July 17, 2016

Obama’s approach allows Russia to determine events in Syria

Russian President Vladimir Putin (R), accompanied by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (2ndR), meets with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the Kremlin in Moscow, last March.

With the increase in Russia’s military and political capabilities in Syria, the United States seems to be fated for cooperation, as US President Barack Obama has appealed to Moscow for a military partnership to enhance anti-terrorism opera­tions in Syria.

By doing so, however, Washing­ton is again demonstrating how short-sighted its Syria policy is. The United States is overlooking potential serious, long-term consequences and disregarding the Syrian people’s struggles and aspirations.

The agreement includes a deepening of air power collabora­tion between Washington and Moscow to conduct attacks on al-Qaeda-affiliated groups in Syria, namely al-Nusra Front. In exchange. Moscow would pres­sure the regime of Syrian Presi­dent Bashar Assad to stop target­ing US-backed rebels.

The Kremlin stated that Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin confirmed their readiness to increase coordination in Syria. Putin reportedly insisted that the definition of “moderate forces” be changed so the United States and Russia can attack al-Nusra Front and other “extrem­ist groups”.

The Syrian opposition is concerned that, since the conflict erupted in 2011, the Assad regime and Russia have been using the term “terrorism” very broadly, continuously attacking rebels, including those backed by the United States. In many cases, especially during times of US-Russia-brokered ceasefires, the Assad regime justified attacks on rebels by labelling them “terror­ists” or by claiming that the Islamic State (ISIS) or al-Nusra elements were present among them.

Further complicating matters is the fact that al-Nusra Front members are entrenched with some rebel groups. In Idlib and Aleppo governorates, it is nearly impossible to distinguish between non-terrorist, rebel-held areas and al-Nusra-held areas. Such places would be ideal targets for Russia and the Assad regime, which can claim they are attacking al-Qaeda and thus aiding pro-government forces.

Apparently, the White House’s aim is not actually to protect all US-backed factions from al-Nusra or from air strikes from the Assad regime but only those that agreed to solely fight ISIS, such as the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces and the New Syrian Army. The White House continues with plans that only address its war on terror in the region, without considering the broader Syrian conflict and the causes of chaos in that war-torn country.

If the United States wants to genuinely counter al-Qaeda’s expansion in Syria, then different measures have to be taken. Unlike ISIS, al-Nusra has, to some extent, integrated itself among rebel groups. It cannot be defeated by air strikes, which would no doubt weaken other rebels operating in the same areas, thus benefiting the Assad regime.

A US partnership with Moscow to fight al-Nusra is a recipe for mass radicalisation as it would feed into al-Nusra’s propaganda and increase public support for such terrorist groups. Al-Nusra has adopted a strategy to interact with the public and gain its support. The United States needs to strip al-Nusra of this ability. It also needs to increase its support for the anti-Assad rebels, so it can present the Syrian public with a powerful alternative that can defend them from regime attacks and is capable of governing responsibly.

The White House has to adopt a policy in Syria that looks at the country with a broader view and addresses counterterrorism within the context of the greater Syrian conflict. With American elections on the horizon, perhaps a more robust Syria policy is not achiev­able for the Obama administration but rather is something for the next president to consider.

Obama’s shaky position on Syria has allowed Putin to direct the flow of events and sway strategies in a way that best serves his interests. Moscow’s confident position would not have been achievable if not for America’s downgraded presence in the region.

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