In 2017, for the most part, the Middle East has been a place where Western punditry and gloomy predictions came to die. While analysts and journalists are still trying to hype up the alleged “fallout” from Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, once more, reality is proving them wrong and showing that things change — often at a pace that the international community is not comfortable following.
Barack Obama was one person who tried to break the mold of the U.S. strategy in the Middle East, and 2017 offered some answers on whether the change was for better or worse.
Donald Trump’s walk in Syria followed Obama’s path — for all the controversy it caused, the U.S. air strike against the Syrian army’s position following another chemical weapons attack proved to be a merely symbolic act, a glitch in the strategy that the State Department is actually content with following.
- April: Chemical Weapons Attack Kills Dozens in Syria’s Idlib Province
- April: Assad Regime behind Chemical Attack in Syria, France’s Intelligence Says
- April: US Strikes Syrian Regime with Cruise Missiles to Retaliate for Chemical Weapons Attack
Midway through that path, Bashar al-Assad has every reason to celebrate when the clock ticks midnight on New Year’s Eve, because the 99 problems that he had on January 1, 2017 are all but gone this December.
Despite the choir of pundits’ predictions that ISIS was somehow impossible to defeat if Syrians did not see Assad’s downfall, Damascus’ brutal crackdown and ruthless siege tactics supported by Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Russian airpower managed to purge the country of Islamic State’s jihadists and paralyze rebels.
It was dubious from the get-go to claim that it was possible to defeat ISIS in the atmosphere which fueled the creation and expansion of notorious jihadists groups in the first place — an atmosphere of chaos, division, conflicting regional interests and a fractured security situation. Be it in the times of the revolution’s peaceful beginnings or after its bloody conflagration, the opposition in the Syrian conflict has never had a clear vision of the country’s future — putting them in a perpetually inferior position compared to Assad’s tyrannical, yet coherent, goal.
The rebels’ downfall, even more ironically, was prompted by a diplomatic maneuver in Astana, Kazakhstan, a process that has long overridden the official and all but dead Geneva peace process. Behind closed doors, Iran, Turkey and Russia agreed on a series of “ceasefire” deals, which mostly served to pacify numerous rebel factions, encircle them in the remaining enclaves and carve the influence zones of Assad’s allies. Saudi Arabia and Jordan discreetly pushed back from the Syrian battlefield, leaving rebels to the good graces of their remaining backer, Turkey.
But by accepting ceasefire deals and forging alliances with Russia and Iran, Ankara pretty much gave Assad all the legitimacy he needed, solving a batch of its own problems along the way — mainly a growing rift with the European Union and the United States. Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan successfully found new, less judgmental partners in his quest to turn Turkey into his own Islamist autocracy and address Ankara’s security concerns over a potential Kurdish autonomous province in Syria serving as a precedent and inspiration to Turkish Kurds with similar aspirations.
It goes without saying that the United States played a minimal part in the entire process, and one cannot blame Trump for that, as these cards were drawn and dealt by Obama’s lenient policies during the days of the conflict’s escalation. Plagued by the bloody legacy of U.S. interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former president steered clear of any direct involvement in Syria, and this decision had effects throughout 2017.
“As soon as I’m done with the air and missile forces, you’ll want me to go after the artillery; and once I’m finished with the cannons and their crews, you’ll ask me to occupy the whole country,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey elaborated in 2013.
However, even Obama’s most fervent supporters felt that the president crossed their red line when he turned the American international red line into an empty threat after refusing to retaliate against the Syrian regime after the first chemical weapons attack against civilians in August 2013.
“It is directly related to our credibility and whether countries still believe the United States when it says something. They are watching to see if Syria can get away with it, because then maybe they too can put the world at greater risk,” former State Secretary John Kerry said regarding Obama’s lack of action.
And Russia took notice, despite Obama’s smug warnings that their strategy won’t work.
“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work,” Obama said in 2015 following Russian air raids in insurgent-held areas of Syria’s Homs.
Fast forward two years, and Russia has solidified its position in the Middle East, all but won Assad’s war and runs the game both on the ground and at the negotiating table. “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.”
- November: Putin, Rouhani, Erdogan Agree on Syria Talks
- December: Putin Orders Partial Withdrawal from Syria
Russia, Assad and Hezbollah are tied in a peculiar all-or-nothing alliance in Syria — each put too much on the line and failure has never been an option for them. Assad will cling to his power to the bitter end, knowing that there is nothing else for him to do — he went as far as slaughtering his own people to force them into obedience, and he knows that fear and the iron fist are all that he has to maintain his position.
Russia is happy to provide Assad with an iron fist in its quest for renewed influence among the shambles of failed American policies in the Middle East, lucrative trade deals and access to valuable Mediterranean seaport. On the other hand, Iranian-backed Hezbollah sacrificed a lot of its valuable soft power capacity when it involved itself in the ugly, brutal sectarian conflict, shattering its image of a valiant resistance movement dedicated to protecting Lebanon from Israel.
It would be ludicrous to blame Trump for simply recognizing reality and not trying to change this, but his responsibility lies within the one remaining U.S. egg in the Syrian basket: the Kurds. The Kurdish role in the Syrian civil war was limited to securing Kurdish populations’ own survival and utilizing immediate fallout to better their traditionally difficult position in Syria. Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have butted heads with the Syrian regime only recently — when the two sides set their sights on the oil-rich Deir el-Zor province.
- September: Deir el-Zor Reopens the Kurdish Question in Syria
Apart from capturing large swaths of ISIS-held territory, including the former caliphate’s capital Raqqa, Kurdish forces managed to put cities and villages under their own local administration. In September and November, the Kurds also quietly held two rounds of elections for the governing bodies of their future autonomous province.
However, in this matter, Washington has been incapable of going beyond its mantra of defeating ISIS as its regional priority. Now that ISIS, as a territorial entity, is almost gone, Washington seems confused as to what to do next, going headfirst into another mistake by flat-out rejecting Kurdish aspirations in Syria.
Despite being excluded from the negotiations between Turkey, Iran and Russia, and strong pressure from Ankara and Damascus, Syrian Kurds are standing their ground.
“We are not present in these meetings, and therefore we are developing the solution on the ground. Peace talks would not “arrive at solutions,” so long as they do not involve those running 30 percent of the country,” senior Kurdish politician Hadiya Yousef told Reuters after November elections, confidently asserting that a “Kurdish-led administration would not be bound by decisions taken in its absence.”
But based on the experience of their less fortunate brethren in Iraq, whose dreams of independent statehood were quickly extinguished by Baghdad, with the U.S. idly standing by, Syrian Kurds should exercise caution.
Without U.S. support, Kurds would hardly be capable of defending their territory against Assad, who has proved himself willing and capable of brutally coercing his enemies into obedience — and Damascus was very clear about its plan to reassert control of the entire Syrian territory.
Following Trump’s late-November conversation with Erdogan, in a bleak attempt to maintain a working relationship with his slippery Turkish ally, the Pentagon announced that it would recover heavy weapons and larger vehicles from its chief protege group, the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
Yet apart from halfway pleasing Ankara, which considers YPG a terrorist organization, there is no carrot at the end of that stick for the Kurds. As 2017 is nearing its end, and we’ve been telling ISIS goodbye for a while now, Washington still isn’t addressing the burning question: What is the United States’ relationship with the Kurds?
“As the coalition stops offensive (operations), then, obviously, you don’t need that, you need security — you need police forces. That’s local forces. That’s people who make certain that ISIS doesn’t come back,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in early December, avoiding any further clearance on the issue.
Only a few days later, Pentagon spokesman Eric Pahon sent some positive signals, saying the United States “would work with the SDF and other local forces on the ground to transition to a sustainable, self-sufficient, ethnically diverse local security forces, while also promoting inclusive governance that is representative of local communities liberated from ISIS rule.”
As Washington has been wasting time peddling the worn-out ISIS narrative and figuring out its strategy, neither the Russians nor the Kurds were on board — the YPG recently announced that its anti-ISIS operations in eastern Syria had received air support from Moscow. According to NRTTV, Russian forces have also trained Kurdish fighters in the Afrin province, where there is no ISIS presence, and managed a buffer zone between Kurds and Turkish-backed rebels.
During the post-independence referendum fallout in Iraqi Kurdistan, Russia also emerged as the Kurds’ saving grace, showing that Moscow is up for anything when it comes to forging new alliances in the Middle East. While Washington meanders in confusion and Moscow expands its network, Russia is slowly becoming a more desirable partner.
On top of sticking to the Kurds as its only remaining direct source of influence in Syria, the United States should closely follow the situation with the remaining rebel/opposition enclaves, including Idlib, Homs and Hama. The situation is far from clear or resolved.
In recent days, the “Syrian Salvation Government,” linked to the hardline Islamist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (formerly known as Jabhat al-Nusra), attempted to take over the local governance in Idlib and rebel-held Aleppo from the Syrian Interim Government.
The interim government was established by the Syrian National Council in 2013, with the goal of maintaining secular, moderate rule during international peace talks. The Salvation Government, however, rejects negotiations and seeks to establish a rule with strict interpretations of Islamic law — and hardline Islamists have had a fairly successful year in Idlib.
- September: Should Bashar al-Assad Be Optimistic About Winning Syrian Civil War?
- October: Syrian Army’s Advances Spell Bad News for ISIS and Rebels, But Damascus Should Be Cautious in Its Optimism
At the moment, most residents of this province live in extreme poverty, relying on international humanitarian aid, with heavy bombardment as a daily occurrence.
The opposition and rebels are either scattered, disappointed and broken, or doubling down against Assad and rival factions. Unfortunately for Assad, the sources of Syrian people’s grievances and divisions cannot be besieged and bombed away — and this may prove to be his greatest source of concern once Damascus reaches the goal of asserting control over the remaining insurgent-held enclaves.
Judging by the recent failed attempt at negotiations within the Geneva process, Assad does not intend to compromise, and the United Nations mainly serves as a theater for boasting his and his allies’ leverage.
The United Nations’ idle role during the seven years of carnage in Syria may be one of the greatest embarrassments in the international body’s history. Various resolutions, strong condemnations or recoils from holding the Syrian government responsible for the crimes it committed, as evidenced by a vague early-December report on the chemical weapons attack on Khan Sheikhoun, seem to be a source of great entertainment for Damascus and the Kremlin.
Ultimately, Damascus and the Kremlin know that the future of Syria will be decided on the ground — and the United States should follow suite, using this position against them.
In December, Trump presented his national security doctrine, which holds that “nation states are in perpetual competition and the U.S. must fight on all fronts to protect and defend its sovereignty from friend and foe alike.”
So far, Trump hasn’t been capable of following the perpetual state of change in the Middle East, and multiple parties are waiting for Washington to make up its mind. In 2018, both the rebels and Syrian Kurds are a lost cause only if Washington decides so, pushing the region further into a vacuum that Russia will be happy to fill. This is hardly a prescription for making America great again.