The shift in the West’s approach to Syria started on September 30, 2015, with the Russian military intervention on the side of the weakened Syrian regime. The Obama administration’s timid reaction to the Russian aerial bombings of the Syrian opposition groups, many of whom it presumably supported, only emboldened and expanded Moscow’s role in the ruined nation.
Although he warned of the dangerous consequences of Russia’s interference, US President Barack Obama has in reality built on the Russian military involvement. The US-Russian-led international Syria meetings in Vienna on October 30 and November 14 revealed Washington’s true intentions. The latter meeting came against the backdrop of the Paris attacks, and for all practical purpose, focused the West’s attention on fighting Isil, instead of ridding Syria of Assad.
After the meeting adopted a far-reaching road map that ends in 2017, US Secretary of State John Kerry invited Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to New York on December 18. At the UN, the US embraced the Russian draft for a new UN Security Council resolution on Syria, despite opposition from Washington’s Middle East allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia.
UNSC resolution 2254 gave the diplomatic process a new momentum, but it also stripped the Syria opposition of much of its gains. It also mandated Swedish Italian diplomat Staffan de Mistura to designate the opposition representatives to be officially invited to the talks. Previous agreement about a transitional Syrian government with executive powers that sidelines Assad, has apparently been replaced with a Russian plan of unity government with Assad on top, leading to elections in which Assad can run.
Kerry’s statement contradicts previous US positions and policies that provided support, albeit meagre, for the opposition, and underlined the need for Assad to go. From the outset, Obama has raised the expectations of the Syria people, but the US did little or nothing about the genocide carried out against them. An estimated quarter of a million Syrians have perished and millions more have been displaced by war over the past five years, mostly at the hands of the regime. But the US president backed down even when the Syrian regime trampled over Washington and the world’s redline regarding the use of chemical weapons. The Obama administration accepted a Russian proposal to disarm Assad of his weapons of mass destruction without a fight, but the regime has since turned ever bloodier.
On the political front, it was the US that worked along with its allies to help unite the Syrian opposition; first in the Syrian National Council and later in the National Coalition, which Washington believed was ‘inclusive’, and recognised it at the end of 2012 as the sole ‘representative of the Syrian people’.
And last December 8-9, the Syrian National coalition met with other groups, including the two most formidable fighting groups, Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, and agreed on the negotiation teams as well as a vision of a democratic and civil Syria that respects human rights. However, by the end of 2015, Washington had changed its position once again, or more accurately, it had realigned its Syria policy with Moscow’s, strategically, politically and diplomatically. In essence, it has turned its back on the Syrian people who struggled, fought and died defending against the Russia-supported Assad regime.
De Mistura’s diplomatic nudge and fudge over Syrian ‘proximity talks’ reminds me of more of the same diplomatic jargon one heard from the failed Oslo Process over the years. Washington and Moscow might have swapped positions, and De Mistura has proven far more pleasant than Dennis Ross, but the cynicism of the world’s superpowers is just the same. Except this time around, it’s Russia that’s dictating the process. What both parties don’t see is that their attempts to sacrifice the Syrian people in the fight against Isil will resolve nothing. It will instead lead to more extremism, instability and violence.
This article has been excerpted from: ‘Has the West betrayed the Syrian people?’