The New York Times recently published a deep dive into the Obama administration's policy in Syria, detailing a deeply conflicted cabinet and a disengaged president over the last two years.
The result has been a hesitant strategy that has largely backfired.
The Times quotes a classified State Department briefing paper from June 10 that painted a grim picture of the rebellion as led by the West's preferred rebel commander, Gen. Salim Idris of the Supreme Military Council (SMC) and the Free Syrian Army (FSA):
“We are headed toward our worst case scenario: rebel gains evaporating, the moderate opposition — including Salim Idriss — imploding, large ungoverned spaces, [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] holding on indefinitely, neighbors endangered, and Iran, Hizbollah, and Iraqi militias taking root,” the paper concluded.
More than four months later, the U.S. has reached its definition of the worst case.
The overall war continues to be largely a military stalemate, but the FSA is losing ground and fighters to better-funded and better- e quipped jihadists. Even in the south, where the FSA has been dominant, there are signs that jihadists are increasingly leading the fight.
After the August 22 chemical weapons attack and the chemical weapons deal that revitalized Assad, the Idris-led moderate opposition has imploded as many of the Islamist fighting forces formed a new coalition, dubbed Jaish al-Islam ("the Army of Islam"), with the blessing of Saudi Arabia .
Large swaths of territory are not ungoverned but increasingly governed by the likes of al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), especially on the Turkish border in the north. And the revelation from the Times that Jordan offered the U.S. a base for drone strikes in Syria has not gone over well with Islamist factions.
Taking all that into account, America is left with few options besides what it has been reluctant to do up to this point (i.e., actively support the SMC).
Yochi Dreazen of Foreign Policy reports a diplomatic push for peace talks, led by Secretary of State John Kerry, "is about all Washington is willing to provide" — even though several senior State Department officials consider that to be more bad policy.
“The only person who wants the Geneva conference to happen is the secretary,” a senior U.S. official told FP. “Who’s going to show up? Will they actually represent anyone? If not, why take the risk?”
All in all, the U.S. strategy in Syria has gone as badly as Assad and his allies would hope.
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