North Africa, West Asia

Distancing to protect: the US role in preserving the Syrian regime

How the US prevented the overthrow of the Assad regime in Syria by dissociating itself from it.

Omar Sabbour
22 July 2019, 8.52am
Syrian army in the town of Kafr Houd in the northern countryside of Hama, Syria, June 9, 2019.
Picture by Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

Disinformation and deflection

Ever since the start of the direct military intervention of the US in the Syrian war in September 2014 (and indeed before), Syrians have long protested that beyond its mandatory declarations of support for the ‘Syrian Spring’, the US has been actively supporting the Assad regime and preventing its “collapse”. Syrians argued that the US stood opposed to the victory of the armed revolution, preferring the Assad regime’s survival – whether with or without Assad personally at its head – than the prospect of Assad leaving power by force.

On the other hand, many self-denominated “anti-imperialist” westerners repeating the propaganda of Assad, Mubarak and Saleh – all western collaborators who put on the robe of “anti-imperialism” when their populations turned against them – argued that it was in fact the revolutionaries of the ‘Arab Spring’ who were the western-orchestrated “conspiracy”. The irony that the regime itself would welcome US airstrikes in 2014 and celebrate it across its national media, whilst Assad personally would boast that western governments criticised him in public but provided his regime with intelligence in private, earned a new title for this category of western propagandists: more pro-Assad than Assad himself.


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2014 headline of pro-regime newspaper: “Washington and its allies in one ditch with the Syrian Army against terrorism”

...“Syrian warplanes used to shell us two or three times a week but now they target us every day thanks to the coalition forces,” Faris Samir, from Harm in the northern Idlib region, complained on Thursday. “We are losing martyrs and many get injured but no one pays any attention. Now the Syrian [regime] army is taking areas bombed by the coalition forces after the Islamic factions withdraw. I have to say that the coalition military campaign is in the interest of the Syrian regime and against the Syrian people.”' - Coalition air strikes against Isis aid Bashar al-Assad, Syrian rebels claim - The Guardian, Oct 9, 2014.

The politics don’t matter to the people here, all we see is one type of death - it comes from the sky, whether the Americans are dropping the bombs or Assad, it makes no difference. They are both murdering us. What do you expect any sane person to think here? One day American airplanes and the next Bashar’s, how do they not crash or shoot each other? It is simple, they call each other and say today is my turn to kill the people of Raqqa, please don’t bother me, it will be yours tomorrow." - Sharing the skies with Assad: America’s predicament in Syria - Middle East Eye, November 28, 2014.

"We are seeing coalition warplanes hit targets during the day in Raqqa province and then Syrian warplanes follow-up with more indiscriminate strikes at night,” a commander with the Free Syrian Army told The Daily Beast. “This is not a coincidence—to argue that it is stretches credulity”" – Here’s How Obama and Assad Team Up Against ISIS - The Daily Beast, October 2, 2015.

As a result of a fixation on a never-arriving ‘regime-change’ operation, such events as airstrikes against mainstream rebel factions by the US during the war repeatedly passed under the radar – as has the intervention of US allies like the Iraqi Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs), officially part of the Iraqi military, the Egyptian al-Sisi regime and even the Lebanese government on the side of the Assad regime. Indeed, besides the indirect support that the US has provided Assad via his pro-Iran Iraqi sectarian militias, the US has even actively supported pro-Iran foreign militias on Syrian territory.

Between the ‘War on Terror’ and regime change

One of the reasons for this confusion lies in the fundamental contradiction within the Neoconservative ’War on Terror’ matrix established under the Bush administration. The ‘War on Terror’ is often associated with the neoconservative Bush regime. Neoconservatives of course believed that it was the US’ moral duty to spread both its influence and democracy to authoritarian regions, if necessary by force. Yet neoconservative thought, whilst influential, could not be said to have unilaterally or even predominantly informed US foreign policy-making under Bush, and indeed the hallmarks of the ‘War on Terror’ continued to be a traditional and ‘realist’ collaboration with authoritarian regional regimes (including that of Assad).

The ‘War on Terror’ under the Bush administration often relied on consolidating the rule of autocratic regimes in the region despite Iraq being justified in the opposite neoconservative goals. There was thus always an internal contradiction between the ‘neoconservative’ and ‘anti-terror’ dimensions of US foreign policy, the latter relying on supporting the regimes that the former in its pure sense wanted replaced (thus some neoconservatives advocated that even allied regimes like Mubarak and Saleh’s should be removed from power).

The Obama administration moved away from the partial commitment (however misguided) to interventionist ‘democracy promotion’ established under Bush (which even US allies had been limitedly subject to, as when Egypt’s Mubarak was forced in 2005 to hold multi-candidate presidential elections for the first time), whilst continuing the ‘War on Terror’. This did not mark a long-term commitment to reducing US ‘intervention’ in the region, but simply a return to a purer and more traditional form of US foreign policy in the region. The Bush administration’s support of NGOs and civil society groups in allied authoritarian countries was unwelcome by many of these regimes, who nonetheless largely toed the line in their (lack of) public criticisms for fear of being ‘next in line’. When the Arab Spring uprisings overthrew them however (with popular anger at the subjugation of national sovereignty to US diktat playing no small part), the likes of Mubarak and Saleh would, like Assad, blame their overthrow on a ‘US conspiracy’.

Historical context: the myth of US Syrian enmity

By 2011 and the outbreak of the Arab Spring, US relations with Syria had in fact been the best they had been in decades, with Syria reportedly on the verge of being ‘fully’ normalised into the western sphere as part of a peace settlement being pursued (and according to US Secretary of State John Kerry, on the verge of being completed) with Israel – the same transformation undertaken by Sadat’s Egypt in the 1970s. Though Syria under the Assads had never been a western ‘enemy’ – with the US and the Assads consistently collaborating on key regional issues (as during the Lebanese Civil War, when Assad’s Syria intervened in 1976 against the Palestine Liberation Organisation at the notorious urging of Henry Kissinger, the First Gulf War and the War on Terror) – it instead occupied a floating position between the western and Russian spheres of influence, lying firmly in neither (indeed, Vladimir Putin would declare that Russian relations with Syria were not warm at the outbreak of the Arab Spring). So long as Israel continued to occupy Syrian territory, Syrian relations with the US were not fully normalised (though European countries enjoyed warmer relations), whilst not falling into the ‘rejectionist’ camp or being categorised a ‘pariah’ state (a la Gadaffi’s Libya for instance) either.

This normalisation process was combined with major security and intelligence coordination with the US, including against insurgent groups in Lebanon and Iraq (in the latter case these were ironically the same groups that the Syrian Ba’athist regime had once facilitated after Bush’s invasion of neighbouring Ba’athist Iraq, a time when the regime feared that it was next in line amid a sharpening of rhetoric by hawkish neoconservative elements in the administration; many of the same anti-US insurgents would later find themselves returning to Syrian prisons after relations with the US improved). Thus, Syrian protesters in 2011 would in fact declare Assad’s security chief and brother, Maher, the “agent of the Americans”.

Similarly, contrary to the regime’s revisionist propaganda after the revolution’s outbreak, the regime had not only kept Israel’s northern border its quietest frontier since a 1974 Separation of Forces agreement, but had for more than a decade all but publicly recognised Israel. The Syrian regime’s flag publicly flew alongside that of Israel during direct talks in the 1990s (broken down by Israeli, rather than Syrian, intransigence); Syrian regime officials appeared on Israeli TV; the Syrian Grand Mufti recognised Israel as ‘part of the Holy Land’ in a speech at the UN; whilst Bashar al-Assad himself would publicly declare Syria’s willingness to exchange embassies if Israel returned the Golan Heights (whilst privately agreeing to restrict the capabilities of both Hamas and Hezbollah, according to Wikileaks cables).

Thus like Egypt before it, Syria had long abandoned any notion of a ‘comprehensive’ peace agreement inseparably tied to a resolution for the Palestinians, and was for all intents and purposes happy to publicly recognise Israel’s existence if it thought this may help return the occupied Golan Heights (and indeed, effectively even before then). Indeed, it is ironically the case that it was the outbreak of the Arab Spring which broke off Syrian regime negotiations with Israel, with Israeli officials who had been under heavy pressure from the Obama Administration to make concessions on the Golan breathing a sigh of relief at the outbreak of the turmoil and the political impracticality of a settlement (the Obama Administration had hoped its foreign policy legacy to be that of a Syrian Israeli peace treaty, continuing the tradition of Arab Israeli normalisation set by Democrat predecessors: the Egyptian Israeli peace treaty under Jimmy Carter, and the Oslo and Wadi Araba Accords with the PLO and Jordan under Bill Clinton).

Two symbolic flashpoints of the Obama Administration’s endgame: Daraya and Aleppo

Contrary to myth, the US role in the Syrian conflict independently of Russia’s intervention has long consisted of regime preservation. In August 2016, the revolutionary, democratically-organised town of Daraya – a town symbolising the values of the revolution, governed by an elected local Council whose authority local rebel battalions were subject to – fell to Assad loyalist forces led by Iraqi paramilitary groups backed by the United States in Iraq. To add to the role of these militias, the US and Jordan had been blockading for a year the entry of ammunition and weaponry to the Southern Front FSA rebels, including those in Daraya.

Similarly Aleppo’s fall was not only the work of Russia but an independent outcome of US and Turkish policy. For months before the fall of Aleppo discussions within pro-revolution circles speculated that there was a clear US direction towards allowing Aleppo to fall – the final piece of the long-term, time-biding “no alternative to Assad” which has been the end-game of US policy. US statements in recent months served as an indicator to this “end point” trajectory at which US policy was finally arriving; such statements included predicting that the rebels would be “decimated” a year before the fall of Aleppo, proclaiming that Russian-blitzkrieged Aleppo was “primarily Nusra held” (when Nusra possessed an estimated 150 out of 7000 rebel soldiers in the city), announcing that Assad could be authorised to bombard “designated terrorists” alongside the US and Russia, arguing that rebels should stop fighting the Syrian Army and instead unite with it against ISIS (even with Assad still in power), and finally to stating that the opposition should accept Assad running for elections in 2017.

Such statements were significantly backed up by policy on the ground: the US had already “frozen” the fight against Assad in Syria’s South since 2015 (leading eventually to the fall of Daraya) and in July and August of 2015 the US also bombarded some of the strongest rebel battalions in Syria’s north – which had at the time seized the entirety of the province of Idlib and threatened to advance onto the regime heartland of Latakia, refusing to comply with US-mandated operational “red-lines” against further advances – with the US “warning strikes” coming a month before Russia’s intervention. By this point Assad had been sufficiently rehabilitated and along with Turkey’s own final selling out of the rebels in exchange for an anti-YPG accommodation with Russia (and perhaps also the US, likely involving the retention of the regime in exchange for preventing the connection of the YPG-held cantons) to add to rebel disunity, Aleppo’s fate had been sealed.

What has also been very poorly reported in western media outlets has been US military actions during the fall of Aleppo: during the regime siege leading up to its fall, the US repeatedly bombed rebel positions in Aleppo, including civilian infrastructure, as well as assassinating anti-Assad rebel commanders – events which led to anti-US protests taking place in rebel-held areas of Aleppo during the regime siege. One of the protest sites, the FSA-held village of al-Jinah, would be the same site of a US bombing of a mosque in 2017 which killed 50 worshippers.

Concurrently at the time of the Aleppo siege, US special forces were even kicked out of the town of Al-Rai by an FSA battalion, protesting their complicity with the Assad regime (rebels in the same area were “mistakenly” bombed by the US a day later). Meanwhile Iraqi forces backed by western governments against the insurgency in Iraq (and officially part of Iraqi state forces) formed the biggest single component of pro-Assad forces, forming up to half of all pro-Assad forces, whilst the US-backed Kurdish YPG also played a role alongside pro-Assad militias during the siege of Aleppo. The western-backed Al-Sisi regime in Egypt further supported the regime offensive, having been providing arms and ammunition to the Assad regime for years.

Indeed, whilst Aleppo was being subjected to Assad and Russia’s blitzkriegs ISIS forces retook Palmyra. The US government – criticising Russian “inefficiency” – bombarded ISIS forces around Palmyra and helped pro-Assad forces recapture territory. In other words, Assad was able to rely on Russian aerial support in Aleppo and US aerial support in Palmyra.

With the theatre of conflict rhetoric today between the US and Iran breaking out again following years of hibernation, it is easy to forget that during the Obama Administration, Iran conducted a regional, anti-Arab Spring counter-revolution that was being explicitly supported in places like Iraq and Syria. Simply speaking, the US allowed an Iranian winter to come in and achieve an unprecedented regional expansion – constantly boasted about by Iranian officials – to counterbalance against the Arab Spring; an expansion unprecedented in Middle East history (previous undertakers of such expansionisms included Saddam Hussein, who was struck down after his annexation of Kuwait, Nasser-led Arab nationalism and the 19th century "moderniser" Mohammed Ali Pasha – all such expansionist projects were struck down by western governments), with Iran supporting governments subject to the Arab Spring protests not only in Syria, but in Iraq with (the western puppet) Maliki, in Egypt, recognising the coup of the (western-backed and Israeli-favourite) al-Sisi regime, and finally Yemen with the (former western puppet) Saleh. The disparity between the reporting of Arab media and alternative outlets and that of their western counterparts of this reality could not have been more pronounced.

US policy in Syria: dissociation and collaboration with a discredited regime

For those who have closely followed the daily realities and details of the Syrian conflict, it is clear that contrary to popular myth, the US never supported a military victory of the armed revolutionary forces. Nor has this been a secret: US officials have for years outwardly revealed the extremely underreported ‘small print’ of US policy, to those who were willing to pay attention: Assad should step down, but not at the expense of the rebels dismantling the entire regime. Such statements however went largely under the radar because of bombastic declarations of a non-existent “Iraq-style regime change” about to take place in Syria.

Indeed, the Assad regime in fact repeatedly welcomed the US military intervention in 2014 – which by contrast was condemned by the vast majority of rebel groups and opposition civil society. Ultimately, such widespread claims in these circles that the US intervention ostensibly against ISIS was really a ‘backdoor’ attempt at regime change were therefore, effectively, more defensive of the regime than the regime itself. As Assad himself once stated, accurately summarising his understanding of western policy towards Syria far better than many of his defenders: “They attack us politically and then they send officials to deal with us under the table, especially the security”.

The reality of US policy on the conflict, thus, was more nuanced, yet ultimately simple: the US supported what could effectively be described as an intra-regime coup (whereby power structures within the regime and military sacrificed the ‘head of the snake’ to save the body), as effectively took place in Egypt when the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces nudged Mubarak to leave power. Such an approach would pacify the popular revolutionary fervour and insulate Syrian state institutions from the threat of ‘collapse’; thus the preservation of Syrian security and intelligence apparatuses (the most authoritarian in the region) in any ‘political solution’ was declared early on as a key US policy goal, despite this demand contradicting one of the earliest outlined demands of the Syrian protesters even before a call for the resignation of Bashar al-Assad had been made.

The US thus encouraged the inner circles of the regime and Syrian Army to sacrifice its figurehead throughout 2011, and though this clearly transpired to be an unforthcoming scenario by 2012/13 - with the regime’s innermost power circles staying loyal to the figurehead (this was in no small part due to sectarian dynamics not present in such places as Egypt and Tunisia and weaker in Yemen, whereby the person of Assad effectively represented a sect’s predominance in various state institutions) - the US nonetheless never shifted from this position of a ‘regime minus Assad’ political solution to adopting a policy of facilitating (or allowing) a rebel military victory which threatened to dismantle the entirety of the government in Damascus (a dismantlement of regime institutions which had already taken place in vast areas of Syria). As US Secretary of State John Kerry plainly declared, “If you don’t want the government to crash, you can’t have Assad go boom”.

The first US policy preference was thus a ‘regime preservation’ without Assad at the helm; in lieu of this option being available however, it was the second US preference which was the ultimately decisive question. Would the US prioritise regime preservation even if it meant Assad remaining at the helm as the consolidator of the regime, or would it accept a rebel military solution which overthrew Assad as well as potentially dismantling the entire regime?

It was clear that even before the rise of ISIS it was the former option that constituted US policy, with US officials publicly declaring that a rebel military solution was not on the table from the earliest days of the armed rebellion, whilst practical US policy quietly undermined any rebel military solution through major restrictions imposed on third party providers of rebel arms (as well as tying the ‘vetting’ of third party arms transfers to conditions imposed on the permitted scope of rebel military campaigns) and blockades on the provision of ‘game changing weaponry’.

This included diplomatic pressure on Qatar and Saudi Arabia to preclude the provision of qualitative weaponry (including in particular a complete ban on anti-aircraft missiles, which were blocked according to private statements by US officials relayed by Syrian opposition figures because they would ‘bring about the collapse of the regime within fifteen days’), the major influence the US exerted within the Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Jordan and its Turkish equivalent (MOM) – through which arms transfers into Syria were coordinated – and ultimately through the seizing of arms shipments by the CIA along the Jordanian and Turkish borders, both from private donors and even allied states.

It was the role of the MOC and MOM in particular which determined major battle dynamics on the ground; thus in coordination with Jordan in particular (and during the early stage of the conflict, Turkey) the US would effectively cut third-party ammunition supplies to rebel forces if they launched ‘unauthorised’ offensives which threatened to destabilise the equilibrium status quo; this occurred when countryside FSA forces surprisingly entered the city of Aleppo in 2012 to capture the eastern half (with ammunition supplies from Turkey being cut during the offensive, preventing the entirety of the city being captured), when FSA forces captured the suburbs of Damascus and entered the city (with ammunition supplies again being cut from Jordan during the offensive), when rebels attempted to take the entirety of the southern city of Dara’a, and when a rebel coalition known as Jaish al-Fatah overran the province of Idlib and advanced onto the sensitive regime heartland of Latakia, prompting a then-widespread panic of regime collapse (the US would repeatedly bomb mainstream rebel brigades during the offensive, including an FSA arms factory, and Russia would intervene a month later).

Indeed, US sensitivities to ‘regime collapse’ were to such an extent that the effective US policy was largely to ‘allow’ the survival of rebel forces in the countrysides, largely opposing their entry into major urban centres. This policy caused a major tension with US allies such as Saudi Arabia, a country which incidentally also favoured a political accommodation with the regime (as took place in Yemen with Saudi’s support for the post Saleh retention of his loyalist General People’s Congress). Indeed, Saudi Arabia was not keen on a rebel military solution (unlike Qatar) but wanted a much more serious commitment to the stated US aim of bringing about a political solution through imposing a sufficient degree of rebel military pressure. Power holders within the regime, the Saudis believed, would never be scared enough to sacrifice Assad if the rebels were only to occupy provincial countrysides, effectively the US policy.

Thus even within the confines of a ‘regime preserving’ political solution (let alone ‘regime change’), the US was seen as uncommitted to the policy it publicly espoused. This perhaps was unsurprising, since US policy makers were likely fully aware of the fundamental (and nonsensical) contradiction within its own policy; for how could power holders within the regime be scared enough to sacrifice Assad, when the US also publicly declared that ‘regime collapse’ or a rebel military victory was not an option on the table? Simply speaking, power holders within the regime knew that the US ‘demands’ for Assad to step down amounted to little more than compulsory bluff, made mainly for cosmetic purposes. This did not mean that the US did not want Assad to step down, but it does mean that it preferred him remaining than a rebel military victory.

In other words, the US wanted to pressure Assad to go but not force him to do so, and its main intervention in the conflict has overwhelmingly been to use its influence from within the ‘pro-rebel’ camp to prevent a rebel military solution. This has taken the combined form of arms restrictions, supporting ‘alternative’ forces that were ostensibly distinct from the regime but were officially indifferent to, and practically collaborationist with, it (such as the SDF, which would serve as a US -attempted replacement for the FSA), and eventually intelligence coordination (including even joint operational sorties between the US and Syrian airforces) and military intervention (which both indirectly helped the regime, being aimed practically exclusively at Assad’s enemies, and on occasion directly doing so, as in Palmyra and Deir al-Zor). The major irony is that the vast majority of anti-imperialist and anti-war movements have misunderstood this US policy of ‘Distancing to Protect’ (or Dissociate to Protect – D2P for short) – the general US Arab Spring policy of creating political distance from discredited leaderships whilst privately encouraging the consolidation of the ‘deep states’ constituting it – as an obsession with ‘regime change’ justified in the name of ‘Responsibility to Protect’ (R2P).

Indeed, the realities of the conflict are that the US has mainly limited its direct arming of groups and support by air-cover to those that either collaborate with the Assad regime or agreed to suspend their fight against it. These most prominently include the SDF (which includes within its ranks a pro-Assad faction, the Jaish al-Sanadeed, as well as the regime-collaborating YPG) and the former New Syrian Army stationed at the al-Tanf garrison (often again misleadingly portrayed as ‘FSA rebels’ in media coverage, despite being excommunicated from its larger FSA sub-coalition for agreeing only to fight ISIS). Meanwhile, US bombs have almost exclusively fallen (at a proportion of more than 99%) in anti-Assad heartlands which were bastions of the Arab Spring protests in 2011 (areas such as Raqqa and Deir al-Zor were liberated by the opposition in 2012/13 before a heavily armed ISIS outgunned local rebel brigades, including with tonnes of US military equipment seized from the Iraqi government at Mosul in 2014 – with calls for help by anti-ISIS rebels ignored). Amongst the thousands of Syrian civilians killed by the Coalition in these areas are people who came out onto the streets in 2011.

Failure to understand the nuance of the policy was in no small part because of its inconvenience. Simply speaking, it was much more straight forward to proclaim and propagate the notion: “The US wants to repeat regime change in Syria like it did in Iraq” than “The US wants Assad to step down but not for the entire regime to be overthrown, and has thus effectively supported the retention of the regime whilst dissociating itself from its representative figurehead, Assad”.

Indeed, it is the opinion of this writer that it has been US intervention which has been more effective than that of Russia in keeping the regime in place. Simply speaking, Russia did not have the capacity to determine the military capabilities of the opposition; it could only support the regime. It is the US, which by playing the role of a Trojan Horse within the opposition’s arms pipeline has ensured that the rebels were starved of the resources they needed to topple the regime from third parties, regardless of its Russian support. If Russia set the house on fire, it was the US that hit the fire-extinguisher from its inhabitants (and as areas such as Raqqa and Mosul would attest, added a fair bit to the fire as well) That this complicity in the largest crime so far of the 21st century by the prime so-called proponents of ‘democracy’ is so unknown, is a tragedy.

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