Who is to Blame for Syria?

  • Middle East Policy

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Views from the Region

As clashes among the various armed groups in Syria continue unabated, the regional press likewise continues to debate what has caused the violence to endure. The present tragic conditions in Aleppo highlight the urgency of the situation, and yet little appears to have changed in the way the United States and other Western powers engage with the Assad regime and its regional backers. Many in the region are pointing the finger at U.S. policy — in Syria and more broadly — and are finding much to criticize. These commentators feel that the United States has ceded Syria to Russia and Iran. As a result, as President Barack Obama’s final term comes to an end, the majority of regional observers have concluded that on balance U.S. policies have contributed to instability in the region.

As the “cessation of hostilities” agreement in Syria began crumbling last week, some, including the Khaleej Times editorial staff, felt that its failure much to do with the unwillingness and perhaps inability of the United States and Russia to control their respective allies within Syria: “Syria seems to have lost an opportunity for peace. The ongoing fighting in several areas of the war-torn country is an indicator that the fragile truce is collapsing….What went wrong suddenly as the truce was holding for the last several weeks is anybody’s guess. The point is that the US and Russia are on the same page in their desire to see the five-year old conflict come to an end. But the way skirmishes have broken out — from Aleppo to the suburbs of Damascus — proves that the implementation muscles were not stronger enough. Moreover, there was a lack of political will from both the sides, as each side desired for a lion’s share at the negotiating table by exhibiting the potential they hold on the ground. This exercise of muscle flexing has cost the truce.”

But many have pointed out that the United States and Russia have taken two very different approaches to the conflict, with this recent Peninsula editorial suggesting that Russia has taken a more proactive and muscular approach in defense of Assad’s regime: “Russia is going one step ahead in its intervention in Syria. Moscow and Damascus yesterday signed an agreement worth €850m to restore infrastructure in the war-torn country….In another development President Barack Obama said the US would send up to 250 more special forces and other military personnel to Syria to help rebels fight Islamic State jihadists. When an entire country is a battlefield 250 troops are unlikely to make a major impact. What the Syrian opposition and its Arab allies expect from Obama is a more coherent calculated and powerful strategy which can lead to the overthrow of Assad. But Obama has stubbornly resisted any bigger involvement.”

Arab News’s Osama Al Sharif believes that the aloofness of the United States has allowed Putin’s Russia a free hand in Syria: “One reason why the regime is playing hardball is that it feels it is no longer under international pressure to give in on any point. The US has allowed Russia to lead on the issue of finding a political solution to the complex Syrian conflict….With the US abandoning the Syrian opposition it is difficult to see how it can hold together politically. Those who belong to armed groups, like Jaish Al- Islam and Ahrar Al-Sham, will be targeted by the regime and Russian jets and the areas they control will eventually be recaptured. Moscow’s intervention in Syria, while criticized by the Americans, appears to be achieving its objectives for now. But the cost for the Syrian people will be devastating and in the words of Tacitus ‘they make desolation and they call it peace’.”

This more hands-off posture by the United States has not been without drawbacks, which is why in an op-ed for Jordan Times Hassan Barari pins much of the blame for the current state of the negotiations to the recent military gains by the Syrian regime is facilitated by U.S. unwillingness to get involved: “As the Geneva talks aimed at finding a political solution during the transition period in Syria began to crumble, Russia started its military build-up near Aleppo. The fragile ceasefire may not hold in the days to come. It is not clear yet what the Russians are up to, but their military movement in the northern part of Syria can only embolden the regime to stick to its gun and stall negotiations. Evidently, the culprit behind this situation is President Bashar Assad’s regime….Putin knows that the American administration has no appetite for getting deeply involved in the conflict. While the American administration could have provided the opposition with lethal weapon to check Russia, it took a different course….It is hard to avoid the conclusion that the US administration is not serious about ending the conflict in Syria. Its failure to act properly has rendered it less effective.”

Some, like The National’s Faisal Al Yafai, have argued against a realist position conditioned upon a continuation of negotiations and of the peace process at all costs: “The realist position, as taken by those negotiating with the regime, is that the ‘peace process’ is the only option. This is the same peace process that led to the Assad regime retaking all of Aleppo. The same process that has seen Russian jets pound anti-Assad rebels. The same process that has all but guaranteed that Bashar Al Assad will remain president of Syria, even after five years of bloodshed. The same peace process that is, as I write, falling apart. It should be obvious that there is no realist position on Syria….Doing nothing differently is also a risk, and in many ways the most substantial one….by seeking the passivity of this peace process, we are merely sleepwalking back to the status quo – sleepwalking back to a Syria ruled by Bashar Al Assad’s iron fist. That is not a realist position. For Syrians, it is an unrealistic nightmare.”

Taking a stance against the maintenance of the status quo in Syria, the Saudi Gazette editorial pins the blame squarely on the U.S. administration for sacrificing the Syrian people so as to achieve rapprochement with Iran: “Washington leads the outside world in wringing its hands uselessly on the sidelines, the slaughter continues. Yet more bodies are being added to the hundreds of thousands who have already died. Yet more people, most of them civilians, have been maimed for life. Yet more tens of thousands have been added to the millions who have already been forced to flee their homes. This is the terrible price for Obama’s greatest failure – a country and its people in bloody ruins, with no obvious end to the carnage and destruction. And Obama imagines that his greatest foreign policy achievement is his rapprochement with Iran, one of the key culprits in the seemingly endless disaster that is Syria.”

The Peninsula’s Noureddine Miladi takes issue with the U.S. pursuit of Islamist militants while neglecting Iranian-backed forces: “The chaotic situation begs the very question whether the western powers consider those people human or that they are sub-human, and not worthy of protection!!…This gloomy reality begs the following urgent question: isn’t the war waged by big powers on Daesh a wrong war? Are they attempting to distract the international community? It seems they keep extending the life of the Assad regime while watching every day the total obliteration of more hospitals, schools, and other infrastructure that sustained the remaining civilians in Syria….If the world powers remain silent and inactive then they will share in this culpability, and the blood of many innocent and helpless men, women and children will be on all their hands too.”

Writing for Asharq Alawsat, Eyad Abu Shakra takes a similar line of criticism against the United States for having turned ‘a blind eye’ to Iran’s involvement in Syria: “Today, while Russia and Iran are fighting alongside the regime, Washington has been severing all its past commitments to the Syrian Opposition, cementing its links with the Iraqi premier Haider Abadi – a prominent face of regional ‘moderate Political Shi’ism’ –, and launching a ‘strategic movement’ with the Kurds of Iraq and Syria that threatens to speedily break up the two countries, and perhaps Turkey too….With regards to Syria, Washington has turned a blind eye to Iran’s direct military involvement, fully adopted Moscow’s ‘interpretations’ of almost all agreements reached in Geneva, and kept quiet towards Moscow’s attempts to create a ‘puppet’ opposition through which it plans to undermine any genuine negotiations leading to a political settlement.”

Given this deep sense of disappointment with the Obama administration’s policy and approach to the region and its traditional alliances, it is perhaps not surprising that the president received a cool reception, as reported by Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, from the Saudi monarch: “The state-of-affairs shared by Saudi Arabia and Washington has not improved significantly, when addressing matters on Iran’s involvement in Syria, Iraq and Yemen which ultimately caused unprecedented regional volatility…. Countries cannot help but sense that Iran is spreading its span of dominance over Syria, Iraq and Lebanon all in one step, and cannot stand still and watch Iran take over its northern bordering neighbors and spur anarchy against them in Yemen….Anarchy coming from al-Qaeda, ISIS and several other terrorist organizations threatens the whole world today. Pressuring Iran and confronting it would be enough to put an end to the crises in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and Yemen; or perhaps would at least inhibit the largest of fights induced.”

However, judging from Matin Moslem’s op-ed in Iran’s main daily Tehran Times, Mr. Obama appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to balancing U.S. interests between Iran and Saudi Arabia: “Obama opines that warmongering is no longer an option and the U.S. is better off coming to grips with realities and necessities of the modern political era. The president’s change of tack has some supporters from within American political circles. However,… we would like to launch the most scathing attacks on him for not following a clear, strong foreign policy because it has ended in a global community akin to what we wished to distance from after the Bush administration….It is not yet clear what exactly was on the agenda during Obama’s Riyadh visit; however, one can be pretty sure it makes no difference. When Arabs are going to attend Obama’s goodbye party in less than 9 months from now, what can be expected from the visit except a genial sitting with the outgoing president?”

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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: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.

  • 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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