As Attentive Reader knows, I’ve been pushing a couple ideas about the diverging aims of the US, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar ever since the reboot of the overseas Syrian opposition at Doha in November 2012.
First, the logical endgame for the increasingly radicalized and bloody Syrian insurrection is not victory; it is a clubbing together of moderate, conservative, and authoritarian forces to suppress the jihadis, as occurred during the “Anbar Awakening” (or less politely, “death squads a go go” or “liquidation of AQ-aligned forces by an opportunistic alliance of local Sunni elites and US special forces”) in Iraq.
Case proven on this point.
The United States is way past hiding its anxiety about extremists in Syria. According to UAE’s The National, it wants to kill them even before scores are settled with Bashar al Assad:
Then, by the rebel commander's account, the discussion took an unexpected turn.
The Americans began discussing the possibility of drone strikes on Al Nusra camps inside Syria and tried to enlist the rebels to fight their fellow insurgents.
"The US intelligence officer said, 'We can train 30 of your fighters a month, and we want you to fight Al Nusra'," the rebel commander recalled.
Opposition forces should be uniting against Mr Al Assad's more powerful and better-equipped army, not waging war among themselves, the rebel commander replied. The response from a senior US intelligence officer was blunt.
"I'm not going to lie to you. We'd prefer you fight Al Nusra now, and then fight Assad's army. You should kill these Nusra people. We'll do it if you don't," the rebel leader quoted the officer as saying.
Second point was that the Gulf states are split between Qatar’s desire to shoehorn its Muslim Brotherhood proxies into a transitional Syrian government, and Saudi Arabia’s willingness to let ‘er rip: support the jihadis in their single-minded determination to crater the Syrian government and, perhaps, expand the chaos to bring down the Iran-aligned Shi’a central government in Iraq.
Case definitely proven on the Qatar/Saudi split.
The Financial Times revealed that Qatar has already spent $3 billion on its Syrian adventure and has, in the process, aroused Saudi resentment and anxiety, provoking the Kingdom to “nudge Qatar aside” as the leading provider of arms to the rebels.
But case unproven on the matter of unequivocal Saudi support for the jihadis and an insurrection-driven endgame in Syria.
Saudi Arabia, fearful of blowback, is actively discouraging Saudi volunteers from fighting in Syria (and is attempting to deprogram Saudi AQ members under luxurious, spa-like conditions at the “Prince Mohammed bin Nayef Centre for Counselling and Care”); whether this reflects utter abhorrence of the Syrian jihadis' leadership, personnel, and Caliphitic agenda is unknown.
Maybe Saudi Arabia regards a Syrian anti-Assad jihad cleansed of young Saudi enthusiasts the same way Pakistan’s ISS regards the Afghan Taliban: unruly but supremely useful and murderous proxies.
The FT version is that Saudi Arabia is asserting itself as the opposition’s armorer because Qatar was indiscriminately showering arms on radicals like Jabhat al-Nusra, which recently declared allegiance to Al Qaeda.
The military reverses recently suffered by the insurrectionists after two years of battling Assad’s weary forces probably reflect a reduction in foreign aid and fighters under US pressure.
Which means that Salafi-friendly governments have presumably heeded US calls to withhold resources from the most effective but least-West friendly jihadi elements inside Syria.
I leave it to the experts to determine if Saudi Arabia’s actions are driven by constitutional distaste for Jabhat al-Nusra (and its ties with the constitutionally Saudi-hostile al Qaeda leadership), or represent an attempt to wrongfoot local rival Qatar and gain a measure of useful leverage over Syria’s most potent insurrectionist force.
Anyway, after two years of bloody and counterproductive cheerleading for the insurrection, the United States has belatedly clubbed with Russia to support some kind of peace process.
The idea is to short-circuit the armed insurrection, start some political jaw-jaw, thereby sidelining the jihadists and bring Syria’s reformist, liberal opposition back into the game.
My feeling is that from the US side, this initiative is…Dishonest? Disingenuous? Dissembling?
Choose your dis word.
After two years of bloodshed, I don’t think there is a lot of meaningful domestic reformist opposition to reboot. The reformist expectation that popular demonstrations would elicit government repression, thereby accelerating popular alienation from the regime and hastening its non-violent fall at the hands of overwhelming secular and moderate forces, pretty much backfired.
Instead, distaste for Assad has been matched and perhaps exceeded by dismay at the influx of jihadis and the shredding of Syria’s economic and social fabric while the forces of neo-liberalism cheered blindly from the sidelines (and the Guardian dug its journalistic grave with its ghastly anti-regime agitprop).
Syrian domestic disgust with the revolution is pretty widespread, and the pathetic overseas opposition has done nothing to establish itself as a viable political force. A true peace process would probably find it necessary to preserve a central role for key elements of the current regime in a new government.
But I don’t think that’s the ultimate purpose of the peace process.
If and when West-sponsored civilian forces manage to put on a suitable reformist show (including a display of anti-jihadi as well as anti-Assad revulsion), the United States will have sufficient moral and political cover to seize upon some real or manufactured Assad outrage, condemn Assad and his cronies as insincere and inadequate peace partners, declare that the immiserated Syrians are incapable of defending themselves against the depredations of the regime, and cobble together some kind of intervention to topple Assad that denies a leading and decisive role to the jihadis.
In other words, Qaddafi redux, this time with a brisk stab in the back for Assad after a few weeks of rapprochement (instead of after the expensive ten-year cozying up to the West to which Qaddafi subjected himself). I think Assad himself is well aware of this possibility.
I would speculate that this is the kind of too-clever-by-half ostentatiously moralizing approach (freedom rings! Jihad baffled! lessons of Libya ignored!) that President Obama adores, and represents the kind of action that Turkey’s PM Erdogan—who has ingloriously hoisted himself on his anti-Assad petard—is begging the West to implement with Ankara’s support.
And maybe the Salafist extremists will resist the urge to sabotage a peace process transparently targeting them and, at the urging of their Gulf paymaster,s accept a brief hiatus in their anti-Iran/anti-Shi’a crusade in order to appease the United States. With the anti-Shi’a insurrection in Iraq burgeoning and Syria in ruins, maybe they feel they can stand down for the time being and re-seize the initiative at their leisure.
We’ll see what new kinds of war the peace process brings.