Opinion:

Syria A Realistic and Pragmatic View

American and European Union policy towards and regarding issues pertaining to Syria and its ongoing civil war, have for the past five or so years been counterproductive, disorganized, aimless as well as contradictory to their own interests. It would seem US policy, towards the region, under Obama lacks strategic vision nor does it seem to have any respect for long term US and Western interests. To compound matters the US (and Europe) have repeatedly showed that whatever “red-lines” they do set are not enforced. This of course undermines not only US policy but also faith in US abilities and reliability. It is my opinion, that the United States and the nations of the European Union, should realize that it is in fact in their interest to have President Assad (however unpleasant he might be) remain in control of Syria. In fact, it would be in our interest to help him regain control of his nation, restore order and end this horrible and bloody civil war that is causing so much misery. We should be mindful also, of Syria’s history, bloody as it might be, this is not the first time the ruling Alawite minority has faced a rebellion, and each and every time in the past the uprisings have been defeated and order restored. While we will never know, what could have developed had one of these rebellions succeeded, we do know that the Syria that existed prior to the current civil war was by all accounts much preferred to the current state of affairs. The Assad family was never permitted to rule because this was a good, decent, or even optimal to the interests of others, but because there was little, if any, realistic alternative. Today, yet again, the opposition is not a realistic option, nor any more pleasant an alternative. In fact, it is a rather horrifying and a much worse alternative, both for Europe, the US and the West in general, but also for the region and our allies there. In short a stable and functioning Syria, with a functioning civil service, education system and economy, is more preferable for all citizens and peoples. This war needs to end, not only to safeguard the people of Syria and their true interests, but also to help Europe and Turkey and the other regional powers involved. Syria needs to go back to being a source of at least moderate stability, not a source of conflict and instability or a breading ground for terrorism. Moreover, the current situation, or God forbid a rebel victory, only further helps undermine our interests and grants more influence to nefarious actors whom have nothing other than ill intent towards us. In short the rebels are worse than the Assad option, as unpalatable as that might be. It is true that ISIS is not an existential threat to the United States, it will never threaten our survival our existence, but it is a threat to our individual citizens, our allies’ citizens and as we have seen the general safety of European cities. Al Nusra (now al-Sham) is also a threat, not only regionally but also due to its long-established associations with nefarious political activity in the Middle East as well as connections to international terrorist networks. The list of bad actors goes on. Our actions and our support, in many cases, for some of these groups, has allowed them to grow and further strengthen their ability to undermine our long-term interests. Furthermore, this war only helps spread further the tentacles Sunnis extremism – adding fuel to the cause of terrorism/jihad and contributing to the continual support of these groups. Having pushed Assad into a corner, we have only succeeded in making him ever more reliant on outside support, such as that of Iran, 2 Hezbollah as well as, of course, Russia. Thus, our efforts have failed no matter what happens, if Assad falls we have only helped fragment the region (regardless of your opinion on past colonial borders such a fragmentation is to say the very least, a bad idea) and breed a new disparate set of actors whom do not have our interests in mind. These groups will moreover, not only be anti-western when in power and most likely rather extremist, but also they would continue to keep the country fragmented and thus chronically underdeveloped - feeding further long-term insecurity. In fact, I would go so far as in venturing to speculate that should the opposition win we have set economic, social, women’s development, education and political developmental progress back by decades. Is this what we want? Is this in our interest? Is it in our interest to support groups that are reactionary in every way and that will not be our future allies? Is it not cynical of us to condemn an entire population to substandard development simply because we have some form of emotional aversion to Assad? Surely things are not that simple and surely not all the “rebels” are that reactionary or uncivilized, but the fact is most are and they cannot despite a war that demands their cooperation, even coordinate with each other effectively. The fact is, the Syrian Rebellion and the Rebels are broken, defective and unreliable as partners in any shape or form. For obvious historical, ethnic and political reasons it cannot be expected that Kurdish elements from Northern Syria, Turkey or Northern Iraq be asked to take on a bigger role than they already have (if nothing else this would incense the Turkish and inflame other regional relationships) but perhaps if Obama could find enough backbone to standup to the absolutely irrational and abusive behavior from the Turkish president, we could at least use our Kurdish “allies” to stabilize the northern reaches of Syria and Iraq a bit more, and bring back some semblance of order and stability to those areas. Furthermore, our so-called allies in Saudi Arabia, have done nothing to take any ownership of this situation, they have irresponsibly failed to coordinate effectively the rebel groups, preferring “cashbook diplomacy” and arms deliveries. Nor have they have done anything to help alleviate the deplorable human suffering taking place. Not one single refugee has gone to Saudi Arabia, as far as I know. This speaks volumes about their morals and their true lack of interests in the fate of the Syrian population. Their only interest is in playing power and influence politic games. Thus, while we have a great many grievances with Iran, we should realize that in this case they are in fact serving our interests in regards to Syria (it was our ill-advised invasion of Iraq that unfortunately spread their influence into that country by the way, which ultimately was not helpful). Moreover, while Russia is wrong about so many things and while it is a direct threat to European and other allies’ interests, in regards to Syria, they are in fact largely correct. Sure, they have their own interests in mind and they want to extend or prolong their influence in Syria and the region – but do recall that they have been involved there for some time. In fact, the connections between the USSR/Russia and Syria go back to the Suez crisis of 1956. In other words, Russia is doing this out of their own interest, and while I cannot read Putin’s mind, I do tend to think he has a clearer strategy then Obama. It might not be our preferred strategy, but it is a strategy nonetheless and Russia is entitled to have it even if we disagree with it. Nonetheless right now, that plan that the Russians are executing is useful not only for Assad but also for Israel and yes the US and Europe. The terrorist groups that are part of the rebellion are ultimately more detrimental than Assad and they need to be defeated. Stability needs to return to the region. Economic and civil life needs to come back to Syria. The refugee flow needs to stop. Turkey needs to become a responsible player again, and stabilizing Syria and putting a lid back on the regional conflicts will help with that. Most importantly, it is 3 not in anyone’s interest to further fragment this region. Take Lebanon as an example, fragmented enough as it is and why help Hezbollah gain even more strength, at our expense as the war drags on for even longer? Of course, we cannot forget Syria’s 20 year intervention in Lebanon and the consequences of that, but I do think we are in a position today to prevent that from happening again. We can begin to rebuild our relationships and counter Russia in due course nonetheless and I ma in no way suggesting that we give up our interests. Consequently, it would be in our interest to ensure that Assad, at least for the time being, stays, the war ends and that we are part in shaping the future of the Syrian nation and the region. If not we will simply loose further influence to Russia and Iran, and how is that possibly in our interests? Besides further disintegration would only lead to much worse suffering, increased migrant flows, that Europe cannot possibly be asked to accept, and further regional political bickering. Our position simply weakens and weakens. Have the current US administration no grand strategic foresight? Besides, even if we magically “manned up” and tried to impose our will over the conflict or a no-fly zone, what if it were violated? Would we really shoot down a Russian jet? A Syrian jet perhaps, but a Russian one? Yes, Turkey did it, but it would be very different if we did so, especially under such circumstances. It would be a direct challenge and it would require a Russian response. That response could be asymmetrical or in an entirely different region, such as the Baltics. Are we ready to deal with that? Unfortunately, we are not and it would only further escalate tensions, and where is the interest in that? Or the Russians could ignore one downed plane and simply keep flying – then what? Shot down a 2nd and a 3rd, and so on? That would be an absurd proposition, but with such a move Russia could yet again call our bluff and claim to show American impotence and lack of will to enforce its words. It would only further undermine, the already too fragile belief in our commitments. Hence there are few good options, we have fallen victim to our feeble forging policy and our own discourse trap. There is however a silver lining, in the fact that our interests do align and that we all want to defeat nefarious elements (i.e. terrorists). Would it thus not be sensible to focus on that objective? Would it not also be sensible to end the suffering, end the war and help bring stability back to Syria and the region? Why did we get on the train and leave our bags of interests behind at the platform? Why do we seem to think supporting the rebels will bring less suffering, despair, kidnappings and violence, and not more? If we are human, if we are to have humanitarian interests in mind (and we should) and if we are also to serve our own long term interests, we are to help bring this terrible war to an end. This is not about helping Iran or Russia; it is about helping people and ourselves. It is also about thinking strategically about our long-term interests, something we have not done as a national for many years. We have gotten on the wrong horse and we are too proud or vain to get off. Rather it is in Americas interest to end this, if we have to work with other nations (i.e. Russia, etc.) to do that well then so be it. We have plenty of disputes with them in other regions and arenas, but we cannot be so arrogant as to ignore that we should do what is strategically correct and practically possible in a coordinated fashion when our interests do align. They will not align, even in Syria, forever, but they do for now. This becomes even all the more pertinent as it seems pretty clear, to me at least that Assad will survive in power regadless, and if so why continue on a track that precludes us from having any dialogue with or influence over his decisions in the future? It seems to me that does not really help us.

The Views Expressed Herein Are Those of the Author and Not Those of His Employer, Business Partners or Firm. Nils G. Bildt, MA-IPS is the PResidet of CTSS Japan, Ltd.