He Won!: US Is Moving Away From Its Anti-Assad Course

By Updated at 2017-08-22 01:33:25 +0000

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The US is increasingly moving away from its anti-Assad course. And the winner is: Assad.

The Syrian president appears increasingly confident, announcing that conditions will apply to countries wanting to rejig their relationship with Syria.

On Sunday, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad gave a speech in front of dozens of his country's diplomats. He came across as confident: Among other things, he declared that there would be no cooperation with countries "that do not clearly and definitively cut their ties to terrorism."

This dig was aimed at several states, including some Arab ones, especially on the Arabian Peninsula. It also refers to a number of European countries – and the United States. Assad accuses them of collaborating with "terrorists."

Assad has reason to be optimistic. He gave this speech three days after a jihadist drove into and killed 14 people in Barcelona, injuring more than 100. Attacks like these are a gift to the Syrian president: They help make him look like a potential partner to those who have, until now, opposed him. Hardly a week goes by the West without an IS-backed terror attack, Assad told the assembled diplomats, adding: "This fact has forced Western politicians to change their attitude" towards Syria.

Fighting IS takes top priorityAnd the US has indeed been taking a new approach to Syria for some time now. A few weeks ago US President Trump announced that a CIA program supporting Assad's opponents was being discontinued. This was in response to the venture's lack of success. Out of thousands of fighters the US had trained, only a few had proven to be reliable partners.

And it's not only by shutting down this program that the US has signalled that it's increasingly distancing itself from Assad's opponents. At the same time it is growing closer to Russia, which has always supported the Assad government.

In an interview with the American broadcaster Fox News in early August, US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US still wanted to prevent Assad from staying in power. However, he went on to add that the US and Russia had a common interest in seeing a unified and stable Syria. In Russia's view, that can only be achieved in the medium term with Assad as head of state.

Hesitant US course
The Trump administration's course is therefore just as hesitant as that of ex-president Barack Obama.

The reason is obvious: People in Washington perceive the jihadist terrorist groups like so-called "Islamic State" (IS) and al-Qaida as a serious threat.
"The Salafi-jihadi movement – not [simply] distinct groups or individuals – threatens the United States, the West, and Muslim communities," according to Critical Threats, a project of the conservative American think tank The American Enterprise Institute.

Its article continues: "Europe and the American homeland face an unprecedented level of facilitated and inspired terrorist attacks. This situation is not success, stalemate, or slow winning, and still less does it reflect an enemy 'on the run.' It is failure."
Hezbollah as a partner?

Diagnoses like this are obviously gaining traction in Washington. The political consequences are becoming apparent: For example, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz reported in early August that American special forces were training with the Lebanese military for an anticipated confrontation with IS troops.

The Lebanese military, however, cannot clearly be separated from the paramilitary group Hezbollah, which is allied to Iran. Ha'aretz quotes the Middle East analyst Faysal Itani from the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East: "Both Lebanon and Hezbollah occupy a grey area," he says. "Lebanon isn't really a state, and Hezbollah isn't a terrorist group – or isn't only a terrorist group, depending on your view.”

The USA can't get around this entanglement, either. The Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has clearly outlined the implications of these new alliances in the common fight against IS: "The world is currently assuming that the Syrian regime is going to stay," Ha'aretz quoted him as saying a few days later.

The wrong warBut the political action taken by the Obama administration in response to the jihadist threat was controversial; the Trump administration's even more so. Rapprochement with Russia is risky, says a study by the Washington think tank Institute for the Study of War.

The most problematic thing, it points out, is the choice of new allies: "Sunni Arabs view the US as aligned with the deepening Russo-Iranian coalition and complicit in its atrocities."

It does seem that Assad is going to stay in power, at least for the time being. He has succeeded in presenting himself as a bulwark against jihadism. From his point of view, this portrayal makes absolute sense. But if the Sunnis should come to the conclusion that they were now facing an alliance of Shiites, Russia and the USA, this would probably once again fuel jihadism.

The American think tanks warn that, if this should happen, the terrorism we are seeing now would be just the precursor to a subsequent, even more brutal expression.

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