Doug Bandow
MAY 05, 2017
Chronicles

Donald Trump campaigned on an “America First” foreign policy. But he hasn’t been immune to the vapors of the Swamp. Not even three months after his inauguration, administration officials were praising NATO; affirming commitments to Japan and South Korea; discussing troop surges for Afghanistan; talking about permanently stationing forces in Iraq, increasing aid for Saudi Arabia’s war against Yemen, and effecting regime change in Syria. It was as if Hillary Clinton occupied the President’s body.

Trump’s flip-flop on Syria was particularly shocking. Before the dawn of the Neoconservative Age no sane American would have suggested intervening in the horror that this ancient land has become.

Modern Syria was created during World War I. Under the heavy influence of France, it had little real geopolitical significance. During the Cold War Damascus was allied with the Soviet Union but was no more successful than other Arab states in fighting Israel. After Damascus was defeated in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, the Hafez al-Assad regime concentrated on oppressing the Syrian people and meddling in next-door Lebanon. None of this was of any practical concern to Americans.

When the Arab Spring came to Syria in 2011, the government of Bashar al-Assad responded brutally, opposition turned violent, and the country fractured into multiple bloody battlefields. The Obama administration insisted on Assad’s ouster, discouraging insurgents from seeking a political solution yet offering little practical aid to them, which in turn gave hope to Assad. Researchers Ryan O’Farrell and Cody Roche observed that “hard-line Islamist groups have steadily become more prominent, out-competing, marginalizing and on several occasions, violently displacing the defector-centric nationalist groups that were the nucleus of the initial militarization of the rebellion.”

The Syrian conflict quickly turned into a proxy war: The U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the other Gulf states pushed for Assad’s ouster, while Iran (including Afghan and Iraqi militias under Tehran’s command), Lebanon’s Hez bollah, and Russia supported the Damascus government. Turks and Saudis were pleased to work with the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra (the Support Front), which was the local Al Qaeda affiliate; meanwhile, Washington actively battled ISIS while tolerating al-Nusra. True to form, Ankara viewed Kurdish militias (allied with Washington) as the most dangerous faction and focused its malign military attention on them.

Syria became a mix of madhouse and charnel house. Hundreds of thousands were killed. Millions were forced to flee. The humanitarian consequences were almost indescribable. There was not the slightest chance that Washington could bring order to the chaos, but President Barack Obama was constantly besieged by ivory-tower warriors who demanded that he do something.

The same people are now at work on President Trump.

The most powerful actor in the Syrian conflict is the Assad government. Back in 2011, spring was in the air, and the overthrow of Assad looked like a good idea. Over six years of carnage, scores, even hundreds, of different fighting forces opposed to the regime developed and dissolved. Yet at present, Assad is in the ascendency, having benefited from strong Russian support. However, Damascus shares command with its many allies and has little hope of reestablishing control over the entire country. Assad is a garden-variety dictator, presiding over a secular regime dominated by Alawites; Alawi Islam is an offshoot of Shia Islam. Assad himself represents no particular Islamic ideology, and thus threatens few outside of Syria’s borders.

A few factions within the insurgency have received significant international attention, but overall it is a hodgepodge of groups unified only by their opposition to Assad. If the Assad regime totters, one could imagine more consolidation as the insurgents prepare for the final struggle. But contrary to the assumption of many advocates of U.S. military intervention, Assad’s overthrow would not be the end of the Syrian conflict. Instead, it would inaugurate another round of combat to determine who takes over whatever remains of the Syrian state. And as has been the case with all modern revolutions, the winners would not likely be Western-oriented liberals determined to build the good society.

The Trump administration has no good reason to step into such an imbroglio.

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