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Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Blowback on the Back Burner

"…the analogy we use around here sometimes, and I think is accurate, is if a JV team puts on Lakers uniforms, that doesn’t make them Kobe Bryant.”

President Barack Obama’s well-known use of this sporting metaphor, in the course of a discussion about emerging Islamist extremist groups such as IS/Daesh, provides an important insight into his approach to foreign policy. Just as a game of basketball must generally speaking have a ‘winner’, so in the Obama worldview, opportunities to demonstrate US political and military pre-eminence have always tended to override less eye-catching endeavours, like mediating peace agreements. As an example one could cite his (albeit subsidiary) role in the ill-advised removal of Colonel Gaddafi in Libya; and nowhere can this be seen more clearly than in Syria, where his administration has inflexibly pursued a similar ‘regime change’ policy since his first statement that “…the time has come for President Assad to step aside” in August 2011.

Before the current turmoil, the ancient core of Aleppo, continuously inhabited since at least the second half of the third millennium BC, featured nine medieval gateways. One of these, Bab al-Nasr (‘Gate of Victory’) gave its name to a busy commercial quarter in the east of the city. In a strange irony, this district was the subject of the master's thesis in urban planning of Mohamed Atta, the Egyptian hijacker who gained particular notoriety in the wake of 9/11. Although Atta’s thesis was never put into the public domain, it appears essentially to have been an argument for turning back the clock to an era before the advent of western architectural techniques. The only part of the work which attracted significant media attention was its dedication:

"My prayer and my sacrifice and my life and my death belong to Allah, Lord of the worlds"

The word ‘Nasr’ is also found in the former name, Jabhat al-Nusra (‘Victory Front’) of the jihadist organisation now calling itself Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (Front for the Conquest of the Levant) which controls much of eastern Aleppo, including Bab al-Nasr. Al-Nusra’s re-branding came in July of this year, along with a solemn disavowal of its affiliation to al-Qaeda. However, taking into account that this relaunch coincided with US-Russia talks on possible coordination of strikes against known terror groups, together with the fact that a senior member of al-Qaeda’s leadership took part in the ceremony, and the knowledge that Gulf emirate Qatar has long made this dissociation a condition for sponsoring the group's continued struggle against Assad, no one regards the split as anything other than a self-serving artifice.

In other words though, the patronage this group enjoys from Qatar, as with similar arrangements between other Sunni-majority states (Saudi Arabia, Turkey etc) and their various opposition clients in Syria, not only prolongs Syria’s agony, but certainly does not serve western interests. Past experience of arming and funding Islamic militants, most infamously Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s, provides very clear lessons about the danger of ‘blowback’; uncontrollable fallout from overt and covert military action overseas. Besides 9/11, further incidences include the London bombings of July 2005 and the Paris attacks in November last year.

The city of Deir ez-Zour, 286km east of Aleppo, was where Jabhat al-Nusra had its headquarters from 2012 until 2014, when it was displaced by IS/Daesh. Damascus however retained control of a military base on the outskirts, supplied by air from more secure government-held areas further west. On 17 September of this year, this base came under sustained aerial bombardment (lasting about an hour) from the air-forces of the US, UK, Australia and Denmark, killing between 80 and 106 Syrian troops and leaving over a hundred wounded. The official line from the defence ministries of the countries involved (none of whom is legally entitled to undertake military operations in Syria) was that this bombing was a “mistake”. Rather like Jabhat al-Nusra and al-Qaeda’s ‘divorce of convenience’ however, before accepting this narrative at face value it’s worth trying to get a clearer picture of the immediate context.

On 10 September, after 16 hours of talks, Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov announced that they had agreed a ceasefire, to come into effect two days later. But Kerry added a caveat which, with hindsight, seems remarkably candid:

“No one is building this based on trust. It is based on oversight, compliance, mutual interest. This is an opportunity, and not more than that until it becomes a reality.”

Some details of the agreement were kept under wraps, but are now known to have obliged Washington to disengage the so-called moderate opposition (a term even Lavrov was prepared to use) from known terrorist groups. If the ceasefire had held for a week and adequate progress had been made as it were in ‘detoxifying’ the opposition, the agreement called for the commencement of joint US-Russian air operations against hard-line Islamist groups such as al-Nusra and Daesh. The “accidental” bombing of Deir ez-Zour came less than 48 hours before this part of the agreement was due to be put into effect.

As Philip Gordon (from 2013-15 White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Persian Gulf Region) put it later that month

“With the U.S.-Russia cease-fire agreement, the Obama administration offered Putin a way forward that from a Russian perspective could only have been described as a clean win. If fully implemented, the agreement would have prevented regime change in Damascus — a major Putin redline — for the foreseeable future; boosted Russia’s position as a major power in the Middle East; facilitated military and intelligence cooperation with the United States against terrorist groups; diminished a costly conflict; and secured Russia’s Mediterranean base. From Moscow’s perspective, that would not be a bad day’s work.” 

But of course this explains with absolute clarity why many in the West could never regard it as a viable settlement. If Russia was going to take on the mantle of ‘winner’, the United States and its allies, including numerous Sunni Muslim-majority states in the region, must necessarily have occupied the role of ‘losers’.

The Kerry-Lavrov deal of 10 September was mortally wounded by the US, UK, Australian and Danish bombing of Deir ez-Zour a week later. Two days after that, the horrific attack on a UN aid convoy (responsibility for which was immediately pinned on Russia or the Syrian government, in spite of the presence of forces on the ground with a vital stake in consigning the ceasefire to history), was the coup de grace. Western policy has since reverted to the status quo ante; arming, supplying and training so-called moderate rebels while trying to curb the influence of more thinly disguised terror groups. Since Russia’s intervention in September 2015, descriptions of Syria’s insurgency as a ‘revolution’ have become increasingly muted. Bereft of ideas but unwilling to countenance anything that might look like “defeat”, in callous disregard for the interests of ordinary Syrians the West's policy seems to be above all to keep Assad's opponents occupied within Syria, rather than directing their attention towards western targets.

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