As far as President Obama’s policy with regard to the Syrian civil war is concerned, it has only one positive feature — at least the United States hasn’t so far got involved in a military conflict. At the same time however everything else went wrong from the point of view of American interests.
Before analyzing the incessant dancing by official Washington around the Syrian imbroglio, it would be worthwhile to take a look at some rarely explored components of the Syrian drama. The first important feature stems from the sheer numbers of its participants. To a superficial observer the conflict looks like a crazy brawl where everyone is fighting.
A closer look would reveal that the pro-Assad Alawites are fighting the anti-Assad Sunni. Meanwhile the Islamic Fundamentalists are trying to transform Syria into a theocratic Islamo-totalitarian state, while at the same time the Kurds are fighting for the creation of a state of their own.
An important but underestimated dimension of the Syrian civil war is the level of support the Assad regime is receiving from the Syrian minorities. Before the outbreak of the war, the attitudes of the Christians, the Kurds, and even the privileged Alawite minority, varied from a mild dislike all the way to a hidden hatred. The cruelty of the war drastically changed this attitude. On the one hand, the representatives of these communities are equally afraid of the consequences of an Islamic takeover of the country which event they consider the most probable, (if not the only possible) alternative to the elimination of President Assad. On the other hand, in their eyes all of a sudden the regime they disliked or hated, and the leader they were not particularly fond of, became the only barrier between them and the carnage they are certain will occur in case of the downfall of the present Syrian political system.
Apart from the unusually large number of players, the seemingly endless Syrian drama has two more rarely analyzed dimensions that determined its duration and intensity.
To start with, the fierce fighting caused the death of 70,000 people and transformed three million other Syrians into refugees — around a million in Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and Turkey, and two more million displaced individuals inside the country. Beyond any doubt the uncontrolled and uncontrollable influx of destitute refugees into neighboring states is destabilizing them and offers additional opportunities for the expansion of the activities of the Jihadists in the region.
At the same time, however, there is a human current flowing into Syria from the countries where the Syrians are trying to find a refuge. The purpose of this strange migration is highly unusual — they are coming to Syria in order to fight each other. Who are these warriors who have chosen to settle their accounts on the bloodsoaked soil of Syria? Some of them are extremists belonging to the Iraqi Sunni and Shiite communities, who continue their rivalry on the Syrian territory. The Sunni are fighting on the side of the radical Islamists, while the Shiites are supporting Bashar Assad. There is also a motley crowd of Jihadists from all over the world, for whom, besides Assad’s army, their opponents are Hezbollah irregulars, (coming primarily from Lebanon), and Iranian “volunteers.”
Turning already to the American page of the Syrian saga, we find its content outright disappointing. If the term ‘strategy’ is defined by a clearly established goal, the correct assessment of the situation, and a selection of the best means for its achievement, the Syria related actions of the Obama administration don’t fit any of these requirements.
To start with the goal, the president and his secretaries of foreign affairs Hillary Clinton and John Kerry have made it abundantly clear that their main purpose is to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad from power. None of the members of this trio has managed to come up with a reasonable answer to even the most uncomplicated and logical question: How precisely would the murder, the arrest, or the departure of Bashar Assad solve the problems of Syria?
The attempt of Washington to rely on Turkey as an ally with regard to the Syrian crisis didn’t bring any positive results due to the pro-Islamic politics of the present Turkish government.
The international background of the conflict leaves only one option to be explored in depth. It involves an unbiased analysis of American-Russian relations in search of a possible communality of interests of both countries. The hopeless problems stemming from the mutual negativity and the old Cold War era stereotypes represent a serious obstacle to the creation of a joint strategy between Washington and Moscow. It would be enough to mention Kosovo and Georgia as discouraging additions to the old grudges. But undoubtedly an objective observer couldl spot the area where the interests of both countries coincide.
The emergence of this communality stems from the threat of radical Islam, hanging over both countries. It could be successfully argued that it is Russia that is far more vulnerable to the Islamic assault, because it has a much larger Muslim population. In addition, the Muslim areas of the Caucasus Mountains have for years been engulfed by the fire of an endemic guerilla warfare.
It is not certain how many American politicians or their advisors have paid any attention to the fact that in 2011 the campaign waged by the Russian military and security forces against the Islamic Jihadists produced almost the same level of casualties suffered by the American contingent fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
As far as Syria is concerned, the main consideration of Russian politicians is not to allow the Islamization of the country. By the way, there is a contingent of Chechen jihadists on Syrian territory, the numerical strength of which, according to different sources, varies between 600 and 4,000 warriors.
Even by taking into account the enormous complexity of the situation, there is only one promising option for a successful Syrian strategy for the United States. The Obama administration should abandon its comatose passivity towards the Syrian crisis, and together with Russia should take part in a dynamic effort designed to initiate a dialogue between the Syrian government and the non-jihadist part of the Syrian opposition. An important additional goal should be the isolation of the Jihadists who are playing the favorite totalitarian game to present themselves as democrats before establishing their dictatorship.
If either of those parties rejects such a dialogue, the remaining two scenarios are equally gloomy. The first one involves a possible break-up of Syria into an Alawite-dominated part of the country, the Jihadist controlled Sunni populated areas, and a practically autonomous Kurdish region. The other option is the most hopeless one — the carnage in Syria will continue.
Georgy Gounev teaches Contemporary History of the Middle East within the framework of the Emeritus Program at Saddleback College. He is the author of several books including The Dark Side of the Crescent Moon that deals with the international impact of the Islamization of Europe and Russia. In addition, most of Gounev’s articles appear in “foraff.org.”