This is why Washington’s actions in Syria seem utterly inconceivable to those who would like to believe the US’ main goal in that country is fighting terrorists. I am one of those people: I would like to believe that Washington’s number one priority, globally speaking, is fighting terrorism. I would like to believe they will put aside their differences with other world powers, including Russia, in pursuit of that goal. Sadly, however, believing such a thing would make me incredibly naive.
To recap: The US has indeed claimed its primary aim in Syria is to “degrade and destroy” ISIS - but instead of allying with the Syrian army, which has been battling ISIS on the ground, Washington has spent years backing opposition “moderate rebel” forces who are fighting Bashar Assad’s government forces. In other words:
Washington is backing the groups that are attacking the army which is best positioned to defeat ISIS. Or even more simply, Washington supports one anti-Assad group but bombs the other.
The US supports the rebel forces in pursuit of their broader goal which is Syrian regime change. As the war has dragged on, it’s become clearer that the US-backed rebel forces are not “moderate” in the sense that you or I might use the term. They have fought alongside and “intermingled” with Al-Qaeda’s official Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (which recently rebranded itself as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham). One of the major sticking points in ceasefire negotiations between the US and Russia has been the question of Washington’s ability to disentangle the so-called “moderate” rebels from the extremists. So far, no such disentanglement has taken place, demonstrating that the US has little to no control over its proxies.
Accident or intentional?
It’s hard to imagine the situation in Syria could get worse or more complicated, and yet it has. Little more than a week after Washington and Moscow negotiated a new ceasefire deal in Geneva, US coalition forces bombed a Syrian military base on the outskirts of the city of Deir ez-Zor, killing over 60 troops and wounding many others. The strike allowed ISIS militants to almost immediately, temporarily overrun Syrian army positions in the area. Shortly after, the US admitted that it was responsible for the strike but claimed it would never intentionally hit a known Syrian military base.
That claim was met with widespread skepticism in Moscow and Damascus. Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said Russia was reaching the “terrifying conclusion” that in striking the Syrian base and thereby aiding the ISIS advance, the US was defending the terrorist group. The Syrian General Command called the bombing “blatant aggression,” and “conclusive evidence” the US was supporting ISIS militants against Assad’s army. Damascus also claimed that if it was indeed a mistake by the US coalition forces, it would be a “direct consequence” of Washington’s refusal to fully coordinate bombing and targets with Russia. The US has been relying mostly on satellite imagery, while Russia, which is working with the Syrian government, has access to “better human intelligence” according to a former MI5 intelligence officer Annie Machon.
Machon, says it’s “unbelievable” the strike could have been a mistake, also recalled that just a few weeks ago, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell had strongly advocated the US kill both Russian and Syrian forces to “scare” Assad and Moscow. “I’m wondering if there are elements within the US power structure that are actually going ahead... [with] this sort of plan and bombing Assad’s military forces to scare him, to scare the Russians, to just try to make the point,” Machon said.
Others have concluded the US is likely telling the truth when it says the strike was unintentional and that ISIS was the intended target. It’s unlikely, some have suggested, that at this point in time, the US would want to do anything that would jeopardize a shaky ceasefire and cause themselves this much of a PR headache. So if it was a mistake, it was the worst imaginable timing.
Strategy in ruins
But frankly, whether you believe the strike against the Syrian base was intentional or not, it is almost irrelevant at this point. The damage has been done. The ceasefire, for which there was never much hope in the first place, is already at risk. Both the rebel forces and Assad’s government have alleged multiple violations. Now, after the Deir ez-Zor attack tensions are even higher. Moscow and Washington are at each other’s throats, and the truce which was supposed to lead to a coordinated Russia-US air campaign against ISIS looks like it could be headed for collapse.
More evidence of the disarray of US policy was seen in the town of al-Rai on the Turkish border a few days ago when a small group of US Special Forces on the ground were threatened and run out of the town by rebel forces who called them “infidels” and “pigs” and told them to prepare for their slaughter. To just be really clear about that: Rebel forces which the US has been actively arming and funding are now calling for the slaughter of American troops. Syria expert Joshua Landis called the incident “a very embarrassing scene” for the US, given that these so-called moderate militias are supposed to be welcoming the US’ help.
Knowing their strategy is in tatters, there’s nothing left for the US to do but admit it - which will never happen - or to keep talking in circles. No surprise, they’ve gone for door number two. That was abundantly clear when US Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power showed up in front of the cameras on Saturday and accused Russia of “moralizing and grandstanding” over the strike at Deir ez-Zor, going so far as to call Russia’s convening of an emergency UN Security Council meeting a “stunt” - four times. Instead of trying to calm tensions, Power “threw a monkey wrench” into the whole thing and “should be fired” according to the executive editor of Intelligence Review Magazine in Washington, who believes US Secretary of State John Kerry is probably unhappy with her tactless response. Just imagine the tables had been turned and during a supposed ceasefire Russia had illegally bombed American allies? No doubt, Power would be the first one in line for the moralizing and grandstanding party.
What is Washington’s endgame here? Has Barack Obama got some sort of plan we don’t know about up his sleeve? Has he, like Donald Trump, got a “secret” plan to beat ISIS? Or is he just trying to run out the clock until he hopes the problem becomes Hillary Clinton’s to deal with?
Whatever the plan is, it’s well past time to re-evaluate.