Retired General John Allen, who is the “Special Presidential Envoy for the Global Coalition to Counter ISIL” gave an important interview to Asharq Al-Awsat on Saturday—one that will have a significant impact in the Middle East, and not a good one. Here’s an excerpt of the interview, so far ignored by the U.S. press:
Q: There are those in the Gulf and Turkey who are saying that the focus should not just be on ISIS and that dealing with the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad requires equal attention and effort. How can you convince them that the US is still serious about wanting to deal with this issue?[…] the outcome that we seek in Syria is akin to the ISIS strategy that fits into a much larger regional strategy and that outcome is a political outcome that does not include Assad. We have to talk about the emergency of ISIS. We have to hold Iraq together; we have got to give the FSA and moderate Syrian opposition the capacity to deal with ISIS. In the context of that conversation, if we see or are able to achieve what we hope to with regard to the moderate Syrian opposition at the political level and the FSA at a military level—namely the creation of a unitary capacity which is not just capable of dealing with ISIS but becomes so pre-eminent in its political voice and its military credibility that it is a prominent voice ultimately in the political outcome of Syria as well. The countries [of the coalition] seek a political outcome with Assad not a part of it. And so we do have to talk about the ISIS strategy but we want to make clear that we seek a political outcome in Syria without Assad being the ultimate outcome.Q: But you don’t see the FSA units that are being trained to fight ISIS as being those who will later fight the regime’s armed forces?No. What we would like to see is for the FSA and the forces that we will ultimately generate, train and equip to become the credible force that the Assad government ultimately has to acknowledge and recognize. There is not going to be a military solution here [in Syria]. We have to create so much credibility within the moderate Syrian opposition at a political level . . . that they earn their spot at the table when the time comes for the political solution[…] The intent is not to create a field force to liberate Damascus—that is not the intent. The intent is that in the political outcome, they [the moderate Syrian opposition] must be a prominent—perhaps the preeminent voice—at the table to ultimately contribute to the political outcome that we seek.
Sunni Arabs, including the rulers of Saudi Arabia and its allies, are going to read this as meaning that the U.S. is throwing in the towel on efforts to get rid of Assad, and the consequences aren’t going to be good.
There will be a number of wealthy and well-connected Sunnis in the Gulf who will conclude from these remarks that supporting ISIS or al-Nusra is the only way to retake Damascus—which, again, for many Sunnis, is the whole point of the war. The most paranoid will conclude that the U.S. is doubling down on a plan to leave Iran the key player in Syria as part of its quest for a nuclear deal.
U.S. foreign policy often gets us in situations where the moderate, compromise solutions that we want clash with the more aggressive agendas of our allies on the ground. Rarely has the gulf between our agenda and those of our allies been as cavernous as it is today in Syria—and rarely have U.S. officials managed the consequences so poorly.
The U.S. has never really come to grips with the logic of the sectarian war now raging across the Middle East, or the relationship of a sectarian balance of power to our broader goal of stability. A perceived U.S. tilt toward the Shia and toward Iran (which is how most Sunni Arabs understand the Obama administration’s policy) is deeply destabilizing. the U.S. needs to deal with this perception much more effectively than we have done so far, or watch tensions mount and wars spread even as we do everything we can to calm things down.