establish both clearer arrangements and legal commitments for ceasefire, safe passage and opening routes of humanitarian assistance. Homs is an example of a deal where the UN actually plays a positive role in influencing the implementation of the truce, according to Integrity.

The small steps toward peace and reconciliation that the local truces represent are highly vulnerable unless they lead to a comprehensive process. Even though the challenge from the Islamic State is a shadow over the entire process, it is an approach that is likely to be more effective than escalating foreign military involvement. And surprising as it may seem, the LSE-Madani study reveals that even the Islamic State concluded a ceasefire deal with a civil society organization in Aleppo.

But even if the Obama administration recognizes the advantages of the proposal of the local ceasefire approach for Syria, it cannot be assumed that it will actually carry out the policy. The reason is the heavy influence of its relations with its main regional allies on Washington. Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would all reject a policy that would allow a regime they regard as an Iranian ally to persist in Syria.

Unless and until the United States can figure out a way to free its Middle East policy from its entangling regional alliances, its policy in Syria will be confused, contradictory and feckless.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and historian writing on US national security policy.  His latest book, Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare, was published in February 2014. [This article originally appeared in Middle East Eye.]

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7 comments for “Can Obama Untangle from Syria’s Civil War?

  1. Ron
    January 20, 2015 at 06:25

    ‘the larger the ratio of civilians to fighters in the opposition enclave the stronger the commitment to a ceasefire.’
    – That just shows it’s not an enclave — it’s a hostage situation.
    ““freezing the war as it is.””
    — Look at the trend. The trend is, Syrians under occupation do not support the terrorists, they actively inform, and spy on them, sending intel to the Syrian Arab Army. There are extremely few places (Nibbul, or exampe) where a town supports the jihadists for long. This is because the jihadists are simply hideous barbarians, and they are not Syrians.
    ‘Neither side can defeat the other”
    — American wishful thinking. However, SYRIAN wishful thinking is that they are going to win, and the aim of their war is to re-assert sovereignty over every last inch of Syrian soil. If this were not the case, Damascus would long ago have allowed the Syrian Kurds to separate — but they will not.
    Conversely, the American strategy is to allow ISIS or its successors to carve out an oil-rich zone in Iraq and Syria. This is known. To Syrians this is anathema — and that would be a hostile presence, which they will never allow.
    Amerika wants to run a war of attrition on Syria. But Amerika’s house of cards will fall before General Dempsey’s sick, twisted idea can do its evil. Amerika itself will run out of road, as Ponzi schemes do — probably this year.

  2. incontinent reader
    January 17, 2015 at 18:54

    I wonder. To negotiate a cease fire and a resolution to the Syrian crisis that reflects the will of the Syrian people and leaves Russia in a stronger position in Syria would be inconsistent with the over two decades long US-NATO policy to turn the Mediterranean into an exclusive US-NATO lake to control the resources and trade of the whole region. As long as Syria remains allied with Iran and Hezbollah, and Lebanon remains independent, I tend to believe that, regardless of what it says, the US will continue trying to destroy the Assad regime and every other political movement that could interfere with that agenda. What the US does not understand is that Russia and China will not sell out Syria, and that with those two nations’ policies of multipolarity, negotiation and inclusion, they have laid the groundwork for solid relations with Egypt and a growing number of other countries in Africa, and, furthermore, that Russia’s new energy deal with Turkey will likely have significant consequences for the EU and NATO, not only for the delivery (or non-delivery) of gas to Europe, but also the geopolitical concessions Turkey may have made, and will be willing to make in the future. It will be revealing if Turkey at some point reverses its stance toward Syria and stops supporting the jihadists. If it happens, it could indicate the extent of the influence of Russia’s diplomacy. While we have seen our Administrations and Congresses bought and sold by special interests, and the neoconservatives directing American foreign policy, what I cannot understand is why our leaders persist in the illogic of destroying what they cannot control, when it has become clear that the human and economic costs of such policies cannot be sustained, and where the better (and easier) way would be to work constructively with all interested parties, including Russia and China, to develop peaceful and profitable but non-exploitative relationships.

  3. Zachary Smith
    January 17, 2015 at 13:26

    Contradictions between the Obama administration’s policy in Syria and realities on the ground have become so acute that U.S. officials began last November discussing a proposal calling for support of local ceasefires between opposition forces and the Assad regime in dozens of locations across Syria.

    Color me skeptical on the “local ceasefires” issue. I’ll admit I know almost nothing about what’s happening over there because of the flood of disinformation and general BS coming from the area, but certain things do stand out.

    Example #1: http://news.antiwar.com/2014/09/08/made-in-the-usa-report-shows-isis-using-us-arms-from-syria-rebels/

    It’s been clear for quite a while that US weapons have been getting into ISIS arsenals. And a lot of the US-trained “moderate rebels” have become ISIS fighters.

    Example #2: xxxx://www.mcclatchydc.com/2014/12/09/249556/rebels-in-northern-syria-say-us.html

    If the “moderates” don’t defect right away, they get a kick in the pants to send them out the door. Imagine you’re up to your ears in fighting somewhere in Syria when all of a sudden your paymaster says you won’t be getting any more money. Since you’ve already burned all your bridges, what option do you have besides joining up with somebody else with money – like ISIS.

    Example #3: xxxx://thehill.com/policy/defense/229732-us-to-send-400-troops-to-train-syrian-rebels

    The “moderate rebels” scheme has been working so well that the DC neocons are going to do it all again. Be sure we’ll get it right this time! (wink, wink)

    No, I figure that all the stuff about “local ceasefires” is a tactical move to paralyze the Syrian government – if they’re dumb enough to take the bait. (and of course to sow confusion here at home) This latest venture is just another batch of reinforcements for ISIS in my humble opinion.

    And BHO hasn’t changed his ways, not the least little bit.

    • Peter Loeb
      January 18, 2015 at 07:46

      “REGIME CHANGE” IS AGAINST INTERNATIONAL LAW

      Thanks to G. Porter as always and to Zachary Smith. ”
      Regime Change” is against inter-
      national law precisely because it encourages aggression. When it is an object it is always done outside of UN processes. This was the case in Iraq and in Syria where it is supported by the US and its agressive allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Quatar.

      It does not make any sense to discuss any
      negotiations about a political “transition”. No nation would ever agree to surrender its authority to its opponents. (Certainly the US would not!)

      Further attempts at “regime change” by
      any foreign powers (Western and/ or Arab) would probably strengthen the Assad
      regime.

      The so-called “moderates” have always
      seemed like a fig leaf of hawkish regime
      changers’ fantasies. They can accomplish
      nothing without outside support which
      will then be rehetorically “justified” because Assad is so evil etc. (and the Saudis are not?).

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • Peter Loeb
      January 18, 2015 at 07:46

      “REGIME CHANGE” IS AGAINST INTERNATIONAL LAW

      Thanks to G. Porter as always and to Zachary Smith. ”
      Regime Change” is against inter-
      national law precisely because it encourages aggression. When it is an object it is always done outside of UN processes. This was the case in Iraq and in Syria where it is supported by the US and its agressive allies such as Israel, Saudi Arabia, Quatar.

      It does not make any sense to discuss any
      negotiations about a political “transition”. No nation would ever agree to surrender its authority to its opponents. (Certainly the US would not!)

      Further attempts at “regime change” by
      any foreign powers (Western and/ or Arab) would probably strengthen the Assad
      regime.

      The so-called “moderates” have always
      seemed like a fig leaf of hawkish regime
      changers’ fantasies. They can accomplish
      nothing without outside support which
      will then be rehetorically “justified” because Assad is so evil etc. (and the Saudis are not?).

      —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

  4. Joe Tedesky
    January 17, 2015 at 12:14

    A ceasefire in Syria is something I can support. Although, I think it wise to brace yourself for the false flags. My hunch is we will see more, and more of what happened in Paris.

    • January 17, 2015 at 22:56

      According to Middle East geopolitical analyst Sharmine Narwani, several things should be noted:

      1) The US doesn’t have any clear desired outcomes in Syria – and they never have. There is one US policy objective of reducing Iran’s influence and preserving Israel’s, but even that has been confused by the more recent desire to stem the dangers of extremism. Yet, the US seems to be doing the absolute minimum to devastate ISIS progress in Syria and Iraq. In short, Washington remains hugely opportunistic about its mission in Syria, and will shift direction based on the benefit-du-jour.

      2) I do not believe “ceasefires” are the way forward for two reasons: Firstly, there are no two clear sides. While we can deal with a clear chain of command on the government side, the same does not exist for the dozens of ‘rebel’ groups and hundreds of opposition influencers – most of whom have already rejected De Mistura’s initiative. Secondly, “ceasefire” is a foreign-imposed word. The Syrians themselves are calling local initiatives “reconciliations” because their goal is not just to freeze conflict, but to resolve as much as possible so Syria can move forward on both local and national levels. Syria’s foreign adversaries go to great lengths to avoid the language of “reconciliation” and impose the language of “conflict.”

      Am not enamored with any of the plans and proposals out there. I think the Syrian conflict will be resolved by geopolitical developments that will enable a face-saving political solution between the Syrian government and some ‘selected’ opposition members (non-violent ones), but that it will be military gains that will help make that possible. The Resistance Axis is keeping options open on all fronts (it is working the political/diplomatic angles hard), but has the very clear non-negotiable objective of driving ISIS and other Takfiri groups out of Iraq/Syria. So a military solution remains key to the conflict, however much anyone wants to pretend otherwise. — Sharmine Narwani

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