The Syrian tango: One step forward, two steps back

Sunday 18/12/2016

As a US-backed Arab-Kurdish alliance announced the start of what it termed “phase two” of its campaign to defeat the Islamic State (ISIS) in its Syrian bastion of Raqqa, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, on tour in the Middle East, said the Pentagon would be sending an additional 200 troops to back the offensive.

Many of ISIS’s higher-echelon personnel as well as scores of rank-and-file fighters have reportedly withdrawn from positions in Mosul, Iraq, to make a firmer stand in Raqqa. ISIS is facing a formidable onslaught from a combined force that alternatively includes US, Russian, Turkish, Syrian, Iraqi, Kurdish and Hezbollah forces. Fighter jets from Saudi Arabia. Jordan and the United Arab Emirates are also participating.

This latest deployment increases the number of US troops in Syria to 500 — about the size of a small army battalion— though, according to the Penta­gon, there are no US combat units per se in Syria. Rather, the US Department of Defense says those troops are there in an advisory role only.

ISIS may be taking a beating in Raqqa but they are not to be written off completely. In a surprising move in Syria, ISIS fighters re-entered the historic city of Palmyra months after being expelled and succeeded in retaking most of it, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict, said.

It may be worth remembering that the United States’ long and painful military engagement in South-East Asia began much like the United States’ involvement in Syria today. The huge American military operation in Vietnam began with the Pentagon sending dozens, then hundreds of advisers and ended up being drawn into a long and costly war.

Over the past year, Washington has periodically increased the number of US boots on the ground in Iraq as well as in Syria — all while trying to disengage from the conflict.

As a superpower, the United States is in somewhat of a bind when it comes to the question of what to do about the war in Syria. It is a damned if it does, damned if it doesn’t situation. The American people are tired of being involved in wars in the Middle East and they will not stand for, nor support, yet another major engagement of US forces overseas.

Neither can Washington — both from a diplomatic and a military point of view — ignore Russia’s military expansion into Syria and continue to be taken seriously as a superpower.

What is likely to be Donald Trump’s policy towards Syria, as the conflict becomes more complex and the situation on the ground perhaps even more complicated by the time he moves into the White House January 20th?

Russia’s high-profile involve­ment in Syria in a manner surpassing even the Soviet Union’s support of the country during the height of the Cold War represents a real challenge for the United States. Russian warplanes flown by Russian pilots go a big step forward from the USSR’s backing of Arab forces by provid­ing them with arms, munitions and military advisers. This time the Russians are committing boots, perhaps not on the ground, but certainly in the air.

Will Trump’s supposed good relations and close connections to Russian President Vladimir Putin help or hinder US policy in the Middle East? Will Trump be influenced by his business and personal ties to Russia and to the Russian president and allow Moscow to continue its current policy without worrying about Americans’ reaction or will the former generals the president-elect has designated to serve in his cabinet influence him to take firm action?

Will we see under the Trump presidency an expansion of US involvement in Syria in efforts to thwart Russian ambitions in the Middle East? Or will Trump allow the Russian a free hand in the region?

Relations between the United States and Syria have always been difficult. Washington and Damascus broke off diplomatic relations in June 1967 and they were only re-established in 1974 following a visit by then-presi­dent Richard Nixon to Damascus. However, with the outbreak of the war and the United States joining the countries calling for the departure of Syrian President Bashar Assad, relations soured again.