Whether they support or oppose it, most observers converge on viewing President Barack Obama’s Syria policy as generally marked by passive detachment. After all, the president ignored the recommendations of many of his cabinet members and close advisers to arm Syrian rebels in 2012, or to enforce his “red line” against the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons to massacre civilians. Worried about being sucked into another Middle Eastern War—one that would pit the United States against one of Iran’s key allies in the region—Obama said no. Whatever happens in Syria can hardly be America’s fault, when we tried our hardest to stay out of the entire mess, right?
For elite pundits and their employers, nothing could be clearer. The New York Times editorial board believes that the situation in Syria is a tragic mess that the White House is selflessly doing its best to clean up by convincing the various stakeholders of the need to find a diplomatic solution and to ameliorate the humanitarian situation, which everyone agrees is truly awful and regrettable. But this effort, the Times reminds us, will “require a real transformation by Mr. Putin.” Because, while President Obama and Sec. John Kerry are doing their best, Russia delights in playing the spoiler, because Vladimir Putin is a bad person who doesn’t care about Syrian lives—or even about Russia’s own self-evident domestic and geopolitical interests. But whether or not you approve of any of the specifics of the policy, the most of important thing to understand is that nothing that happens in Syria is America’s fault, so no one has any logical reason to be mad at us. As Aaron David Miller emphasized, “[a]s horrible as the destruction in Syria has become, the U.S. doesn’t bear primary responsibility.” The administration may or may not have erred on the side of passivity, but it has been a passive actor nevertheless.
If these explanations sound a little bit like a grade-school child explaining that he didn’t eat the cookies because there were never any cookies in the jar to begin with, that’s because they do. In fact, President Obama has directly and powerfully shaped the reality in Syria. Over the last six months, as the tempo of the killing has increased, and the Russians have intervened militarily for Assad by bombing rebel-held areas to rubble, the White House has been very actively engaged in the Syrian conflict, both on the diplomatic as well as on the military front, affecting the course of the conflict in both theaters, and setting the terms of a fragile truce that seeks to cement the Assad regime’s gains on a more permanent basis. While American reporters may have largely missed the boat on the story of America’s engagement in favor of Assad, the people getting killed in Syria—the vast majority of whom are Sunni Muslims—and their allies are entirely aware of America’s role. As a result, the consequences of what the rebels—and Washington’s Sunni allies—see as a profound betrayal of their interests by the White House are likely to haunt America for many years to come.
So, what has the White House actually been up to in Syria for the past six months? Diplomatically, the administration set the ceiling for what the opposition can demand or expect, removing from discussion any reference to the departure of the dictator Assad. In so doing, it deliberately aligned the United States with the Russian and Iranian position on Syria and then applied pressure on regional states to fall in line. It then codified this realignment in a U.N. Security Council resolution that gave cover to Russia’s military campaign in Syria under the guise of fighting terrorism.
The administration’s moves have also molded reality on battlefields across Syria. Whether by standing with Russia against NATO member state Turkey, or by supporting militias that work with Russia against mainstream rebels, the administration’s decisions have consistently empowered the Russian-Iranian camp and undercut the opposing camp.
The White House’s moves cannot be understood apart from Russia’s, with which they formed a coherent military-diplomatic strategy aimed at bringing about a very specific result in Syria. And so, while it may appear that the administration’s policy is one of passivity, accompanied by some more or less sincere hand-wringing, in fact it is actively working hand in glove with Russia in creating a new reality in Syria that ensures the continuity of the Assad regime—one of the region’s worst dictatorships, which at this time last year was in serious trouble.
The administration’s tag-team with the Russians was recently on display after the most recent round of the Geneva “peace talks” fell apart. Syrian aid workers relayed that Sec. Kerry, who blamed the opposition for the failure of the talks, told them that they should expect three months of Russian bombing, during which time “the opposition will be decimated.” And if they thought that the United States would stand in the way, they should think again: “What do you want me to do? Go to war with Russia? Is that what you want?” Kerry reportedly said. The meaning and purpose of Kerry’s statement to the opposition are not difficult to interpret: The United States won’t lift a finger to help you fend off the Russians. It behooves you, then, to accept what is being offered right now, because your position will only get worse.
The Obama Administration’s language to the rebels was not very subtle code for: Whether you like it or not, you are going to stop military operations against Assad and cut a deal with him.
What’s important to keep in mind here is that Kerry’s harsh words to the rebels are not a dispassionate assessment of reality, and certainly they are not a gaffe. Rather, they reflect President Obama’s longstanding policy. Since 2014, the White House’s public position has been to “de-escalate” in Syria. During the first half of 2015, the Assad regime and its Iranian allies were in retreat, having lost critical ground in the northwest of the country as well as in the south. Yet the Russian intervention in September of last year stopped this rebel momentum and had slowly begun to reverse it by year’s end. The Russian intervention fit seamlessly with the White House’s overall position, because it held the promise of forcing the rebels to line up with Washington’s vision and priorities in Syria. Kerry infamously articulated this convergence in December: “We see Syria fundamentally very similarly. We want the same outcomes. We see the same dangers.”
This alignment was again evident with the agreement on a “cessation of hostilities.” The agreement not only explicitly allows the Russians to continue bombing groups like the Nusra Front but also names Russia as co-chair with the United States of the task force in charge of monitoring the truce. In other words, Russia gets the privilege of being both a combatant and an arbiter. Even before the agreement went into effect, Kerry was already threatening the rebels and effectively justifying continued Russian military operations: “We are clear: If you don’t choose to be part of [the agreement], then you are choosing to perhaps make yourself a target,” he said. If the rebels thought they would be able to report Russian violations, the White House quickly disabused them of the notion. On Monday, as reports piled up of continued Russian bombing of non-ISIS and even non-Nusra areas, the White House press secretary dismissively declared it too early to say if indeed Russia continues to bomb moderate Syrian rebels. Besides, he added, we always knew there would be “potholes” in the process.
The fact that the administration was translating Russia’s military pressure against the opposition in the diplomatic arena does not appear to be an accident. Since the Russian intervention in Syria, the White House position has been to complement Russian operations with pressure on the rebels’ regional backers to curtail their support. Opposition leaders have spoken of a decrease in support that coincided with the launch in November of the Vienna talks between the United States, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey, which the Obama Administration strongly pushed for in order to restart the Syrian negotiation process. Rebel commanders recently echoed this claim, maintaining that “in its determination to see the peace talks get under way, the United States had pressured the rebels’ allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia, to curtail supplies of weapons.”
But U.S. pressure was not restricted to stopping or limiting certain supplies to rebel groups. Rather, it extended to maneuvering their regional backers into a corner and directly impacting the situation along the Turkish and Jordanian borders—the two lifelines for rebel forces.
When it came to Turkey, the Obama Administration’s stated priority again melded seamlessly with Russian objectives: shutting down the Turkish-Syrian border. To that end, the United States has been arming and directly working with the forces of the Syrian branch of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in the country’s northeast, helping them consolidate their control over the border with Turkey, even as their Turkish affiliates wage war against Ankara and set off bombs in Turkish cities. The United States has even reportedly expanded an airstrip to help support these Kurdish forces near Hassakeh, where they retain a modus vivendi with the Assad regime’s forces still based there.
U.S. activity in the northeast of Syria directly complements Russia’s operations in the northwest. There the Russians have focused their bombing campaign on the narrow corridor north of Aleppo leading to the Bab al-Salama border crossing, held by rebel factions backed by Turkey. Russia’s air power supported Iranian forces and their Shiite militias moving up from the south of Aleppo, but it also extended to the U.S.-backed PKK Kurdish forces, moving in from their canton in the west. The Kurds’ bid is to join their northwestern canton of Afrin with their territory in the northeast, where they enjoy a U.S. protective umbrella—with U.S. jets flying out of Turkey’s Incirlik airbase, to add insult to injury.
Turkey had opened the Incirlik base with the hope of obtaining U.S. support for a protected zone in the northern Aleppo corridor. The zone was to shelter civilians, preventing refugee flows, and allow rebel forces to push back against both the Islamic State’s territory east of Aleppo, as well as the Iranian-led forces to its south. Instead, when Russia violated Turkish airspace in November and subsequently moved to deny Turkish access into Syrian airspace, the Obama Administration took the side not of its NATO partner, but of Moscow.
The case of Jordan was far less complicated for Obama. A smaller and poorer state than Turkey, it also hosted the Military Operations Center, which coordinated support to rebel groups, and it was much more receptive to U.S. requests either to turn off support to the rebels of the southern front, or to impose on them to stop offensive operations against the regime. Sure enough, over the last month, there have been reports of such demands being relayed to the rebels to neutralize active fronts against the regime in southern Syria and to stop all operations to link up with rebel groups in the suburbs of Damascus.
All of these moves are deliberate, and they all make sense within the larger framework of the White House’s Syria policy. From the administration’s standpoint, “there is no military solution” to the Syrian war—meaning, the U.S. president does not support a rebel victory. Instead, the rebels need to de-escalate the conflict and begin a political process that will ostensibly lead to a “political solution.” The administration’s language was not very subtle code for: Whether you like it or not, you are going to stop military operations against Assad, and cut a deal with him. After all, as Kerry explained, “the intention of the diplomatic process” has “always been” to test the seriousness of the parties to negotiate. “Diplomacy,” Kerry lectured on, “is the opposite of the actual pointing of a rifle and the pulling of a trigger. It is the effort to come to an agreement and to find a way forward that ends the pointing of the rifle and the pulling of the trigger.”
Kerry may well believe his peculiar definition of diplomacy. But what the administration has actually done is to force this definition exclusively on the rebel side. Kerry’s rhetoric, therefore, was cover for deliberately dragging the rebels into a set-up, and then leaving them out in the cold to be brutalized by Vladimir Putin—with the only possible escape route being to join a government with Assad and stop demanding his ouster. Or, to put it in even more concrete terms, the administration is leveraging Putin’s brutal military campaign to extract political concessions from the opposition that are tantamount to an effective surrender. And if they didn’t hurry and sign that surrender now, as Kerry reportedly told them, the Russian bombing is just going to get worse, and in three months, they’ll be decimated; the clock is ticking, folks.
By pressuring the rebels’ regional backers like Turkey and the Gulf states to de-escalate while Russia simultaneously shapes the military environment in Syria unopposed, the administration is actively cooperating with the Russians to back the regional states into a corner and present them with a fait accompli. The more defiant states, like Turkey, are being pressured through active U.S. cooperation with their enemies—which is front page news in Turkey, even if few in Beltway pundit circles appear to notice or care.
Aside from perpetuating the horrific slaughter of the Syrian people and overseeing a population displacement on a massive scale, one likely result of this policy will be the complete collapse not only of traditional U.S. alliances in the Middle East, but of post-World War II security structures elsewhere. The United States is now partnering with Russia to line NATO’s southern border with a consortium of terrorist militias protected by Russian air power and armed with advanced weapons. The message is hard to miss: The old American security treaties, like NATO, that were once the cornerstone of global security arrangements, are barely worth the paper they are printed on. If you are Ukrainian, or Polish, or Estonian, it is impossible not to notice—or to be tempted to start making other arrangements. It is hard to imagine that South Koreans or Japanese—indeed, anyone who has assumed the American security umbrella to be a fact of nature—feel any safer.
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Tony Badran is Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst and a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.