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America's 'behind the scenes' strategy in Syria

March 29, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Confronted with only bad options in Syria, the Obama administration in Washington is revitalising an old strategy they pursued in a prior war: playing behind the scenes.

“Playing behind the scenes” is an exact description of Obama’s strategy in the 2011 Libyan turmoil, when the White House hoped its partners would offer most of the assistance for the opposition while US forces acted primarily behind the scenes.

Nevertheless, it did not work. The revolution in Libya took longer than predicted, the allies did not do the job, and American aircrafts ended up in the midst of the fray.

Presently, in Damascus, the US is confronted with a completely distinct dilemma though many of the pressures remain the same.

The main Washington-funded opposition force, the Free Syrian Army, is nearing collapse. While other rebel groups supported and funded by neighbouring Arab states remain in the field although they are far from victory. Jihadist movements, some affiliated with Al-Qaeda, have increased its strength and position. And Assad’s forces are waging a brutal war against the oppositions’ civilian supporters, dropping crude ‘barrel bombs’ of explosives and missiles on defenceless urban areas.

As a result, over 100,000 people have died and approximately 2.5 million people have become refugees in neighbouring countries.

The White House’s reaction has been cautious and limited: humanitarian assistances for refugees, inadequate backing for the opposition and appeals to Moscow to pressure Syria’s President Bashar Al-Assad on to the negotiation table.

These tactics did not work. The so-called Geneva II peace talks initiated by US Secretary of State John Kerry did not result in any significant breakthrough, thanks to Damascus’ rejection to sit side by side with those it considers “terrorists”.

Even though the US and some other participant nations have reiterated their idea that there is no armed solution to the conflict, the Al-Assad regime, with the backing of Tehran and Moscow, undoubtedly believes there is.

Even Damascus’ plea to give up its chemical weapons – which Washington considers a diplomatic accomplishment – has also came to nothing because the Al-Assad regime has selflessly slowed down the pledged shipments, knowing full well that as long as it has arms, the US has a concern in its survival.

Moreover, there is also a growing fear in the White House concerning the increasing strength of Jihadist groups which are mainly situated in the north and east of Syria. The US considers the region as a haven for die-hard Jihadists which might turn into a training camp for “terrorists” who might later target the US.

To put it differently, the Syrian conflict is no longer a humanitarian catastrophe. But rather it has become another battlefield in the ongoing “war against terror”.

That is the main factor behind the US action in Syria being stronger than it was in the 2011 Libyan revolution. However, there seems to be no ambition for it in Washington. As US President Barak Obama’s aide Ben Rhodes said; “Iraq was the determining issue and it appears that the Syrian conflict is now glanced through that lens” – a lens of dubiousness toward intervention, humanitarian or otherwise.

But Obama is now contemplating new alternatives and already putting some effort in to realising them.

Recently, the US held an official gathering of intelligence officers from different nations that support the opposition, such as Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia. These countries came to an agreement to work together to deliver aid rather than entering into competition as they had previously.

Washington also pledged it would raise its military assistance, intelligence cooperation and armed training for moderate opposition group. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia and other supporting countries declared that they would exert more effort to confine extremists.

Riyadh also claimed it would transfer shoulder-fired anti-aircraft artilleries to moderate opposition groups to counter the government use of aircrafts to drop large numbers of explosives. Formally, the White House objects to anyone providing these weapons because it fears that they might fall into the hands of hardline extremists and be used to attack the West or Israel.

However, officials said the White House may not take any action to impede Riyadh’s plan.

Another option under scrutiny is a more extensive American training scheme for opposition fighters – operated openly by the US instead of the secretive CIA programme that is presently in place. Nevertheless, that vision seems to have halted.

At the moment, the fundamental Obama policy towards Syria is similar to that of the initial blueprint for its intervention in Libya. Washington is coordinating efforts, offering intelligence, and holding meetings – but trusting others to provide most of the direct armed assistance. In other words, it is playing behind the scenes.

In this situation, as several analysts claimed, the main motive is not to get rid of Assad, but to pressure his regime back to the negotiating table. But even this simple objective seems to be hard to achieve. Similar to the Libyan case, the White House is most likely to exert increasing pressure if there is no significant breakthrough in the near future.

Also similar to the situation in Libya, the US may soon face an option which it clearly tried to stay away from: direct intervention.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.