By Jeremy Ritter-Wiseman, Columnist
U.S. policy towards Syria thus far has been incoherent and reactionary. While the objective of seeing a Syria free of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime remains clear, the strategy has inadvertently been one of appeasement. From the Russian-brokered chemical weapons “deal,” to the U.S. campaign against ISIS in Syria, Assad has been basking in the inconsequential benefits of U.S. policy towards the conflict in Syria. Whether it is most practical to directly engage the Assad regime or not (the consensus seems to say “not”), the U.S. must stop taking measures that only seem to further insulate Assad’s rule and invariably disrupt the rebel-cause.
Following President Obama’s ‘red-line’ ultimatum speech in 2012 and the Syrian government’s subsequent use of chemical weapons on its own people a year later, Russia helped facilitate a deal that would purportedly rid Syria of any and all chemical weapons. Occurring before a congressional vote that would have likely voiced opposition against retaliatory airstrikes in Syria and embarrassed the Obama administration, the deal has done little to hamper Assad’s fight in the ongoing civil war. Instead, it has distracted from the reality that Assad continues to wreak havoc on his own people with perfectly lethal and effective conventional weapons.
Most importantly, the plan to eliminate Syria’s chemical weapon cache is not working. Being routinely road-blocked by a reluctant Syrian government and by the fact that the massive undertaking is being conducted inside country in the midst of civil war, the project is severely behind schedule. Because of the ongoing conflict, most of the weapons sites are too hazardous and therefore inaccessible to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), the group tasked with supervising the removal and destruction of the weapons stockpile; this past May the group came under attack while trying to reach a weapons site. Furthermore, the scale and fragility of the project will mean a long road ahead in realizing its goal. In the meantime though, Assad can continue his cruel campaign against rebels and civilians, with the peace-of-mind that the West is busy trying to eliminate chemical weapons he does not even need. From its conception, the deal was flawed and proved unlikely to succeed. This is evidenced further in a report released this summer by the UN and OPCW showing that chemical weapons are still being used inside Syria.
For most of the three-year conflict, Assad has been fighting a war on essentially two fronts; first against the Western-backed Syrian opposition and second against Islamic extremist groups like ISIS and the al-Qaeda linked Khorasan group. However Assad now has help in the form of the U.S. Air Force in his battle against arguably the more formidable opponent. Having the U.S. taking on ISIS, the Syrian government can now focus its sole attention on battling the army being explicitly supported by the West. This hypocritical policy is not likely to lead to a cessation of hostilities in the near future as the prospects of a political resolution seems more distant now than ever.
Though arming rebels consistently remains the strategy in Syria against ISIS and Assad, the policy could very well prove fruitless. A recently released CIA report concludes that in its long history of arming rebels around the world, the strategy “rarely works.” Considering the moderate Syrian opposition’s apparent weakness and disunity, the CIA report may soon have more evidence to support its hypothesis. Additionally, in attempts to supply Peshmerga (Kurdish) forces in their battle against ISIS militants, the U.S. unintentionally ended up arming the wrong side; ISIS militants received an airdropped care package full of American-made rocket-propelled grenade launchers, ammunition and medical supplies this past week. Although its supposedly a relatively insignificant amount of supplies, it is extremely unnerving knowing ISIS militants are using U.S.-grade weapons to carry out its barbaric crusade in the Middle East.
In the case of Syria, the “enemy of my enemy” is not my friend. Both enemies, in this instance, are equally despicable. Assad and ISIS have both shown equal disregard for human life by exacting brutal violence on civilians on the basis of religious or political intolerance. The indiscriminate killing of innocent people should be condemned equally for both Assad and ISIS. U.S. policy in Syria should thus be constituted by a “let them fight” mentality. While being vigilant to protect U.S. interests and allies in Syria, and alert to impending humanitarian crises, the U.S. should not be engaging with ISIS whatsoever in Syria as it is only advances Assad’s cause and hurts the rebels’.
Throwing more money and weapons at a conflict as complex as Syria will not yield results until a clear and proven strategy is realized. Containment must be that strategy. Protection against spillover into Turkey is paramount, but the U.S. must wade carefully in its arming of rebels with full awareness of its potential and realistically negative consequences. No steps should be taken to make Assad’s life any easier as his regime presents a much more tenable threat to civilians inside Syria than ISIS does. U.S. policy should start reflecting this reality.