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CENTCOM Commander Admits Failure in Syria Strategy

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 [1], Graham got to the point:

Graham: “Who is winning in Syria?”

Votel:  “ …It would seem that the regime is ascendant.”

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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 [2], 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 [3], 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.

15 Comments (Open | Close)

15 Comments To "CENTCOM Commander Admits Failure in Syria Strategy"

#1 Comment By Balconesfault On March 26, 2018 @ 6:42 am

At times it seems that the only point to how we’re acting in Syria is to use up some of our stock of bombs and missiles so that we can order more.

After all, Trump’s vaunted Tomahawk missile strike last year cost close to $100 mil alone!

#2 Comment By Gazza On March 26, 2018 @ 7:01 am

“Close to 200 Russian contractors—aka mercenaries—were killed in airstrikes”

NO… This is simply NOT TRUE. Russian PMCs were not involved in the fighting that resulted when local Arab units, backed by Iranian units, moved to recover oil facilities held by the SDF. The PMCs were at the Euphrates, yet were included in US strikes for no clear reason. Total casualties are in the dozens (killed AND wounded), and the claims of “hundreds” killed is nothing but a pack of lies originating from Russian liberal groups attempting to detract from Putins support in the run-up to the Russian Presidential elections.

Why do these stupid lies gain traction in US corporate media? We can’t be an effective democracy if the truth means nothing and can be swept under the carpet by those powerful wealthy people who will stop at nothing to see their agendas fulfilled.

#3 Comment By SteveM On March 26, 2018 @ 7:53 am

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…

…Votel asserted that Russia’s role in Syria is not his problem…

This essay reads like Geoffrey Aronson does not understand why Graham and Votel had that colloquy.

Make no mistake, both Graham and Votel are hegemonic war-mongers. That testimony was totally scripted. Graham and Votel’s objective was not to “inform Americans about Washington’s failure”, it was to prime the pump for further U.S. intervention leading to “regime change” in Syria.

Yes, Graham and Votel do not want the lobster pot model in Syria. But rather than an intelligent withdrawal as the rational alternative, they want significantly increased U.S. intervention including a no-fly zone which would almost certainly result in military conflict between the U.S. and Russia.

Parenthetically, Votel also sees himself as the Grand Raj of Central Asia. See this article that outlines his testimony to the House Armed Services Committee:

[4]

Votel is yet another militarist Pentagon hack who gets a pass from a Congress and MSM that are bedazzled by anyone wearing Stars on their shoulders. The sanctified “Generals” command complete deference no matter how stupid and perverse their opinions and testimony.

#4 Comment By Michael Kenny On March 26, 2018 @ 11:03 am

The problem is that the US realises that it has to get Putin out of Ukraine and making war on him in Syria is the best and least costly way of doing that. Thus, I don’t think it’s a lack of strategy or a failed strategy The US is edging very slowly towards that goal but it can’t just come out and say publicly “we are working our way step by step towards war with Putin”. In order to work, such a strategy has to be unstated. In addition, no purpose would have been served by doing anything concrete in the run up to the Russian election. That would just have allowed Putin to pose as the “defender of Mother Russia”. Putin’s relatively poor showing in the election weakens his international position. Thus, what was probably going on at the Senate hearings had nothing to with candour. The message was “the present strategy isn’t working, so let’s get another strategy”, another part of the unstated step by step strategy.

#5 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 26, 2018 @ 11:10 am

“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.”

I would add, that this exchange sound like cover as opposed to any genuine assessment. We have failed to overthrow President. Th reason is because the Russians and Iranians came to Pres Assad’s aide. But it wasn’t my job to deal with that.

The failure is not my fault.

Let’s face it. If the issue has become a war with Russia Iran and Syria — then there is going to be a very intense debate even amongst the military command. And what was a simple task *not so simple) to topple the Syrian admin. has now become a prelude to a full scale regional war — someone is going to be looking to pin the tail on the donkey.

And the General and Graham are saying, the general is not the donkey.

#6 Comment By SteveM On March 26, 2018 @ 12:27 pm

Re: Michael Kenny, “The problem is that the US realises that it has to get Putin out of Ukraine…Putin’s relatively poor showing in the election weakens his international position.”

Uh… Putin won 76% of the vote in properly conducted balloting. What winning percentage in an election is not considered “relatively poor”? 90%? 95%?

And Crimea voted overwhelmingly for Putin. What happens if the Global Cop Gorilla can actually force Russia to disgorge Crimea but the Crimeans don’t want to leave Russia? (BTW, Ukraine had a per capita GDP only one third that of Russia and Poland before the U.S. enabled Maidan fiasco. If you lived in Crimea, what would you prefer?

P.S. Why was it OK for the U.S. to dismember Yugoslavia? And putting the dismemberment Iraq on the table? (Proposed by then hack Senator Joe Biden.) And is now implicitly considering the dismemberment Syria to suit the objectives of U.S. “allies” Saudi Arabia and Israel?

I guess it all depends on whose hegemonic ox is being gored.

#7 Comment By Kent On March 26, 2018 @ 12:37 pm

This article fails to address why the United States would care whether or not Assad rules Syria. Surely there is supposed to be something we gain. Right? Or am I way off base here…

#8 Comment By SteveM On March 26, 2018 @ 1:26 pm

Re: Kent, “This article fails to address why the United States would care whether or not Assad rules Syria. Surely there is supposed to be something we gain. Right? Or am I way off base here…”

Kent, great question. The U.S. creates enemies out of whole cloth. Although in the Middle East based on wag-the-dog instruction by the Israelis. And also consistent with the objectives of our big weapons-buying, head-chopping friends the Saudis.

Bashaar Assad is Alawite, the Alawites are more aligned with Shia that Sunni Islam, Iran is predominately Shia, Iran supports Assad, Iran is an enemy of the U.S. because the Iranians deposed a cruel dictator that was a stooge for the U.S. and also because the Israelis say so.

If the U.S. left the various Middle East dystopias tomorrow, it would not impact U.S. citizens one whit. But then the Neocon war-mongers would have fewer opportunities to flush more TRILLIONS of our tax dollars down the toilet, while making them rich. And our Israeli puppet masters would be apoplectic. So there you have it. That’s why the cronied-up Power Elite Nomenklatura care.

#9 Comment By Minnesota Mary On March 26, 2018 @ 2:36 pm

Michael Kenney suffers from PDS (Putin Derangement Syndrome).

#10 Comment By b. On March 26, 2018 @ 3:50 pm

Given that Graham is in fact disappointed with the lack of “commitment” provided by the Trump administration, and that Votel is lying through his teeth regarding the particulars of “policy” regarding Graham’s “Assad, Russia problem” at Deir al-Zour and elsewhere, the author appears to have fallen for another piece of scripted kabuki in which Congress and military collude to work towards more of the same.

#11 Comment By Jon0815 On March 26, 2018 @ 3:58 pm

“Close to 200 Russian contractors—aka mercenaries—were killed in airstrikes”

Nope. Der Spiegel has done by far the most detailed reporting on this incident, and they estimated 10-20 Russian mercs killed. And apparently the Russians weren’t even involved in the battle- they were attacked at their base back by the river.

#12 Comment By Vova On March 26, 2018 @ 8:27 pm

‘Minnesota Mary’ suffers from severe lack of reading comprehension. Then again, US education system nowadays is apalling.

Poor ‘Minnesota Mary’ has no idea Zionists Israel Firsters have been in control of the US government and all its branches, for decades now. She follows the mainstream media mind indoctrination: Putin/ Russia bad. Netanyahu/ Israel good.

#13 Comment By Mightypeon On March 27, 2018 @ 5:07 am

Tally is about 6 death and perhaps 12-20 wounded.

As said before, these PMCs were not conducting attacks, the US attacked them.

It should be noted that Centcom is playing its own game here, and has a history of doing stupid reckless sh*t.

#14 Comment By Todd Johnston On March 27, 2018 @ 3:06 pm

Syria – leave it the hell alone. Russian’s have vital national interests in Syria, we do not. It’s rare, and painful – But I must applaud Pres. Obama’s reluctance to involve us there despite the loss of face he suffered in doing so. Mr. President – thank you, you probably avoided a proxy Russian war. For Pres. Trump, Sryia is a poisonous serpent – let it be. The Assad regime initially cooperated with US Mil Intel. They’re NOT going to violate the 60’s agreements on the Golan Heights. If you’re an average joe in Syria as long as you don’t jump up on your car and start railing against the Government, you can pretty much be left alone. No professional rapists, cutting off o fingers, ala Iraq. There is NO stated US Policy in Syria. The fact that we could not FIX a problem we were never invited/constrained to do is not noteworthy

#15 Comment By SteveK9 On March 27, 2018 @ 10:41 pm

Syria, Russia and Iran defeated ISIS. We bombed Raqqa flat and allowed some of the ISIS creatures to escape, to be used later apparently. To say we defeated ISIS is grotesque.