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Wednesday, 23 December 2015 11:00

Why the US pushes an illusory Syrian peace process

Why the US pushes an illusory Syrian peace process

The anti-Assad coalition led by the United States continues to stagger toward the supposed objective of beginning peace negotiations between the Syrian government and what has now been blessed as the politically acceptable so-called “opposition”.

The first such meeting was scheduled for 1 January, but no one on either side believes for a moment that any such negotiations are going to happen any time in the foreseeable future. Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare. Porter has said more on the US’s push for an illusionary peace process in Syria.

The notion that negotiations on a ceasefire and political settlement will take place lacks credibility, because the political-military realities on the ground in Syria won’t allow it. Those so-called ‘opposition’ groups that are prepared to contemplate some kind of settlement with the Syrian government under President Bashar al-Assad do not have the capacity to make such an agreement a reality. And those organizations that have the capacity to end the war against Damascus have no interest in agreeing to anything short of forcible regime change.

On top of those serious contradictions, Russia is openly contesting the US plan for a negotiated settlement. The United States is pushing the line that President Bashar al-Assad must step down, but Russia is insisting that such a demand is illegitimate.
The contradiction between the pretensions of the US-sponsored plan and Syrian political-military realities was very much in evidence at the recent conference held in Riyadh. The conference, which was supported by the United States and the other so-called “Friends of Syria,” including Britain, France, Turkey, Qatar and the UAE, was in theory to bring together the broadest possible range of opposition groups – excluding only what they wished to dub “terrorist” groups. Belying that claim, however, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (YPD) being armed by the United States in Syria was excluded from the conference at the insistence of Turkey.

A key objective of the conference was apparently to bring Ahrar al-Sham, the most powerful terrorist military force apart from the ISIS, into the putative game of ceasefire negotiations. But inviting Ahrar al-Sham was bound to backfire sooner or later. Ahrar al-Sham has been closely allied with al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, al-Nusra Front, both politically and militarily. Moreover, it has explicitly denounced the idea of any compromise with the elected government in Damascus.

Ahrar al-Sham showed up at the conference, but refused to follow the script. The representative of Ahrar al-Sham called for “the overthrow of the Assad regime with all its pillars and symbols, and handing them over for a trial.” That is not exactly the game plan envisioned in the negotiating process, which assumes that President Assad must leave after a transitional period, but that the government security institutions would remain in place. On the second day of the conference its representative announced that it was leaving, complaining that the conference organizers had refused to endorse its insistence on the “Muslim” identity of the opposition. It’s a source of shame that such terrorist groups, whose hands stained with the bloods of innocent people, utter words in terms of Muslim identity.

The Ahrar al-Sham refusal to play ball was the most dramatic indication of that the entire exercise is caught in a fundamental contradiction. But it wasn’t the only case of a major armed group whose attendance at the Riyadh meeting raised the obvious issue of conflicting interests.

Jaysh al-Islam is a coalition of 60 Salafist armed groups in Damascus suburbs whose orientation appears to be indistinguishable from that of Ahrar al-Sham. The terrorist coalition is led by Salafist extremist Zahran Alloush, and has fought alongside Ahrar al-Sham as well as al-Nusra Front. Last April, Alloush travelled to Istanbul, where he met with the leader of Ahrar al-Sham. Like their close allies, moreover, Alloush and his coalition reject the idea of a political settlement with the Syrian state authority, with or without President Assad. 

If it is so obvious that the Riyadh conference and the larger scheme for peace negotiations is not going to come to fruition, why has the Obama administration been pushing it? The explanation for what appears to be a lost cause can be inferred from the basic facts surrounding the US administration’s Syria policy.
First, the administration adopted the objective of regime change in Syria in late 2011, at a time when it was convinced, in vain, that Damascus was on the ropes. And although it has partially backtracked from that aim by distinguishing between President Assad and the institutional structure of the government, it cannot back off the demand for Assad to step down without a humiliating admission of failure and major domestic political damage.

Second in its pursuit of that regime change policy, the Obama administration allowed its regional allies – especially Turkey and Saudi Arabia – to do things that it wasn’t prepared to do. Obama tolerated Turkish facilitation of foreign terrorists and Turkish, Qatari and Saudi funneling of arms to their favorite terrorist groups. The result was that ISIS, al-Nusra Front, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam emerged in 2013 and 2014 as the main challengers to the Syrian government.

But the White House has officially maintained its distance from al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham, while continuing to collaborate closely with allies, as they have provided financial support to the “Army of Conquest” command dominated by the terrorist groups of al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. They did so to help the terrorist forces under their leadership gain control of Idlib Province and pose the most serious threat to Damascus thus far.

And the third fact about the policy is that the Obama administration embarked on its campaign of illusory peace negotiations with little more than one year left before Obama leaves the Oval Office.
The obvious implication of these facts is that the ostensible push for a ceasefire and peace negotiations is a useful device for managing the political optics associated with Syria during the administration’s final year. If it is not questioned by media and political elites, the administration will be able to claim both that it is insisting on getting rid of Assad and at the same time moving toward a ceasefire and political settlement. 

Never mind that claim has nothing to do with reality. Being the dominant power, after all, means never having to say you’re sorry, because you don’t have to acknowledge your responsibility for the terrible war and chaos visited on a country because of your policy.

EA

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