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#4706, 20 October 2014

West Asia

The US, Syria and Iraq: The Success of Airstrikes So Far
KP Fabian
Former Indian Ambassador to Qatar

The battle for Kobane, the Kurdish town on the Syrian side of the border with Turkey, is still raging, though indications are that the US’ airstrikes have so far failed to make a decisive impact and reverse the advance of the Islamic State (IS) fighters. The US’ airstrikes on the IS have been ongoing for almost a month in Syria and for two months in Iraq. Yet, Ramadi, the capital of the huge Anbar province in western Iraq might fall to IS soon. The question arises on whether or not US President Barack Obama’s strategy – military and political – against the IS will work.

On September 10, he announced that the US would “degrade and ultimately destroy” the IS. At present, it is clear that the US strategy is not working. But, the key question to raise is whether there is a coherent, consequential, and consistent US policy to deal with the crisis in Iraq and Syria. The answer is in the negative.
Washington’s policy has been vitiated by misjudgments and incoherence. In August 2011, President Obama, after a fortnight-long consultations with his counterparts in UK, France, and Germany, announced that there should be a regime change in Syria; President Basher al-Assad had forfeited his legitimacy and it was abundantly clear that he had to go. One might have reasonably concluded that Obama spoke out on the basis of a political assessment made by his intelligence agencies and diplomats, corroborated by their counterparts in the other three countries.

Obviously, the assessment was deeply flawed. UN officials who visited Syria to prepare the ground for the Kofi Annan mission that started in February 2012 found no reason to conclude that Assad was on his way out. How did Obama come to his conclusion? It appears that Saudi Arabia and Qatar had conveyed to US that their intelligence agencies had, after investigations, come to that conclusion. Perhaps, because Assad is close to Iran, and the US wants to weaken Iran, Washington might have uncritically accepted the Saudi-Qatar inputs. 

In August 2012, Obama revealed the ‘red lines’ Assad should not cross, referring to moving or using chemical weapons. In August 2013, when Assad used chemical weapons and Washington consulted its allies, there were loud signals that the US and France were about to attack Syria. However, Russia picked a hint thrown by US Secretary of State John Kerry and made Assad agree to destroy his chemical weapons. While the decision to get the weapons destroyed without air attacks on Syria was reasonable, the fact remains that Saudi Arabia was deeply disappointed by what it read as Obama’s vacillation.

It has been argued by Obama’s critics, including former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, that, right at the beginning if the US  had  armed the moderate Syrians, extremist groups such as the al Qaeda and the IS would not have established themselves in the latter. Obama was reluctant to send arms as the US worried the arms would land up in wrong hands. But, in that case, Obama should not have made the August 2011 statement and given the impression that Washington would arm and support the rebels. The US-initiated Geneva process with Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi as Special Envoys for Syria, both eminent diplomats, was an elaborate charade.

The airstrikes are unlikely to destroy the IS but degrade, they might. Obama has virtually declared an open-ended war on the IS. His repeated pledge not to send ground troops is understandable, but his own defence team has made it clear that airstrikes are not enough. Obama’s plan to get about 5000 Syrians trained in Saudi Arabia and send them to Syria is rather fanciful. The 5000 cannot make much impact either on Assad or on the IS that has about 30,000 fighters. By the time they reach Syria, the IS might have expanded its hold.

In the longer term, the US might not mind Iraq’s breaking into three or more, a Kurdistan, a Shiastan, and one or more Sunnistans. The US’s long-term interest is to see an independent Kurdistan that holds about 40 per cent of Iraq’s oil – and where US companies are deeply engaged in. Perhaps, even Iran might not mind the breakup of Iraq if the Shiastan with its oil wealth will remain an obedient satellite. Turkey has plans to acquire territory from Syria – which is why it is asking for a buffer zone and a no-fly zone. However, if an independent Kurdistan is established in Iraq, it will ignite the Kurds in Turkey and Syria, and even Iran, to work towards independence. Assad’s support from his Alawite base is declining and his photos are no longer shown at the burials of dead soldiers. He might hold what he has and the IS and others hold what they have, marking the end of Syria.

All told, it is the beginning of the end of the political boundaries set by the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement to serve the interests of UK and France. But, much more is at stake. When and how will the region recover peace and tranquility?

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