Syria Series – Part 3: The West’s strategy

Bashar al-Assad and John Kerry

In part three of Revolution Observer’s Syria series, Adnan Khan explains how the West’s strategy has adjusted throughout the conflict by using neighbouring Muslim countries to infiltrate the rebel factions.

When the Syr­ian upris­ing began three years ago amongst the eupho­ria of the Arab Spring, West­ern nations looked on expect­ing Bashar al-Assad to put an end to mat­ters.

Amer­ica, famil­iar with the bru­tal tac­tics of the regime expected the Arab Spring to be quickly quelled in Syria. Hillary Clin­ton laid out the US posi­tion at the time: There are deep con­cerns about what is going on inside Syria, and we are push­ing hard for the gov­ern­ment of Syria to live up to its own stated com­mit­ment to reforms. What I do know is that they have an oppor­tu­nity still to bring about a reform agenda. Nobody believed Qaddafi would do that. Peo­ple do believe there is a pos­si­ble path for­ward with Syria. So we’re going to con­tinue join­ing with all of our allies to keep press­ing very hard on that.”

Very quickly, the defec­tions in Assad’s army began, the peo­ple of Syria rose up across the coun­try, their Islamic call shocked the world and Assad responded with even more bru­tal force.

The West has been forced to con­stantly to adjust its strategy towards Syria and four key trends can be observed.

Continuation of Assad’s violence

Despite the bru­tal mas­sacres car­ried out by the regime and the use of chem­i­cal weapons, the West has con­stantly given the Assad regime cover through initiatives in Geneva and by doing lit­tle against the regime itself.

For­mer US ambas­sador to Syria, Ryan Crocker out­lined the West’s strategy: “We need to come to terms with a future that includes Assad — and con­sider that as bad as he is, there is some­thing worse.”  The Islamic nature of the upris­ing has seen the West pre­serv­ing the regime, even if Assad is forced to step down.

Leon Panetta who was Sec­re­tary of Defence at the time made this very clear in an inter­view with the CNN in 2012, he said: “I think it’s impor­tant when Assad leaves — and he will leave — to try to pre­serve sta­bil­ity in that coun­try. And the best way to pre­serve that kind of sta­bil­ity is to main­tain as much of the mil­i­tary, the police, as you can, along with the secu­rity forces, and hope that they will tran­si­tion to a demo­c­ra­tic form of gov­ern­ment. That’s a key.” Even the giv­ing up of chem­i­cal weapons main­tained the regime.

Pro-western opposition

The FSA is supported by the West,
The FSA is supported by the West,

Sec­ondly, the core aspect of the West’s strat­egy has been the estab­lish­ment of a loyal oppo­si­tion who will nego­ti­ate with the Assad. The US along with other European powers gath­er­ed the dif­fer­ent fac­tions in Switzer­land through Geneva 2 ini­tia­tive in late Jan­u­ary 2014. How­ever, the West has strug­gled in cul­ti­vat­ing an oppo­si­tion that has influ­ence on the ground in Syria who will then nego­ti­ate with the Assad regime in a tran­si­tional gov­ern­ment, and ulti­mately, share power with him.

The West­ern backed Free Syr­ian Army (FSA) has been com­pletely out-classed and out-gunned by var­i­ous Islamic alliances, and the Syrian National Coali­tion (SNC) spends more time in Wash­ing­ton, Lon­don and Paris then it does in Syria. Its armed wing, the Supreme Mil­i­tary Coun­cil (SMC) was humil­i­ated in December 2013 after receiv­ing months of train­ing, diplo­matic sup­port and aid from the West, lost con­trol of its head­quar­ters and sup­ply depots in north­ern Syria to the Islamic Front.

Islamic opposition

The West has attempted to weaken the Islamic oppo­si­tion through divid­ing the rebels on the ground, through demar­ca­tions and labels of “mod­er­ates” and “extrem­ists”. The West’s strat­egy in coop­er­a­tion with the coun­tries in the region has been to weaken who they view as rad­i­cal fac­tions, who have been extremely suc­cess­ful by divert­ing their atten­tion against the regime through rebel infight­ing.

Syrian rebels
Syrian rebels

With the other groups, a strat­egy of infil­tra­tion appears to be the tac­tic in order to weaken them. The Geneva con­fer­ences also aimed to exploit the gaps in infighting between rebel groups through demar­cat­ing between the rebel groups both polit­i­cally, mil­i­tar­ily and through assign­ing them labels of “mod­er­ate” and “rad­i­cal” to fur­ther widen the divi­sions. In this way the West can absorb and utilise the “mod­er­ates” in its roadmap and iso­late and exclude the “rad­i­cals”. This was a sim­i­lar strat­egy to what was pur­sued in Iraq.

Neighbouring Muslim countries

Lastly, the sur­round­ing Mus­lim coun­tries have played a cen­tral role in maintaining the Assad regime, despite their rhetoric of sup­port­ing the peo­ple of Syria. As many of the rebel groups indi­vid­u­ally are very small; the West through Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey, Qatar and Jor­dan has attempted to weaken the Islamic groups through absorb­ing them into larger alliances which weak­ens their capabilities.

The FSA is heav­ily influ­enced by the Turk­ish intel­li­gence agen­cies, whilst Saudi Ara­bia has played an impor­tant role in dis­trib­ut­ing weapons. Saudi Ara­bia played a cen­tral role in the estab­lish­ment of Jaysh al-Islam, its leader, who was also the leader of Liwa al-Islam, Chief Zahran Alloush has a long and che­quered history with Riyadh.

Sim­i­larly, Qatar has played an impor­tant role in financ­ing and sup­port­ing “mod­er­ate” groups in order sep­a­rate them from the more Islamic groups.  This aspect of the West’s strat­egy is aimed at infil­trat­ing the rebel groups in order to weaken them in the face of the regime.

Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the West
Saudi Arabia is a staunch ally of the West

With each devel­op­ment in Syria the West has con­stantly adjusted its strat­egy. What has remained the same despite such devel­op­ments has been main­tain­ing the Syr­ian regime and ensur­ing that the oppo­si­tion does not change this sta­tus quo.

The Geneva con­fer­ences took place with this objec­tive in mind. The West has also used the sur­round­ing Mus­lim coun­tries just as they did in Iraq and Afghanistan to achieve its objec­tive in guar­an­tee­ing real change does not come to Syria.

Russ­ian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov after the Geneva 2 Con­fer­ence in an inter­view con­firmed this to Vesti 24: “There are con­di­tions when all the Syr­ian patri­ots must under­stand what is more impor­tant: to fight on the side of those who want Syria to become the Khi­lafah or to unite and return their home­land the image that it was famous for cen­turies — namely, a multi-confessional, multi-ethnic, sec­u­lar state in which all the peo­ple live com­fort­ably. This issue will def­i­nitely be one of the prin­ci­pal at the Geneva Conference.”

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