WHY IS AMERICA STILL IN SYRIA?

WHY IS AMERICA STILL IN SYRIA?

IN SEPTEMBER 2020, a Syrian rebel group called the Hamza Division showed up in an unexpected place: the disputed post- Soviet territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, 600 miles from Aleppo. The rebels had been offered $1,500 per month each to fight for Azerbaijan against Armenia in the two countries’ border war over that disputed territory, several different news outlets reported.

Sayf Bulad, commander of the Hamza Division, has an interesting past. He served as a commander in a CIA-backed rebel group, appeared in pro–Islamic State propaganda, trained with the U.S. military, and fought other U.S.-backed rebel groups in Syria on behalf of the Turkish government. Now he was helping two former Soviet republics fight each other for money. Bulad’s story is a symbol of the chaotic U.S. policy toward Syria and its unintended consequences.

U.S. policy toward Syria was torn between two often-clashing goals during the Obama administration: The CIA and State Department were focused on ending the Assad family’s decadeslong rule, while the U.S. military was trying to crush violent religious extremists such as the Islamic State.

President Donald Trump inherited this awkwardly stitchedtogether policy and added in an element of chaos. The president himself said he wanted to end “endless wars” and claimed he was ready to pull U.S. forces out of Syria at the first opportunity. But he hired a collection of hawkish advisers who thought of Syria as a battlefield on which to make Iran and Russia bleed. “He hasn’t been able to bring American troops home, because his own bureaucracy resists him,” says Aaron Stein, director of research at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “He never set up a bureaucratic process to actually implement what he wants to do.”

In 2018 and 2019, Trump ordered U.S. forces out of Syria, only to walk back the order both times. The Kurds have been left in a deadly limbo, unable to count on U.S. protection from Turkey but also blocked from looking to outside powers for help. Meanwhile, American troops have found themselves in increasingly dangerous confrontations with their Russian counterparts in the country. U.S. policy has not only failed to stop the conflict; it has helped prolong it, leaving millions of Syrians at the mercy of White House palace intrigue. President-elect Joe Biden will have to find a way to extract the United States from Syria without reigniting the civil war—or getting sucked back in.

THE UNITED STATES began backing Syrian rebels because many in the Obama administration believed that they could help quickly bring down an oppressive tyrant. Instead, the U.S. intervention fed into a bloody, yearslong international conflict. U.S.-Syrian hostility dates back decades. Syria is a close ally of Russia and Iran and helped support the insurgents during the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. But direct U.S. involvement in Syrian internal politics began with the Arab Spring. As in other Arab countries at the time, Syrian activists rose up in protest against corruption and political repression. Syrian dictator Bashar Assad cracked down with brute force. Part of the Syrian army deserted, and the uprising became a fullblown civil war.

U.S. officials “looked at Bashar al-Assad as a hapless dictator who was not going to survive any of this,” says Frederic Hof, who served as an envoy for Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations at the time. President Barack Obama declared in August 2011 that “the time has come for President Assad to step aside,” although he also made it clear that “the United States cannot and will not impose this transition upon Syria.” Nevertheless, in an effort to hasten Assad’s end, the Obama administration imposed economic sanctions banning nearly all trade with Syria. The Jimmy Carter and George W. Bush administrations had previously imposed some sanctions on the Syrian government for supporting terrorism, but the new sanctions put the entire country under a blockade. Other countries lined up more forcefully behind the anti- Assad opposition. Saudi Arabia, seeking to hurt Assad’s ally Iran, sent arms to the rebels. So did Turkey and Qatar, who saw the uprisings of the Arab Spring as a way to increase their own influence.

In 2013, Obama gave the CIA a green light to join in directly arming Syria’s rebels. Many details of the “Timber Sycamore” program remain classified, but it reportedly cost billions of dollars over four years. Assad’s forces lost control of much of the country in this time. Hof and Robert Ford, the last U.S. envoy in Syria, claim that the U.S. arms program was not a decisive factor. It was “overwhelmed by support provided by regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and Turkey,” Hof says. Other experts, including Stein, disagree. In particular, they say, U.S.-made anti-tank rockets played a key role in helping the rebels push back the Syrian military. But the regime did not fall. “Rather than Bashar capitulating,” Stein explains, “he said, ‘I’m going to the Russians and the Iranians’” for help. “It was the boomerang of the success of the CIA program.”

Ford had believed early in the conflict that Assad could not win a war of attrition—and that the opposition could convince Assad’s allies in Russia and Iran to stay out of the fight. This prediction turned out to be incorrect. Iran soon began sending military advisers, volunteers, and mercenaries to back Assad. By late 2015, Russian jets and combat troops were also in the country. “We made a terrible, terrible analytical mistake,” says Ford. Russia, Iran, and the Assad regime eventually retook most of Syria’s major cities through years of brutal siege warfare. As many as 200,000 civilians died in the process, in addition to the tens of thousands who perished in Assad’s prisons during this period, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Network for Human Rights and the British-funded Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

The chaos also allowed religious fundamentalists to take a prominent role in the Syrian opposition. Syrian nationalist rebels vetted and backed by the United States fought alongside sectarian Islamist groups.

 

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