Global Independent Analytics
Danielle Ryan
Danielle Ryan

Location: Ireland

Specialization: US foreign policy, US-Russia relations and media bias

Back to square one? Washington sticks to pre-G20 rhetoric on Syria, Assad

The new reload for a new challenge?

After a glimmer of hope during the G20 Summit in Antalya and a renewed sense that compromise was paramount after the Paris attacks, it appears Washington has reverted almost completely to its pre-G20 rhetoric on Syria and the future of Bashar Assad.

It was hailed as a minor breakthrough when Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin agreed on the “need for a Syria-led political transition” during a 30-minute discussion on the sidelines of the summit on November 15. At that point, the Paris attacks, which had happened just two days earlier, were seen as an impetus to finally get the ball rolling on some kind of US-Russia compromise.

After the attacks, an immediate initial consensus emerged in the mainstream that Washington and Moscow must now finally begin to put aside their differences, coordinate the fight against ISIS, and treat the so-called Islamic State as the primary enemy in Syria. Indeed, French President Francois Hollande told the French parliament that his country’s primary enemy in Syria was Daesh [ISIS] — a comment which was seen by some as a softening of his stance on Assad and an attempt to position himself as a mediator between the US and Russia.

But as often happens after the initial shock and trauma of a tragedy, the urgency for change wears off and things settle back into their usual patterns. In Europe, the usual pattern is to fall back into lockstep with Washington.

Now, more than a week later, any sense that compromise is in the offing seems to have evaporated. Obama’s recent comments (it is “not conceivable” that Assad who has “lost legitimacy” can remain in power) are as resolute and rigid as they had been previously.

Europe can’t wait for an American miracle

But the Syrian crisis is not as pressing an issue for the US as it is for Europe. For Washington, it  is part of a long-term geopolitical strategy in the Middle East. For Europe, it is a matter of far more immediate national security threats. While the US gets to waste time debating its willingness to take in Syrian refugees and allows itself a leisurely 18 to 24 months to vet each one with high-level security checks, biometric screening, interviews with Homeland Security and “cultural orientation” programs, European nations don’t have the same luxury.

The irony is that both Obama and Putin now believe that the Paris attacks will force the other to change his strategy. The reality is that neither appears likely to do so. While Washington believes that Putin is increasingly likely to throw Assad under the bus, forced to realize that defeating ISIS is more important than holding onto a regional ally, Moscow believes that there will be enough momentum after the Paris attacks to turn Europeans away from what has largely been a failed American strategy in Syria thus far. Both have strong cards to play in this regard: While Putin can use the Paris attacks to his strategic advantage, Obama will attempt to do the same with the Russian plane downed over Egypt earlier this month.

Hollande as a mediator?

With Hollande scheduled to meet Obama, Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, this week will shed some light on whether Europe is willing to move away from Washington and edge closer to Moscow. Hollande is set to meet Obama in Washington on Tuesday, before returning to Europe for a meeting with Merkel on Wednesday and then heading to Moscow to meet Putin on Thursday.

An unnamed European diplomat told the Guardian last week that Hollande will use his trip to Washington to plead with Obama to show more urgency in the fight against ISIS and to convince him that Europe does not have the time to wait for Washington’s flailing strategy in Syria to pan out.

“The message that we want to send to the Americans is simply that the crisis is destabilising Europe — the problem is that the attacks in Paris and the refugee crisis show that we don’t have time. There is an emergency,” the diplomat said.

That, he added, is the reason Hollande chose to visit Washington before Moscow. But whether Hollande wants to give polite forewarning to Obama before meeting Putin or not, remains to be seen. It is ten days since the attacks on Paris and Washington will have had plenty of time to work on him.

But it is not just Obama that Hollande will be seeking concessions from. He will also put it to Putin in Moscow that France still ultimately sees Assad stepping down from power as a crucial element to a political resolution in Syria. This is not a deal-breaker for Moscow, which is not opposed to seeing Assad step aside eventually. The sticking points are the timing and pre-conditions Washington is likely to insist upon before committing to broader cooperation against ISIS. For Moscow, the red line is the West’s insistence that Assad’s fate must be made clear immediately by outside parties, rather than by the Syrian people at a later date.

In the face of much evidence to the contrary — primarily four years without any discernible success — the US maintains that its strategy of arming and training rebel groups in Syria is working. Or as Secretary of State John Kerry put it last week, “[the strategy] is clear and it’s working — not as fast as anybody would like, but working”.

But not everyone is convinced. Philip Gordon, a former adviser to Obama on the Middle East and North Africa told the Wall Street Journal that it was not possible to look at Paris, Beirut, Sinai or the situation on the ground in Syria and conclude that the US strategy is working.

“Bush’s approach of invasion and occupation didn’t work, and it’s fair to say this isn’t working either, and that’s why you’re constantly having to revisit it,” Gordon said.

State sponsorship

There is one more element of the Syrian conflict that gets far less airing in the mainstream, and that, examined carefully, reveals the bogusness of the West’s “strategy” for “defeating” ISIS and bringing peace to Syria: The role of state-sponsorship. This was excellently outlined by investigative journalist Dr Nafeez Ahmed in a piece published on Medium by Insurge Intelligence.

Most Americans and Europeans want to believe that their governments are primarily interested in destroying ISIS. How could they not be? Not many could fathom the idea that it is in fact a NATO nation, Turkey, that is possibly the biggest state sponsor of the barbaric group.

Ahmed notes a Guardian report from July on Turkey’s clandestine dealings with ISIS, quoting a senior Western official familiar with intelligence gathered from a raid on an ISIS safehouse who admitted that “direct dealings” between ranking ISIS members and Turkish officials were now “undeniable”.

Ahmed’s full report on Turkey’s double game, which is too thorough to properly summarize here, is both disturbing and illuminating. It must force us to wonder how serious Washington, Paris and London really are about eradicating this menace from the world, when two of their primary “allies” in defeating it, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, are either actively aiding the group or are so similar to it that often we can glean no discernible difference between them.

 

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