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Playing both sides in Syria

For several years now in this column I have argued that the strategic aim of both Israel and the US in the Syria conflict has been to to actively prolong the war. If you believe their rhetoric about wanting to encourage “stability” in the region, this would seem unlikely. But scratch beneath the talk about human rights and democracy and it’s not hard to see the reality of imperial self-interest lying beneath.

Over the course of 2015, I have also used this column to show how a most unlikely alliance has played out in the south-western reaches of Syria: one between Israel and al-Qaeda’s officially-recognised franchise there – Jabhat al-Nusra.

Israel has been providing logistical support to al-Qaeda in Syria by treating their wounded fighters in its hospitals and sending them back to fight against the Syrian regime. UN reports have suggested that it may also be arming them.

It is well known that the US has been training and arming rebel groups in Syria. Although the US media routinely claims these are “moderate” rebels (in contrast with the extremists of the so-called Islamic State) the reality is that the US and its allies in the Gulf dictatorships have been giving arms and training to rebels who either “defect” to al-Qaeda soon after being trained or, under the rubric of the “Free Syrian Army” openly fight in alliance with al-Qaeda.

But while there is no doubt whatsoever that the US and its allies have been fighting a proxy war against Syria for the last several years (and actively subverting it for far longer), with the aim of overthrowing Assad, they have so far not intervened decisively.

The latest essay-length report by the veteran American investigative journalist Seymour Hersh suggests reasons why.

According to Hersh’s insider (mostly anonymous) sources, higher-ups in the US military have been opposed to President Obama’s goal of overthrowing Assad, and have actively worked in secret to undermine it.

According to his account, the US military sent vital intelligence to the Syrian government that helped it to fight against extremist rebels in Syria. The American generals considered defeating Islamic State to be a far higher priority than unseating Assad. While they could not openly rebel against the civilian, elected commander-in-chief, they had more subtle ways of undermining his policy.

According to Hersh’s sources, they sent this intelligence to the Syrian military via the militaries of other countries who were known to have contact with Syria. Surprisingly, one of these intermediary countries was Israel.

Israel, technically at war with Syria, has nonetheless had secret contacts with the Assad regime over issues like the negotiations to reach a “settlement” over the Golan Heights. Israel illegally occupied that south-western sector of Syria in 1967, expelling much of its population, and has actively colonised it with its own settlers ever since. Having failed to win back its territory in various wars, the Syrian government has attempted to negotiate with Israel over the years – so far to no avail.

So according to Hersh, it was through these sorts of channels that the US indirectly gave Syria intelligence that would help it defeat the rebels. All this at the same time the US and Israel were both aiding rebel groups in Syria that actively want to overthrow Assad.

This is a classic case of imperial powers “playing both sides” for its own ends.

There are cases in history where this has been done with basic profit-making motives as part of the reason. The Iran-Iraq war was one such case, where the US was arming both sides and that devastating war went on for eight years. Henry Kissinger is reputed to have said of that war that he wished both sides could lose.

American policy-makers seem to have much the same wish in Syria right now. They do not want to see groups like al-Qaeda or Islamic State come to power, but neither do they want a strong Syrian state in place, able to be a regional player, and able to do things like support military resistance to Israel – via such allies as the Lebanese organisation Hizballah.

Or, to put it in the words of former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas: “Let them both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.”

As long as the civil war in Syria continues, it is of benefit to Israel, so long as it does not spill over the border. The continuation of the civil war, it seems to me, is also a policy goal of the US.

In the Hersh account, it comes across as more of an accident of the competition and disagreement between the Whitehouse policy for Syria and the Joint Chiefs of Staff policy for Syria. Another one of the sneaky ways the latter tried to undermine the former, was to make sure that the arms that the president had insisted should reach “moderate” rebels in Syria would turn out to be outdated, antique, or plain useless old weapons.

Whatever the case, unless some sort of political settlement can be reached in Syria, this devastating war looks set to continue.

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

ArticleAsia & AmericasInquiryOpinionSyriaUS
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