The Real Obstacle to Syrian Peace

Despite Russia and the U.S. coming together on Friday to back a U.N.-approved peace plan for Syria, major obstacles remain, including the on-the-ground reality that U.S. “allies,” such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey, have armed and financed powerful jihadist forces that won’t compromise, as Gareth Porter explains.

By Gareth Porter

The anti-Assad coalition led by the United States continues to stagger toward the supposed objective of beginning peace negotiations between the Syrian government and what has now been blessed as the politically acceptable “opposition.” The first such meeting was scheduled for Jan. 1, but no one on either side believes for a moment that any such negotiations are going to happen any time in the foreseeable future.

The notion that negotiations on a ceasefire and political settlement will take place lacks credibility, because the political-military realities on the ground in Syria won’t allow it. Those opposition groups that are prepared to contemplate some kind of settlement with the Assad regime do not have the capacity to make such an agreement a reality. And those organizations that have the capacity to end the war against the Damascus regime have no interest in agreeing to anything short of forcible regime change.


On top of those serious contradictions, Russia is openly contesting the U.S. plan for a negotiated settlement. The United States is pushing the line that President Bashar al-Assad must step down, but Russia is insisting that such a demand is illegitimate.

The contradiction between the pretensions of the U.S.-sponsored plan and Syrian political-military realities was very much in evidence at the Riyadh conference earlier this month. The conference, which was supported by the United States and the other “Friends of Syria,” including Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, was in theory to bring together the broadest possible range of opposition groups excluding only “terrorist” groups. Belying that claim, however, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD) being armed by the United States in Syria was excluded from the conference at the insistence of Turkey.

A key objective of the conference was apparently to bring Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful opposition military force apart from the Islamic State, into the putative game of ceasefire negotiations. But inviting the organization was bound to backfire sooner or later. Ahrar al-Sham has been closely allied with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al-Nusra Front, both politically and militarily. Moreover, it has explicitly denounced the idea of any compromise with the regime in Damascus.

Ahrar al-Sham showed up at the conference, but refused to follow the script. The representative of Ahrar al-Sham called for “the overthrow of the Assad regime with all its pillars and symbols, and handing them over for a fair trial.” That is not exactly the game plan envisioned in the negotiating process, which assumes that Assad must leave after a transitional period, but that the government security institutions would remain in place.

On the second day of the conference, Ahrar al-Sham’s representative announced that the group was leaving, complaining that the conference organizers had refused to endorse its insistence on the “Muslim” identity of the opposition.

The Ahrar al-Sham refusal to play ball was the most dramatic indication of that the entire exercise is caught in a fundamental contradiction. But it wasn’t the only case of a major armed organization whose attendance at the Riyadh meeting raised the obvious issue of conflicting interests. Jaysh al-Islam is a coalition of 60 Salafist armed groups in the Damascus suburbs whose orientation appears to be indistinguishable from that of Ahrar al-Sham.

The coalition is led by Salafist extremist Zahran Alloush, and has fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham as well as al-Nusra Front. Last April, Alloush travelled to Istanbul, where he met with the leader of Ahrar al-Sham. Like their close allies, moreover, Alloush and his coalition reject the idea of a political settlement with a secular Syrian state authority, with or without Assad.

If it is so obvious that the Riyadh conference and the larger scheme for peace negotiations are not going to come to fruition, why has the Obama administration been pushing it? The explanation for what appears to be a lost cause can be inferred from the basic facts surrounding the administration’s Syria policy.

First, the administration adopted the objective of regime change in Syria in late 2011, at a time when it was convinced that the regime was on the ropes. And although it has partially backtracked from that aim by distinguishing between Assad and the institutional structure of the regime, it cannot back off the demand for Assad to step down without a humiliating admission of failure and major domestic political damage.

Second in its pursuit of that regime change policy the administration allowed its Sunni regional allies especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia to do things that it wasn’t prepared to do. Obama tolerated Turkish facilitation of foreign fighters and Turkish, Qatari and Saudi funneling of arms to their favorite Islamist groups. The result was that Islamic State, al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam emerged in 2013 and 2014 as the main challengers to the Assad regime.

But the White House has officially maintained its distance from al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, while continuing to collaborate closely with Sunni allies, as they have provided financial support to the “Army of Conquest” command dominated by al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham to help the forces under their leadership gain control of Idlib province and pose the most serious threat to the Assad regime thus far.

And the third fact about the policy is that the Obama administration embarked on its campaign of illusory peace negotiations with little more than one year left before Obama leaves the Oval Office.

The obvious implication of these facts is that the ostensible push for a ceasefire and peace negotiations is a useful device for managing the political optics associated with Syria during the administration’s final year. If it is not questioned by media and political elites, the administration will be able to claim both that it is insisting on getting rid of Assad and at the same time moving toward a ceasefire and political settlement.

Never mind that claim has nothing to do with reality. Being the dominant power, after all, means never having to say you’re sorry, because you don’t have to acknowledge your responsibility for the terrible war and chaos visited on a country because of your policy.

Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. [This story originally appeared at Middle East Eye at]

10 comments for “The Real Obstacle to Syrian Peace

  1. Abe
    December 21, 2015 at 23:05

    Hello David Smith. So simple, with so much persecution complex! I’m not even irritated. Really.

    • David Smith
      December 24, 2015 at 11:40

      Ad Hominem Fallacy.

  2. David Smith
    December 21, 2015 at 15:02

    Hello Abe. Hello Deschutes. So irritated, and with such contempt! I take that as a sign I am onto the truth, or did I step on Mockingbirds tail feathers? Deschutes, modern armies require thousands of tons a day in supplies, this cannot be supplied by air, that is why Russia maintains a naval base at Tartus. Air supply is easily interdicted, the US learn that ugly lesson at Khe Sahn. Next up Abe: you read but did not comprehend, or are using Straw Man Fallacy. There will be no interdiction until Russia commits ground troops. Putin knows this, why it is Air Only. If Syrian Army plus Russian Air succeeds by criteria I laid out in my comment, The Big Evil Plan will fail. Big Evil needs Russian ground forces in Syria. Abe, you are 100% wrong that Russia will use the nuclear option over Syria. Syria is not ” existential” for Russia. The US Navy absolutely dominates the World Ocean. Russia will be allowed a humiliating withdrawal. I do not want all this to happen, I want Syria to win. As I stated in my despised comment above, we will know in November 2016.

  3. Peter Loeb
    December 21, 2015 at 14:06


    Gareth Porter in his brilliant article presents the most cogent
    analysis of the situation in Syria. It reaches no final conclusion
    and none can be expected at this writing.

    When a small article appeared in the local New York Times-
    owned newspaper in this city (not on page one) it strained
    to tell a story of the “historic victory” that the US wanted
    the public to know about. At least those few of the public who
    bothered to read a small article about some events on the
    other side of the world. (In fact, the upcoming American
    football game—at one o’clock—was uppermost in the
    minds of most).Listed as “pitfalls”, the story gave only
    the barest inkling of events. It was quite vague.
    Should things not work out as Secretary John
    Kerry proudly announced, it would, of course, be the
    fault of the Russians. But then you knew that already
    didn’t you?

    In “The Real Obstacle to Syrian Peace” Gareth Porter
    brilliantly documents many of the reasons why the
    Obama-Kerry narrative is nothing more than a
    PR hoax, a piece of rhetoric constructed for political
    purposes at an opportune moment.

    (Note: In my response to Robert Parry’s later article,
    are named the UN Security Council resolutions
    of 2014 and 2015 (November 20). These should be
    read closely. Both resolutions passed the Council
    unanimously and are on the UN Security Council website.)

    With gratitude to Mr. Porter, I remain,

    —-Peter Loeb, Boston, MA,USA

  4. David Smith
    December 20, 2015 at 13:22

    The Pepe Escobar linked article in Abe’s post above is the typical pseudo-left analysis blinded by the smoke and mirrors show put on by the American Propertied Class. The intention all along was to get Russia into Syria, but in a quagmire with easily interdicted supply lines. Any military initiative has one year to show it is going to win, and soon. By next November the Syrian government must retake population centers in the east and seal Turkish and Jordanian border. ISiS in west, position untenable, will be finished in year two. If this is accomplished, Syria will have peace. If it is not, Russia will be in the untenable position, forced to chose between withdrawal or an inevitable confrontation with U.S. military, with Russian lines interdicted. Russia will not risk nuclear option in such a situation. This is the Big Evil Plan. I hope it fails due to the victory of Syria.

    • Abe
      December 20, 2015 at 17:25

      So the Big Evil Plan is… what?

      Any military effort effort to interdict Russian supply lines, or any further attacks on Russian air forces in Syrian airspace will be a hot war with all options on the table.

    • deschutes
      December 21, 2015 at 04:05

      “Russian supply lines”? Do you realize Russia’s supplies come from air–from Latakia airport on the Meditteranean? Next time don’t do so many bongs before posting homey. Thanks for the laughs anyways :-D

  5. Abe
    December 19, 2015 at 17:48

    Team Obama always neglected how Riyadh and Doha, directly, and then via «private donors» – coordinated by the notorious Bandar Bush in person – financed both al-Nusra and Daesh.

    Instead, Team Obama rode the merry weaponizing of al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham, via the CIA’s supplies to the Free Syrian Army (FSA); all those weapons were captured by al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham. Team Obama, never surrendering to their own myopia, duly branded al-Nusra & co. «moderate rebels».

    Team Obama always derided Iran as a «hostile» nation, a «threat» to the GCC vassals and Israel. So everyone allied or supported by Tehran was also «hostile» or a «threat»: the government in Damascus, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ite militias trained by Iran, even the Houthis in Yemen.

    And to top it off, there’s «Russian aggression», manifested in Ukraine, and then with Moscow «interfering» in Syria, via what was interpreted by Team Obama as a crude power play in the Eastern Mediterranean.

    Amidst all the current shadow play, the true test of the Obama administration’s intentions is whether the US coalition will really fight Daesh, al-Nusra and Ahrar ash-Sham (which harbors a lot of jihadists from Chechnya, Dagestan and Uzbekistan), with no reservations.

    This would imply Team Obama telling both Ankara and Riyadh, in no uncertain terms, to back off. No more Jihad Express. And no more weaponizing. Without these red lines, the Syrian «peace process» juggling between Vienna and New York does not even qualify as a joke.

    No one should be holding their breath. As no one should be reasonably expecting that an astonishing mediocre, lame duck Team Obama would have the balls to confront Wahhabism as the true ideological matrix of all strands of Salafi jihadism, «moderate rebels» included.

    Which brings us back to all that angst simmering across the Beltway. With or without Team Obama, the fact remains: no conquered – or at least balkanized – Syria, no Full Spectrum Dominance.

    Syria Shatters Pentagon Dream
    Pepe Escobar

    • Zachary Smith
      December 19, 2015 at 21:34

      This would imply Team Obama telling both Ankara and Riyadh, in no uncertain terms, to back off.

      That’s my own view after reading recent news stories. The US is removing a dozen F-15 fighters from Turkey – perhaps a delicate suggestion to Sultan Erdogan not to rely on NATO bailing him out if he tries any more brazen stunts. Russia is simply furious with the Turkish leadership, and that was shown by Putin’s language in his recent press conference.

      “”The Turks”, he said, had “decided to lick the Americans in a certain place”.”

      So Russian efforts to assist Syria have now taken on another dimenstion – to totally smash the Sultan’s pet terorists and thus poke a sharp stick in his eye. The first and most important step is to close off the suppy corridor from Tukey though an area called “Box 4” on US maps. They’ve positioned a fine antiaircraft missile system called the SA-17 BUK in that area, and it’s almost certainly also manned by Syrian government troops. I’d expect that word has gone out to all the NATO countries that any non-Syrian or non-Russian aircraft in that particular area will be shot down.

      Will the nuts try to push for a test of this? I hope not, for doing so would likely be the first of a long string of “dominoes” falling. The Russians are hopping mad, and they have international law completely on their side on this issue.

      On the flip side, when that supply corridor is finally cut, the days of the Good Terrorists are numbered and both Israel and Turkey lose – big time. US planners better be looking into what they can do if Erdogan goes off his rocker on this issue. Or if some insubordinate US neocons provoke something they’re not authorized to do.

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