Does Obama Want to Carve Up Syria?
A stray comment by John Kerry this week—laying out a last-ditch, now-don’t-hold-me-to-this prescription for ending a modern and globally transformative holocaust—acknowledges an unfolding reality.
A decade ago, the current U.S. vice president wanted to partition Iraq as a political solution to a civil war that ended militarily. Now the current secretary of state believes that partition may be the only viable course left for Syria if and when a ceasefire he co-brokered fails.
The odds of such a failure are high, as John Kerry admits, because the whole accord might well be a “rope-a-dope” exercise by Bashar al-Assad, Vladimir Putin, and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei to gobble up more territory and destroy more of the mainstream Syrian opposition under the guise of abiding by international diplomacy.
Testifying Tuesday before the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the secretary said: “I’m not going to vouch for this. I’m not going to say that this process is going to work, because I don’t know. But I know that this is the best way to try to end the war, and it’s the only alternative available to us if indeed we’re going to have a political settlement.”
This is an interesting verbal construction to parse not just because one of the architects of a highly ambitious peace plan is confessing to Congress that he has no intention to “vouch” for his own architecture. And not just because people have been sitting down at tables for five years trying to arrive at an understanding about what Syria is going to be.
So far the yield of those sit-downs has been 470,000 dead; tens of thousands confined to torture-room prisons; half the population internally or externally displaced; and half a million of the latter category living as refugees in Europe, where far-right, anti-Muslim political parties aligned with, or financially dependent upon, the Kremlin are now thriving, much to Moscow’s propagandistic delight.
No, what made this testimony remarkable was that it was the first time Kerry crept right up to acknowledging the reality of a catastrophe he has hitherto treated as the subject matter of an academic symposium.
“Syria,” properly speaking, no longer exists. The nation-state cobbled together a hundred years ago by the great powers, albeit with borders periodically rejiggered since, is FUBAR and will henceforward remain a balkanized set of cantons or fiefs ruled by a panoply of antagonistic sectarian insurgencies, proxies, and terrorist organizations—some elements, including the one residing in the presidential palace in Damascus, adequately meeting the definitions for all three categories. And it really doesn’t matter if every last Sukhoi fighter jet, Scud missile, and barrel bomb gets put away on Saturday, when the truce is set to commence.
I say that because the best-case scenario for Kerry’s last-ditch, now-don’t-hold-me-to-this prescription for ending a modern and globally transformative holocaust is that war actually continues, only against the “right” targets, namely al Qaeda and ISIS. These are the two main UN-designated terrorist organizations not party to or expected to abide by the ceasefire. Their spoiler potential for provoking others to violate the terms of the agreement is enormous, as both militancies collectively boast an order of battle greater than that of the mobilized Syrian Arab Army.
As Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, puts it, the central dilemma is gauging what constitutes success for Kerry’s quixotic program: “Is the bar that fewer people are dying or is the bar that more people are fighting terrorism?”
If the latter, then how do you accomplish that when every security agency of the executive branch believes that Russia is not going to stop bombing the anti-Assad opposition so long as it can claim it is only hitting terrorists, the Kremlin’s abiding lie since Sept. 30, when it started bombing?
Yes, the Russian Air Force does go after Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s minions on occasion, whenever they dare to interdict Russian- and Iranian-abetted regime advances against other rebel groups, as they are doing in Aleppo. On the whole, however, Putin’s air war, as the U.S.-led coalition now concludes, has allowed ISIS to acquire terrain where the opposition had previously prevented it from doing so. The best the U.S. has done by way of deterrence is a ceasefire the U.S. thinks is a dud.
Then there are the terms of the truce, whereby the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army has exactly two options in the likely event that any of a multitude of actors decides to attack it. It can forbear, or it can pick up its guns and start shooting again, in which case it risks being bombed by…the United States. No, really. According to Hadi al-Bahra, the former president of the U.S.-midwifed Syrian Opposition Coalition, Kerry spelled out the consequences for noncompliance: “We are clear, if you don’t choose to be part of [the ceasefire] then you are choosing to perhaps make yourself a target.”
If the prospect of the U.S. Air Force waging airstrikes against its own assets sounds like the foreign policy of M.C. Escher or Kurt Goedel, then consider what has occurred only a week before the ceasefire is set to go into effect.
As BuzzFeed’s Mike Giglio reported this week, the FSA-aligned Furqa al-Sultan Murad battalion, an anti-Assad faction that has received weapons from the CIA for the purpose of fighting the regime, was recently attacked by the People’s Defense Units, the Kurdish militia that represents the Pentagon’s primary ground force in going after ISIS. The People’s Defense Units have now been accused by British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond of coordinating not just with the coalition but Russia and Assad.
Why? Because apart from seeing all Sunni Arab rebels as little more than helpmeets or cutouts of jihadists, the Kurds have a barely concealed ulterior motive: the construction of their own proto-state or autonomous region stretching across northern Syria from Aleppo to Hasakah province, including many villages and towns where Arabs constitute a plurality. Non-Kurds with guns who feel otherwise stand in the way of that project, and so must be disarmed, brought to heel, expelled, or eliminated.
Competing sectarianisms in what is ostensibly the same broad military campaign against ISIS has had knock-on effects, which only strengthen the enemy. This week, many were puzzled by ISIS’s precipitous withdrawal from Shaddadi, its lone remaining foothold in Hasakah province. The People’s Defense Units marched in with ease and liberated the town. Yet the jihadists’ tactical retreat was soon followed by a military counterattack and, reportedly, sociopolitical victory as 30,000 Sunni Arabs fled not for Turkey or Aleppo but for caliphate country, into Deir Ezzor, one of ISIS’s briar patches. According to an activist quoted by the website Syria Direct, they feared arrests, revenge killings, and ethnic cleansing. (ISIS no doubt also realizes that Turkey, the target of more ISIS terror attacks than any other coalition member, still views Kurdish nationalism as a grave national security threat and will therefore not read Hasakah’s falling into the hands of the People’s Defense Units, which are led by the Syrian affiliate of the Turkish-banned Kurdish Workers’ Party, as a blessing. As ever, ISIS seeks to exploit the latent or blatant vulnerabilities in the alliances against it.)
Kurds conquering Syria’s northern gateway borderland is proceeding under the unassailable umbrella of U.S. F-18s in the sky and Delta Force commandos on the ground. Yet it is now resulting in de facto population transfers without the bother or headache of any kind of de jure U.S. recognition.
Changing the demography of any country is the necessary, if not quite sufficient, precondition for partition. So another way of putting all of the aforementioned is to say that the White House’s Plan B for Syria is already its Plan A. The only question is whether this is by accident or by design.
Chris Harmer, a military analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, argues that partition is the unintended consequence of cavalier and improvisational U.S. policymaking, which has been perennially “reactive” to a crisis that has required forethought and long-term planning.
“There has been a lot of energetic, perhaps I’d say hyperactive diplomacy, but there’s no diplomatic credibility to what the U.S. government is doing,” Harmer told me. “The Russians have more military credibility, so they have more diplomatic credibility with their proxies—Iran and Hezbollah listen to what Moscow is saying. The U.S. can’t even bigfoot its own proxies. And that’s the least difficult part of this equation.”
Tony Badran of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies is one of a handful of Syria analysts who has argued that it is supremely unfair to deny that the Obama administration has behaved incompetently over the last five years, as a protest movement gradually gave way to an armed insurrection and then, increasingly, a jihadist infiltration. The humanitarian toll and breakdown in international security are unfortunate and unintended consequences of an unchanged policy that was always meant to culminate in a regional re-balance of powers that is now a fait accompli across the Middle East, Badran argues.
“Obama’s vision for any Syrian endgame always conceded an Iranian protectorate contiguous with Lebanon,” he said. “He has dubbed this ‘respecting Iran’s equities.’ Beyond that, however, his template for Syria is at its core a replica of the template he has applied in Iraq: a U.S.-recognized Iranian zone, which cooperates with a U.S.- and Iranian-backed Kurdish zone (in the case of Syria, unlike Iraq, this zone is entirely hostile to Turkey), and then a third, Sunni Arab, kill zone in between.”
Badran’s case is bolstered by much circumstantial evidence—the failure to uphold an Obama-set “red line” on chemical weapons use by the regime; the anemic and intermittent arming of the FSA units; the acquiescence to Russia’s attempted aerial annihilation of the latter U.S. proxies; the abandonment of the “Assad must go” precondition for politically negotiated transitional government in Damascus. But perhaps the strongest corroboration of Badran’s thesis is that its essence has been articulated in vivid detail as a viable program for “peace” by an influential former member of the Obama administration, and one of the few former members to criticize the president for not being more devoted to accommodating Russian and Iranian equities.
In December 2015, Phil Gordon, who until recently had been the White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region, helped outline a U.S. strategy for codifying these new facts on the ground in a white paper for the Rand Corporation.
As with Kerry’s truce, the first stage involved a multilateral ceasefire to be overseen and implemented principally by the United States, Russia, and Iran. The second stage would be the establishment of “agreed zones,” a polite way of saying colonial spheres of influence or micro-mandates, to govern Syria. Three of these zones would be contiguous, while one would be like Gaza and the West Bank in a theoretical Palestinian state— isolated from each other across longitudes yet somehow politically integrated.
A regime-dominant zone, Gordon and his co-writers James Dobbins and Jeffrey Martini suggest, would fall along the Mediterranean coast, from Turkey’s southern border all the way through Damascus and Homs. The Kurdish zone would encompass the ascendant Rojava region. The mainstream Syrian opposition, which is interspersed with al Qaeda’s Jabhat al-Nusra affiliate as well as other questionable Salafist-jihadist factions such as Ahrar al-Sham, would inhabit the non-contiguous zone, the first area of which would be Idlib, Aleppo, and Hama provinces in the north and center of Syria, and the second Deraa in the south. A fourth and final zone would be ISIS-held terrain, a vast tableland of geography, mostly depopulated desert, plus the cities of Deir Ezzor, Raqqa, and Palmyra.
This fourth zone would have to be internationally administered as ISIS was steadily pushed out of it by the powers responsible for running three foregoing zones. If push came to shove, which it inevitably would, then foreign garrisons could be brought in to keep the peace. U.S. troops to Kurdistan, Turkish and Jordanian troops to non-contiguous Sunnistan, and Russian troops to Alawitistan.
“It would fall to the external powers, currently supporting one faction or another, to guarantee adherence to the ceasefire,” Gordon, Dobbins, and Martini write. “Thus, Russia and Iran would guarantee the regime’s adherence; the United States would guarantee Kurdish adherence; and Turkey and Jordan would guarantee the Sunni opposition’s adherence. All external parties would collaborate to dislodge ISIS.”
Nice work if you can get it. This peace plan was billed as the least bad option for a country said to have no good ones on offer. It is difficult to fathom that Barack Obama would, in his remaining year in office, dispatch peacekeeping troops under any pretext to a part of the world he wants out of and which is the cynosure of not one but countless sideshow conflicts.
Still, the president who once decried “half-baked ideas as if they are solutions” may yet bequeath something very much approaching this Dayton Agreement on methamphetamines to his successor.