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What are the Americans really up to in Syria?

US President, Barack Obama [file photo]
US President, Barack Obama [File photo]

The war in Syria rages on. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives and millions are displaced. Although we might think that the situation could not get any worse, it can; some people have advocated recently for greater US and British involvement in the war in the form of a “no-fly zone”. The reality is that this would mean an all-out war against Syria and possibly even the downing of Russian jet fighters.

The war began in 2011 with protests against the repressive and dictatorial government of Bashar Al-Assad. The brutal response of the government led to an uprising, which was soon hijacked by outside forces and swiftly became militarised.

The Gulf Arab monarchs — dictatorial regimes one and all — flooded the country with weapons. Extremist militias flourished. Western backing was not far behind, along with Turkish support for extremists too often described in the western press inaccurately as “moderate rebels”. Even Israel has become involved indirectly.

The most active and fierce fighting force on the rebel side has been and continues to be Jabhat Al-Nusra. Now renamed Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham, it was the official Al-Qaeda branch in Syria.

Well into the sixth year of this multidimensional war, the Syrian government has survived intact. In the main, this is down to its allies: Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and, more recently, Russia. The general trend since direct Russian military intervention a year ago has been in the Assad government’s favour.

There is another serious player in the war, of course, and that is Daesh, the so-called “Islamic State”. The most horrific offshoot of Al-Qaeda to date, Daesh is now at war with all sides. It has even quarrelled violently with Jabhat Al-Nusra, although at other times the two groups have worked together.

Into all of this we must add Saudi Arabia and other absolutist monarchical dictatorships in the Gulf. It is an absolute scandal that corporate media outlets in western countries and in Israel still tend to describe them as “moderate” Arab states. These are the most extreme theocratic regimes in the world. In public, states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar like to describe themselves as acting in Syria in the interests of “moderate” rebels, the western “coalition”, “democracy” or even “revolution”.

The reality of the horrific and extremist groups that Saudi Arabia is funding, arming and supporting in Syria is very different. Behind closed doors, western politicians admit as much, something that they could never do in public, due to the close military, diplomatic, financial and political ties that the US and Britain have with Riyadh. Thanks to WikiLeaks, we now know, for example, that Hillary Clinton herself acknowledges this.

In a leaked extract from a speech she gave to the Jewish United Fund in 2013, she explained to her audience that the Saudis were bankrolling the military dictatorship in Egypt due to their fear of the Muslim Brotherhood. She said that this was “kind of ironic since the Saudis have exported more extreme ideology than any other place on earth over the course of the last 30 years.” Of course, she failed to mention that the Saudis and their “more extreme ideology” were the close ally of successive US governments throughout those decades.

This demonstrates that Saudi and western objections to the Muslim Brotherhood have nothing to do with ideology or religious extremism, or even “radical Islam”. The threat that the Muslim Brotherhood poses to the Saudis is that of a democratic challenge; the movement in Egypt was committed to the electoral route to power, don’t forget. This is why the Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi was ousted as President of Egypt in a western-backed military coup in 2013.

Thanks to another recent WikiLeaks publication, we know that Clinton wrote in a 2014 email that the Saudis and Qataris were funding and supporting the most horrific factions of all: “The governments of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which are providing clandestine financial and logistic support to ISIL [i.e. Daesh/Islamic State] and other radical Sunni groups in the region.”

Who are the “other radical Sunni groups”? This is probably a reference to Al-Qaeda in Syria. Why would Saudi Arabia and Qatar wish to support groups like Al-Qaeda? After all, it has a history of terrorist attacks against the kingdom. The Gulf regimes were actually so desperate to overthrow the Syrian government that they tended to shower guns on the country and not be too fussy about who they were arming.

However, there is an even more sinister overall strategy at play here involving the US government. Its approach to the Syrian war has been somewhat incoherent. It’s true that Washington has armed and trained rebel groups, but it is also true that it has not done so decisively enough to guarantee the overthrow of the Assad regime. In fact, Assad seems to be winning right now.

This throws up two broad possibilities: either US planners are totally incompetent, or this incoherence has a deliberate element to it. While we should not discount the possibility of incompetence out of hand, the possibility of deliberate incoherence fits well with the classic imperialist strategy of divide and rule. As long as the war goes on, the Syrian government, as well as its Iranian and Lebanese allies, are less of a threat to US allies in the region, such as Israel and the Gulf monarchies. It looks very much like the US may be prolonging the war on purpose.

This strategy has been articulated in crude terms by the far-right Islamophobic bigot Daniel Pipes: “Support whichever side is losing in the Syrian Civil War.” Or, to put it in the words of former Israeli diplomat Alon Pinkas: let “both [sides] bleed, haemorrhage to death: that’s the strategic thinking here. As long as this lingers, there’s no real threat from Syria.” Is that what the Americans are really up to?

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

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