Is the West’s Strategy in Syria Falling Apart?

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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News that Islamist factions within Syria have pushed out Free Syrian Army forces from several locations in the country even while both forces face an invigorated Assad regime, has underlined for many observers what many of them have known all along. The West’s strategic assistance to the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army was deemed insufficient from the beginning. Now that they have been overrun by Islamist forces, the US and its allies have decided that it would be unwise to continue providing such assistance, considering that it could very well end up empowering Islamist forces, whose rise the West fears as much if not more than the entrenchment of the Assad regime. Many blame a lackluster US policy and engagement for the recent development, while there are those who believe the Free Syrian Army has only themselves to blame. Meanwhile, the violence in the country continues to claim civilian lives making life extremely difficult for untold others.

While a major development in its own right, “The decision by both the United Kingdom and the United States to ‘suspend’ assistance to a moderate Syrian rebel force, in the face of rising Islamist influence, was a bitter blow to the Syrian National Coalition and the Free Syrian Army.” Yet, for the Daily Star’s  (Lebanon) Michael Glackin, the move only “underscores their, and indeed the West’s, increasingly marginal role in Syria’s fate….While the U.K. has pursued its consistent approach, Assad has unleashed chemical weapons on his people on at least five occasions according to the United Nations; rebel fighters summarily execute people; and tens of thousands of refugees are suffering another bitter winter in makeshift tents in Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey.”

In an article posted by both the Guardian (UK) and the Peninsula (Qatar), Fawaz Gerges, argues the Free Syrian Army and its supporters were doomed from the beginning: “It was always overwhelmingly dependent on regional powers for military and financial support, which left it vulnerable to external manipulation. Alongside this, the Obama administration’s initial grandstanding — insisting that Assad must step down and that his days were numbered — was not matched by credible strategic planning or an accurate assessment of conditions on the ground. Britain and France repeated the US line without preparing for the fact that Syria could implode and trigger a catastrophic humanitarian crisis, exacerbated by the recent freezing temperatures, and a regional war.”

As a result many are questioning what the US’s motives and objections have been from the beginning. For example, in an op-ed for Arab News, Osama Al Sharif justifies his suspicions by arguing that: “Syria had become a strategic battleground for many foreign parties. This is one reason why the fighting in Syria will not end any time soon. With the SNC losing value whom will the Assad regime be talking to in Geneva? The rules of engagement on the ground are changing fast and former enemies may find themselves fighting together to defeat a bigger evil — at least for now. The outcome will be the survival of Assad but the ultimate sacrifice will be that of the Syrian people who continue to die needlessly as their country is torn apart.”

The truth, suggests Asharq Alawsat’s Fayez Sara is that the Assad regime is not only the enemy of the Syrian people and of the international community. The jihadists should also be targeted and dealt with if Syria is to become a truly free country: “The regime’s extremist practices formed the basis for a parallel extremism to emerge in the Syrian society: jihadism. Not isolated from foreign support, this nascent jihadism exploited the religious sentiments among the public who were hurt, frustrated and desperate, turning them into a hotbed of extremist jihadism….Syrians are now caught between two fires: the extremist Assad regime and extremist jihadists…. Both the regime and the jihadists are similar in terms of their destruction of life. Both are extremist in terms of their ideas, tools and practices, putting them on an equal level. Unified efforts are required to get rid of them both.”

Either way, what this most recent episode in the ongoing Syrian crisis demonstrates is that US strategy, and by extension that of the West, is in tethers and discredited. A recent editorial by the Saudi Gazette staff expresses grave concern over the fact that “While it is Bashar Assad that is busy trying to butcher his people into submission, it is Washington and the hand-wringing EU politicians in Brussels that have let him get away with it. From the get-go, it was clear that if Washington had been prepared to use the threat of main force to bring the Assad regime to the negotiating table, the Syrian dictator would very probably have acquiesced….But when without a shadow of a doubt it did, nothing happened, except that a Moscow-brokered meeting “persuaded” Assad to give up his poisonous arsenal.”

Unfortunately for the Syrian population that is suffering on the ground, these political and strategic calculations do not occur in a vacuum. In an emotional piece for the Saudi daily Arab News, Shahrukh Jamshed compares the suffering in Syria with the violence in Rwanda and the Balkans, making it clear that the international community must act soon to avert similar consequences: “Nearly three years of bloody civil war in Syria have created what the United Nations, governments and international humanitarian organizations describe as the most challenging refugee crisis in a generation bigger than the one unleashed by the Rwandan genocide and laden with the sectarianism of the Balkan wars….In a nutshell we can just say that humanity is dying in Syria and the whole world community should do something to save it. International diplomatic efforts must therefore focus on achieving temporary cease-fires to bring in the most urgently needed help, such as polio vaccines for children as new cases of polio is being registered among the refugees.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: Comments and feedback are welcome at

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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