Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee this month, CENTCOM commander General Joseph L. Votel set about talking straight on Syria. Votel, in a colloquy with Senator Lindsey Graham that was refreshing for its brevity and candor, acknowledged that the principal ambition of U.S. policy towards Syria—the removal of President Bashar al Assad at the behest of a motley assortment of Islamist and reformist oppositionists—has failed.
An hour into Votel’s testimony, Graham got to the point:
Graham: “Who is winning in Syria?”
Votel: “ …It would seem that the regime is ascendant.”
Graham: “Do you see any likelihood that the [opposition] forces…can topple Assad in the next year?”
Votel: “That’s not my assessment.”
Graham: “Is it too strong a statement to say that with Russia’s and Iran’s help Assad has won the civil war?”
Votel: “I do not think that is too strong of a statement. They have provided him the wherewithal to be ascendant.”
Graham: “Is it still our policy that Assad must go?”
Votel: “I don’t know that that’s our particular policy at this particular point.”
Graham: “Thank you for your clarity and honesty; and it is not your mission in Syria to deal with the Iranian, Assad, Russia problem.”
Votel: “That’s correct senator.”
Graham and Votel are to be commended for their no-nonsense effort to inform Americans about Washington’s failure to achieve the strategic objectives underlying the U.S. engagement in Syria these many years. How many remember that the demand for Assad’s departure announced by President Barack Obama in August 2011 sparked a steady, incremental increase in U.S. support for and involvement in the civil war that persists to this day?
But in 2013, ISIS, which threatened to topple the regime in Baghdad, replaced Assad as the enemy du jour. With critical support from newfound Kurdish allies, Washington’s war against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, has, at least for the moment, been all but won.
Kurdish-led forces control almost a quarter of Syria, while Washington can justly celebrate its military victory. But this achievement, which itself is now threatening to unravel, mistakes a tactical for a strategic success. As it now stands, this military triumph is almost beside the original point, which was regime change, lest one forget.
Indeed, in the next stage of the war over control of the Kurdish zone, our Kurdish allies are abandoning Washington’s fight against ISIS in places like Deir al Zur and are making common cause with Assad to defend Kurdish parts of Syria against Turkey. We have just witnessed their failed campaign in Afrin to repel Turkish forces and agreeable remnants of the inaptly named Free Syrian Army, the former object of Washington’s anti-Assad largesse. Faced with the embarrassing contradiction that the U.S. is enabling a military campaign waged by Kurds, joined at the hip with Turkey’s arch foe the PKK and allies of convenience with Damascus, against its NATO ally Turkey, now in command of the freedom fighters of the FSA, Washington can only stutter.
Votel asserted that Russia’s role in Syria is not his problem. Yet even as Washington pivots away from post-ISIS Syria, the first hot military confrontation between the U.S. and Russia since World War II—for control of oil installations near Deir al-Zour—will be the latest attempt to hit the moving target that is U.S. policy in Syria.
On February 8, Kurdish defenders, with the regime’s support, left Deir al-Zour for the battlefront against Turkey. Damascus may well have made a deal with the Kurds to provide safe passage in return for enabling the regime to take possession of the area’s oil installations.
In any case Washington was having none of it. Close to 200 Russian contractors—aka mercenaries—were killed in airstrikes that included B-52 bombers based in Qatar, a tally that suggests a lopsided blow-out that aimed to send a clear “HANDS OFF” signal to any party attempting to undermine the U.S. effort east of the Euphrates.
The loss of the currently inoperative “Conoco” oil installation to Assad would undermine the latest chapter in Washington’s policy merry-go-round, which is to prevent the regime’s restoration of sovereign control of territory and resources in a battle that Votel acknowledged the regime and its allies have all but won.
Votel in his prepared testimony explained that “the intervention of the Coalition and regional powers in the Syrian conflict has blocked Assad’s ability to recapture major portions of northern Syria, and entrenched opposition fighters and VEOs [Very Extreme Organizations] across Syria continue to challenge regime control.”
The Trump administration is now basing its post-Assad policy on creating an economically viable enclave in Syria’s east—now suitably democratic of course. Votel however, as he admitted on the Hill, had yet to receive the memo outlining the new military mission to confront a resurgent regime and its Iranian and Russian paymasters.
The lack of a clear strategy to achieve well-defined objectives has never been a constraint on Washington’s response to opportunities or challenges produced by the war. Washington, in an unintended show of bipartisan unity, has consistently misapprehended America’s power to achieve regime change, the vitality of the Assad system, the viability of a domestic opposition, and the prospects of Russian intervention.
Have the myriad assumptions and assessments that informed the original (failed) policy been reconsidered and changed to reflect lessons learned? The answer, sad to say, is no.
Like the lobster in the pot of steadily heating water, the U.S. is being cooked in Syria—moving along a ladder of escalation against a changing array of forces and objectives—almost without realizing it.
And now, this lobster is all but cooked.
Geoffrey Aronson is chairman and co-founder of The Mortons Group and a non-resident scholar at the Middle East Institute.