Obama may shift policy on Assad

Osama Al Sharif
Osama Al Sharif

Osama Al Sharif

By : Osama Al Sharif

For the past few weeks the Obama administration has been sending mixed messages on Syria, Iraq and how best to stave off the threat of the Islamic State (IS) in both countries. Naturally these messages resonated across the international coalition, led by the United States, which has been scrambling to defeat IS militants, through air strikes and on the ground.

Last week reports suggested that President Barack Obama had asked for a formal review of his Syria strategy, but on Sunday he denied such reports. Speaking from Brisbane, Australia, he said, “While the White House was constantly reviewing its tactics in both Syria and Iraq, the basic elements of the strategy remained in place.”

He also rejected reports that the US was considering sending ground troops to fight IS, or ISIS, adding that such a thing would happen only if “we discover that ISIS had gotten possession of a nuclear weapon… and we had to run an operation to get it out of their hands.” On Syria President Obama brushed aside that the US was “in some ways going to enter into an alliance with (President Bashar) Assad” adding that such a thing “would alienate the country’s Sunni Muslim population.”

This contradicts a position that he allegedly took last week, according to senior advisers at the White House, that it may not be possible to defeat IS militants without removing Assad from power.

These contradictions reflect the reality of conflicting positions inside the White House, on the one side, and the Pentagon on the other. They are compounded by the reality on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey denied reports last week that the US was considering shifting its strategy on Assad, IS and Syria. They said that the focus remains on helping Iraqi forces defeat “the Sunni militant group inside Iraq.” But this is not the way some of America’s closest regional allies, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia, see it. Both countries insist that the removal of Assad is key to ending the civil war in that country, uniting the opposition and eventually defeating IS.

Such differences have complicated Washington’s relations with some of its allies such as Turkey, which has refused to allow the US to use its airbases or dispatch its own troops to save the beleaguered Syrian border town of Kobani from falling into IS hands. Turkey wants to create a no-fly zone in Syria, a humanitarian corridor, and make the ouster of Assad the main objective of the current campaign. It is also suspicious of US help to Syria’s Kurdish resistance group, which it considers a terrorist organization. But commentators agree that without Turkey’s direct involvement in the war against IS, especially in Syria, the campaign will be long and difficult.

The United States has been following a more coherent strategy in Iraq. It had dispatched more than 3,000 military advisers to train the Iraqi army, and in the past few days it opened training centers for Sunni tribes in Anbar province. It pressured the Baghdad government to overhaul the top leadership of the Iraqi army. And in the past few days the Iraqi military made important gains in Beiji in the north, driving out IS fighters. It is now preparing to move on Tikrit, but the biggest test will be to expel IS militants from Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city and a main base for the terrorist group.

Despite Obama’s rejection of such a possibility, the number of US military advisers is likely to grow in the coming weeks. But if US strategy in Iraq is finally paying off, the biggest challenge for the coalition will be in Syria. The US and its allies are yet to carry out plans to train and arm the “moderate” Syrian opposition. Recently it was announced that 2,000 Syrian rebels would be trained in Turkey. But while the air campaign in Iraq is backed by ground troops; the Iraqi army, the Peshmerga and the Sunni and Shia militias, the situation in Syria is different.

The opposition, mainly the Free Syrian Army (FSA), has been losing ground in the north and east of the country, to IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra — who reportedly agreed to put their differences aside and unite their efforts — on the one hand, and to the regime’s army, on the other. Arab coalition members, in addition to Turkey, are unlikely to send ground troops into Syria. Training few thousand FSA members will not be enough to dislodge IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra.

While the US says it will not ally itself with Assad, it may still benefit from his army in the fight against a common enemy. This is why the idea of local cease-fires, starting with Aleppo, as suggested by UN envoy Staffan de Mistura, last week may present a way out. The offer has been welcomed by Assad and may be accepted by Moscow, which was visited recently by a senior Syrian opposition figure, Mu’ath Al-Khatib. Such a plan would not translate into an official alliance between the US and Assad, but would focus attention on fighting a common enemy; IS and Jabhat Al-Nusra.

America’s Arab allies, in addition to Turkey, are likely to object to such a plan, but without an immediate political solution to the Syrian crisis, and with the growing threat of IS, a temporary truce between combatants in Syria, so that all can focus on one enemy, may finally break the vicious circle there. Obama may eventually adopt such an option.



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