With assault on Idlib imminent, US stays on the sidelines

Apparently, any actions by Damascus and its allies short of using chemical weapons will not provoke a US response.
Sunday 09/09/2018
A file picture shows members of US forces standing guard in the town of Tabqa. (AFP)
On the sidelines. A file picture shows members of US forces standing guard in the town of Tabqa. (AFP)

The 7-year Syrian civil war is approaching a crucial moment with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad preparing to move on the rebel-controlled province of Idlib with the assistance of his Russian and Iranian allies.

Idlib is the base for thousands of jihadists and home to several million people. A bloodbath is a distinct possibility and the United Nations is warning of a humanitarian catastrophe.

The presidents of Russia, Iran and Turkey, the guarantors of the so-called Astana process which aims to manage the Syria crisis (and which has eclipsed the United Nations’ Geneva process) conferred in Tehran on September 7 but apparently did not reach an agreement likely to halt the regime’s offensive.

Meanwhile, the world’s largest economic and military power — the country that not that long ago was considered the primary outside actor in the Middle East and whose involvement was indispensable to the resolution of major regional conflicts — is on the sidelines, its capital obsessed by political scandals and its president incapable of developing and sticking to a coherent foreign policy.

As the Syrian civil war is reaching a gruesome crescendo, the United States has made itself virtually irrelevant.

Russia, which has assumed the role as prime outside actor, sees the United States not as an equal but as a potential spoiler. “I hope our Western partners will not give in to (rebel) provocations and will not obstruct an anti-terror operation” in Idlib, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Reuters. Russian concerns over US obstruction were fuelled by US President Donald Trump’s warning that Syria should not “recklessly attack” Idlib.

While the president did not define “reckless,” US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the United States would respond if Damascus used chemical weapons. US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley tweeted: “All eyes on the actions of Assad, Russia and Iran in Idlib. #NoChemicalWeapons.”

Apparently, any actions by Damascus and its allies short of using chemical weapons will not provoke a US response.

Even if Damascus uses chemical weapons, the US response is unlikely to be a game-changer. In April, Washington reacted to evidence of a chemical weapons attack by hitting several Syrian government military targets, a limited show of force that in no way affected the course of the conflict or seriously weakened the Assad regime.

To ensure that Washington does not become a spoiler, Russia amassed a large naval force in the eastern Mediterranean as a warning against a US intervention that goes beyond a slap on the wrist.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, reacting to comments from Washington, said: “Just to speak out with some warnings, without taking into account the very dangerous, negative potential for the whole situation in Syria, is probably not a full, comprehensive approach.”

Peskov makes a valid point: The United States has no “full, comprehensive approach” to Syria and has not for the past seven years.

Jonas Parello-Plesner, a researcher with the Hudson Institute think-tank in Washington, told Agence France-Presse that “verbal warning shots” do not make a policy. The reality, Plesner said, is that “Assad is advancing on the ground, aided by Iran by land and Russia by air,” while Washington “continues to pay lip service to the UN-backed Geneva peace process.”

Faysal Itani, an expert with the Atlantic Council think-tank, said “the United States has already effectively acquiesced to the regime recapturing the remainder of Syria…and the regime and Russia understand this.”

The only clear US objective in Syria under former President Barack Obama and continuing under Trump has been the defeat of the Islamic State (ISIS), an objective that has been largely achieved in terms of ISIS’s actual physical hold on territory. However, as Geoffrey Aronson, a fellow at the Middle East Institute wrote: “The challenge for Washington is to understand that both the means and ends of Syria policy need to account for the failure of US policy beyond the defeat of ISIS.”

When the Idlib operation is over and the bodies counted, the Syria game will move to east of the Euphrates, where the United States has cards to play. The Russians are aware of this. Lavrov recently said that “our American partners are doing their best in developing the east of Euphrates, restoring infrastructure there, rebuilding socio-economic ties, even creating quasi-official governance bodies. This is fraught with attempts to split Syria and is a blunt violation of all [UN Security Council] resolutions that demand respect for Syria’s sovereignty.”

Is the United States willing to play these cards and, if so, to what end? In April, Trump said “it is time” to withdraw US troops from Syria but backed down when the Pentagon expressed concerns that to do so would risk the resurgence of ISIS. Trump, however, continues to express a desire to pull out as soon as possible.

The United States seems content to spend this game sitting on the bench.