Are there at long last signs that the Obama administration is going to do something positive in Syria? An important article in the usually well sourced and carefully edited FT reports that under “heavy US influence” a new southern front is opening in the Syria war. The anti-Assad rebels are gearing up to fight towards Damascus, and fighters, aid, and weapons are flowing into rebel centers in the South. More:
“There’s an understanding in the US and the west that the north is just desperately complicated at this moment, where the idea that moderate forces can be dominant or can push back Assad just isn’t going to happen,” said Charles Lister, who tracks rebel movements for the Brookings Doha Centre. “That has led to an understanding that the south is a more realistic key to military success being led by moderates.”
This is one of several hopeful signs that after years of failure and indecision, the Obama administration has realized that whatever flaws the Syrian opposition has (and they are many), letting the Syrian war drag on indefinitely with Assad inching toward victory is a recipe for disaster. It may even be that the administration is coming to understand that looking indecisive and weak is not the way to get results with Iran, Israel or the Palestinians. Like it or not, US indecision and hesitancy over Syria has become a test case of America’s seriousness of purpose in the region. If the White House has finally taken note of this reality and started to act, there’s at least a fighting chance that the erosion of America’s position in the region and in the strength of its alliances could come to an end.
Some other interesting hints of important change have been coming into view lately. Deputy Secretary of State William Burns’ recently gave testimony before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on the growing costs of a long-term war in Syria for the US and its allies. The longer the war drags on the more the Syria becomes an “incubator of extremism”:
We face a number of serious risks to our interests as a result: the risk to the homeland from global jihadist groups who seek to gain long-term safe havens; the risk to the stability of our regional partners, including Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq; the risk to Israel and other partners from the rise of Iranian-backed extremist groups, especially Lebanese Hizballah fighting in Syria; and the risk to the Syrian people, whose suffering constitutes the greatest humanitarian crisis of this new century.
This testimony indicates that the US government could be moving away from its former position that getting involved, however indirectly, in the war was worse than letting the war drag on. And it perhaps also reflects a realization that Russia isn’t going to help us end it on reasonable terms. The Geneva conference was a total and utter fiasco, and made it impossible for Washington to pretend that it actually had a Syria policy. Now, post-Geneva, the US appears to be rethinking the decisions that got us into this fix.
On the Middle East side there are important developments too. It seems like the Saudis are getting more serious about breaking links with dangerous groups. They have declared some Syrian Jihadist organizations to be terrorists in a recent statement, for instance, and are cracking down on the fighters and funders supporting the ‘wrong’ people in this terrible war.
Those of us who aren’t in the flow of secret cables have to try to read the tea leaves instead, and these tea leaves suggest that the US and the Saudis have reached a meeting of the minds. The Saudis appear to have agreed to police the recipients of their aid much more effectively, taking US concerns about radical groups seriously. The US on the other hand is ready to do significantly more for groups that pass the stricter ‘moderation’ tests. If true, this isn’t just good news for the Syrian opposition. It is a sign that the Obama administration is paying closer attention to the loud chorus of voices from all sides of the Middle East warning that an effort to settle the nuclear issue with Iran that ignores Iran’s geopolitical surge across the Fertile Crescent will fail. Both Israelis and Arabs will sigh in relief if this is so; Sunni Arabs and Israelis have been united by the fear that in its rush to get a nuclear deal with Iran the Obama administration was ready to trade Arab land for Iranian nukes.
The opening of a rebel offensive in the southern front (where it can be supplied from friendly Jordan) and away from the chaos and infighting that dominates rebel held territory in the north, could be significant. Damascus is close to the southern front in the war. Anything that threatens Damascus can change the nature of the war and force Assad and his backers in Iran into a tight corner. It’s very early going yet, but if the administration is moving toward a more constructive policy, people should take note and give credit where credit is due. There have been false dawns before. But if these straws in the wind turn out to be the signs of real change, it may be that the White House at long last is moving toward a more grounded and realistic policy in its approach to the Middle East.
[Map by Lindsey Burrows, Picture of Syrian Village Courtesy of Shutterstock]