Washington has limited options in Syria, Iraq
AMMAN -The rise of the Islamic State (ISIS), Russia’s military intervention on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad and the conflicting interests of Turkey and regional powerhouses Saudi Arabia and Iran have reshaped debates over US policy towards the civil war in Syria.
In Syria’s south-eastern neighbour Iraq, Washington is vexed by flaring sectarian violence between the country’s Shia majority and the Sunni minority, a weak Iraqi government whose US-trained and equipped army capitulated to ISIS, allowing it to seize strategic territory, such as Mosul, the country’s second largest city.
ISIS militants control large areas of north-eastern and central Syria, from which they continue to attack forces opposed to or allied with Assad.
In Iraq, ISIS waged attacks on cities inhabited by the Kurds, whose peshmerga forces are closely allied with Washington. ISIS has also been responsible for bombings that killed hundreds of Iraqis in the past two years.
Washington’s key allies Israel and Jordan are also at risk. While ISIS is kilometres away from Jordan’s eastern border in Iraq’s vast desert in Anbar province, other militants, such as al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra are close to Israel’s northern border with Syria in the Golan Heights.
Washington’s worst nightmare, however, is Russia’s military intervention in support of Assad. That poses a direct challenge to US goals in Syria and also raises questions about the future of the 5-year-old conflict and US strategy in the region.
“America’s hands are tied in the region,” observed Iraqi analyst Ahmed Nassif, a retired political science professor in Baghdad.
“It must carefully tread because it can do without a showdown with Russia or a return of the cold war,” Nassif said.
Syria’s conflict, which began with peaceful demonstrations in March 2011 before it devolved into civil war, has driven more than 4 million Syrians into neighbouring countries as refugees. Another 7.5 million Syrians are internally displaced and are among more than 12 million Syrians — out of a total population of 22 million — in need of humanitarian assistance.
The United States remains the largest bilateral provider of such assistance, with more than $4.5 billion in US funding identified. The United States also has allocated more than $440 million for non-lethal assistance to select opposition groups.
More than $2.6 billion in US aid to Syria is planned in 2016, including some funds to the opposition, who remain divided over tactics, strategy and long-term political goals.
Syrian officials and their Russian and Iranian backers have expressed willingness to serve as Washington’s “counterterrorism” partners in Syria, provided that the United States would accept a role for Assad as a bulwark against ISIS and other Sunni militants.
US officials voiced fundamental strategic disagreement with Russia over its military intervention and Assad’s future. Washington favours a managed political transition, insisting that Assad has lost legitimacy.
Some US congressional leaders argue that the United States should continue the negotiations process in Geneva; others want it to act militarily to protect Syrian civilians. However, many are concerned that a disorderly regime change could strengthen the militants and drag Washington and its partners into a protracted process of stabilising Syria.
Still, it is hard to see how Washington could pursue its goals of quashing the militants and restoring peace and stability to Syria without inadvertently strengthening Assad or ISIS.