The Syrian Quagmire

May 18, 2020

Syria’s relations with Moscow have traditionally been close and steady. Russia operated a military base in Tartus for more than four decades. In the mid-1990s, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher Warren Christopher, believing that this offered an opportunity to move Syria away from Russia, went to Damascus 24 times always to leave empty-handed.

The West and its regional allies saw the Arab spring as another opportunity. In fact, they had little in common beyond their desire to remove President Assad from power. For some the Muslim Brotherhood deserved being named a terrorist organization, for others they were heroes. However, after the UN Security Council “approved” botched intervention in Libya, there was no way Russia and China could allow the West another shot, this time in Syria. And there was no way Russia could give up its one and only foothold in the Middle East.

Today, the Syrian conflict is in its ninth year. Gone are the days of the “Friends of Syria Group” meetings and chest-thumping by the “architects” of the regime change project. Russia’s military intervention in Syria was a game changer. It showed that Russia remains a major actor in the Middle East and has the hard power to make a difference on the ground. Nonetheless, a political solution on Russian terms remains elusive. In the meantime, Syria has become a devastated country. Hundreds of thousands of Syrians have died. Millions have been displaced. Millions have become refugees in neighboring countries.

Yes, we have all the U.N. Security Council resolutions reaffirming support for Syria’s independence and territorial integrity; less nowadays but we still hear about Syria’s political transition; the U.N. has called for a global cease-fire; and, Germany and Estonia are reportedly going to table a draft resolution to the Security Council to that effect, but all of that seems to be of no consequence, because the interests of major powers are in conflict.

Last Tuesday, Newsweek reported that U.S. special representative for Syria, Ambassador Jeffrey has urged continued American deployment to the war-torn country to keep pressure on U.S. enemies and make the conflict a “quagmire” for Russia. Reportedly, he said that President Donald Trump’s “maximum pressure” approach towards Syria was paying dividends and rejected concerns that the American deployment there could turn into a drawn out and costly project akin to Afghanistan or Vietnam. “This isn’t Afghanistan, this isn’t Vietnam,” he explained. “This isn’t a quagmire. My job is to make it a quagmire for the Russians”

Mr. Jeffrey said it was imperative to “keep the pressure on” the Assad regime, explaining, “I’ve never seen a regime that poses more threats to its region and to the American idea of how the world should be organized.”

While confirming the S-400 missile conflict with Turkey, he also said Washington’s end goal for Syria is very similar to that of Ankara.[i]

Ambassador Jeffrey’s candor about turning Syria into a quagmire for Russia is only to be respected. And his effort, as a former ambassador to Ankara, to inspire optimism for Turkish-American relations is to be appreciated. However, in terms of Washington’s foreign policy in general, Middle East and Syria in particular, his comments are worrisome.

Yes, Vietnam was a quagmire for the U.S.; Afghanistan was a quagmire for the Soviet Union; it has proved a quagmire also for Washington. Iraq could have turned into another quagmire had President Obama not agreed to withdrawing U.S. troops as demanded by Baghdad. In brief, Washington has enough experience about quagmires.

But the intention to create a Syrian quagmire for Russia raises fundamental questions about U.S. foreign policy in general and the Middle East and Syria in particular.

  • Is Washington still committed to U.N. Security Council resolutions it has voted for?
  • Syrian negotiating tactics can extremely be frustrating, but what are the threats posed by Damascus to the region?
  • What about the impact of an extended Syrian quagmire on Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey?
  • Who are Washington’s allies in turning Syria into a quagmire for Russia?
  • What about the fight against the ISIS?
  • What is the time frame envisaged for turning Syria into a quagmire for Russia?
  • Is Syria destined to remain a war zone for decades?
  • Wouldn’t this mean continued devastation and loss of life?

As for Turkey, one may add that the ruling Justice and Development Party’s end game in Syria has always been the empowerment of Muslim Brotherhood. By contrast, President Trump was weighing to designate the Muslim Brotherhood a foreign terrorist organization only a year ago. Eventually he decided not to do it, but intention was there. U.S. support for the S.D.F. also remains a source of discord. And, Turkey and Israel agree on nothing beyond President Assad’s ouster.

Resolving the Syrian conflict requires cooperation between Russia and the U.S. Washington’s contribution to achieving a solution sooner than later will only earn it region’s respect after failed military interventions. American diplomacy owes this much to the Middle East.

Russia is a major power. It has a strong diplomatic tradition. It will not give up its special relationship with Syria.

Perhaps, all of them under threat by King Covid XIX, regional countries involved in the Syrian conflict should take another look at their failed policies. Because being sucked into a quagmire accidentally, unwillingly is one thing, jumping into one knowingly is quite another thing, as we know well in Turkey.




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