[This piece is still to be fully referenced but bear with me, it is sourced from things read over the duration of 4 years, unfortunately not everything’s been bookmarked and so some things may take time to find]
How the US is playing both sides of the Syrian War, and how Iran-Iraq, not “Afghanistan”, is the more appropriate analogy:
Syria is surrounded by 5 countries, 4 of which are providing weaponry (and in some cases) to the sides in the conflict.
All 4 of are strong US allies. These are Jordan, Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon.
Jordan and Turkey act as conduits for the provision of Arab weaponry to the Syrian opposition. Turkey has also acted as conduit for the provision of foreign fighters.
Despite being American allies (with very strong American influence), Lebanon and Iraq act as conduits for the provision of thousands of foreign loyalist militiamen and weaponry. US support has been redoubled, not sanctioned to both these states.
The US has provided direct weaponry to only one side in the conflict, the YPG. It has coordinated airstrikes with 3 sides, the YPG, the Syrian regime and single-digit remnants of the 54 trained “rebels” (who signed declarations not to fight the regime) with remit to call in airstrikes against ISIS.
The issue of the US “vetting” of Syrian rebels is often mentioned as example of the US supporting the rebellion, when it is the complete opposite. The “vetting” process is a (bureaucratic, stalling & time-eating) limitation imposed on Saudi and Qatar on which factions they could provide anti-tank guided (TOW) missiles for in Syria. Though these states have this weaponry in stock they are bound by the agreement with which they purchased them to attain US approval before moving them onto a third party. Even after the “vetting” the US has still limited the quantities of anti-tank missiles these Arab states could provide.
The vetting is exclusive to the anti-tank provisions, which is why these Gulf states have supported other non-vetted factions as well (like the Islamic Front), just not with anti-tank missiles (I’ve yet to see a video of the Islamic Front using a TOW for example, despite known Qatari support). The vast majority of Syrian rebels are not “vetted” and consequently most do not have these TOWs. All of the Syrian rebels do not have MANPADs (anti-aircraft guided missiles) despite their presence in both Saudi and Qatari stock, due to the absolute and unwavering US refusal (something which should be considered by those who cite Afghanistan) to provide them – and not because they may fall in the hands of extremists, the ridiculous excuse they use when the entire Iraqi Army’s weaponry fell into the hands of ISIS within two offensives and the US still poured billions of dollars more into the government after it – but because they would be a complete game changer to the military balance in Syria.
When the statement is made that “the Syrian regime would’ve collapsed had it not been for the US” as Al-Jazeera’s Faysal al-Qassem routinely says nowadays – this is not an exaggerative or emotive statement. Not only did the US overwhelmingly limit the quality and quantities of weaponry allowed through Jordan and Turkey between 2012-2015 (during 2012 this blockade was at its strongest and the rebellion was overwhelmingly self-arming), it imposed no such restrictions whatsoever on its allies in Iraq and Lebanon. To add insult to injury the US declared a variety of indigenous resistance groups in Syria to be effectively “terrorists” and bombed them, whilst foreign loyalist groups were completely spared. Hezbollah was taken off the terrorist list and not a single of the tens of Shia loyalist groups were targeted. Iraq and Lebanon, two states which were essentially emeshed with the militias, had redoubled support and arming (in the billions) and their prime patron, Iran, instead of having tightened sanctions (as would presumably be the case if the US wanted to undermine the regime) was in fact sanctions-relieved.
To emphasise just the extent of perverse US cynicism in Syria – it has used the fact that it is supposedly a supporter of the rebellion to limit the supplies going to the rebellion by putting pressure on its pro-rebellion allies – yet has not applied any such pressure whatsoever on its allies on the regime side because of the excuse “We are not part of that side” – even whilst they support the Iraqi and Lebanese states with billions. This is the sheer degree of the US’s cynicism in Syria when one gets to study its details and goes beyond the empty statements (although even the statements of course stated that the Syrian rebels could not succeed and the Syrian state has to remain in tact, whether with or without Assad as its head).
The Syrian regime’s strength was always derived of a minority army (founded by the French that way incidentally – the Syrian Arab Army’s former name was the Troupes Speciales, a colonial proxy army founded by the French and made exclusive to minorities in Syria, in particular the Alawites to “divide and conquer”, keeping out the pro-independence Sunni majority). Its Sunni conscripts do not like to fight, they try to escape or defect, and when captured by rebels almost beg to say that they really had no choice (unlikes Alawite prisoners) and speak in a way that show clear support and knowledge of the rebellion, whilst the army’s elite Alawite base has been wiped out – the Alawites have sacrificed a third of their young men for the Assad family.
So when we say that the US is the main reason for the regime’s continued survival, it is taking this in mind – because the regime is now completely reliant on foreign militias that have come through US allies, and whilst it was long said, in 2012, 2013 and 2014 that the Syrian Army “is on the verge of collapse”, this was never the case until recently – it was never dominated by foreign militias and its operations were still led by pro-regime Syrians. This changed in particular this year when the regime’s Syrian manpower clearly showed that it had gone and was now being led in operations by foreign fighters. The Syrian Army would collapse within a year without them. And why? Because of a long-known rule: minority regimes do not fare well in civil wars, because sooner or later they run out of manpower – a problem that does not exist for the almost exclusively-based indigenous rebels. This is what has happened in Syria yet the regime survives precisely because foreign militias have entered to ensure its survival, with the direct approval of the US. This is the reason for the sudden haste to find a “political solution” in Syria.
Jordan’s position vis a vis the Syrian rebellion of course is (and has always been) a very ambiguous one (it denies supporting the rebellion and has maintained links, including intelligence links, with Damascus). Jordan is not a supporter of the Arab Spring, yet is more amenable to popular pressure (the MB is dominant in its parliament) than the other monarchies, and represents the more “constitutional” of these absolutist monarchies. Yet nonetheless, the Jordanian monarchy has refused to sign a statement condemning Russian airstrikes in favour of the Syrian regime, and has drawn up a “terror list” which includes some of the strongest factions of the Syrian rebellion, including former FSA factions (Liwa al-Tawhid) and independent FSA-type democratic-Islamist groups (Nour al-Zenki brigades), as well as the Islamic Front (the “terror list”, it should be noted, completely excluded the foreign Shia militias fighting on the side of the regime, such as Hezbollah, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and others).
Jordan’s support for the Syrian rebellion has been essentially in line with the American policy, and essentially represents the only really reflective/proxy example of American policy from its pro-rebel regional allies – of allowing limited, “reformist” scale opposition to the Syrian regime but nothing remotely approaching “revolutionary” scale opposition. Whilst both Saudi (since Salman’s ascension to power in particular) and Qatar want to forcefully bring down the regime, the US and Jordan do not, rather wanting a “negotiated, diplomatic solution” whereby Assad himself “is convinced” or “pressured” to step down but not forced or brought to collapse, and whereby the rest of his regime remains in place. This is often expressed in the US statement, “there is no military solution, there must be a negotiated solution” (which they have said since 2012, when American policy was against, and blocked – through Jordan – the arming of the rebellion altogether when it was at its height).
The Military Operations Command in Jordan has been well-known for its refusal to authorise various offensives in Syria’s south, most recently those which aimed to take control of the provincial capital of Dara’a (the still-stalled Operation Southern Storm). These MOC limitations [the MOC exists in Turkey as well but is much less influential, due to the lesser strength (if still considerable) of the FSA in north Syria and the predominance of independent FSA (& non-FSA) groups, who either still wanted to operate under the umbrella of the FSA but maintain operational autonomy (such as the Levant Front or the Fastaqim Kama Umert gathering), or split altogether from the official FSA structure to gain operational independence from the limitations imposed upon it] have been crucial in keeping Damascus by and large free from threat from the South – Damascus has always been a red line and an enforced one: the US and Jordan directly combined in 2012 to force the withdraw of an “unauthorised” rebel offensive on Damascus in the summer of 2012, with John Kerry pathetically saying at the time “We are not going to militarise the situation and do not want escalation”.
This is incidentally why the emergence of the independent and rapidly conquering Jaish al-Fatah coalition was repeatedly bombed by the USA long before Russia’s intervention – it is indeed not an exaggeration whatsoever to say that the US is not unlikely to have covertly requested Russia’s heavy handed intervention to carry out a role it itself could not do (those who take scepticism of the idea and believe there is a “cold war” (despite there being no ideological conflict whatsoever between the US and Federation Russia) completely do not understand the nature of inter-imperialist collaboration in multipolar worlds (see only the 19th century as the best example of how viciously competing geopolitical powers routinely dealt with one another)). Jaish al-Fatah, which had been advancing unimpeded from Idlib province into central and coastal Syria, has now been stopped by Russia’s intervention.
This is also why the main rebel faction in Damascus’s environs, Jaish al-Islam with its leader Zahran Alloush, who have been routinely subject to accusations of “treachery”, regime ties and “not opening fronts” against Damascus by revolutionary supporters – has been relatively favoured by the US and Jordan, not least for prioritising keeping ISIS outside of Damascus much more (allegedly) than troubling it (this is not to neglect his group’s fighting against the regime, but questions have been raised as to whether he has launched the full capabilities of his group against the regime in Damascus), and for having declared support for the “political solution” and thus spared the “terrorist” labeling (despite his group’s actual greater ideological conservatism than others put on the list). The terrorist labelling is not about terrorism, but about putting on those factions seen to be unlikely to cooperate with any political solution (even if they were ideologically moderate).
Israel has not acted as a conduit but has repeatedly struck Hezbollah, bitch-slapping a competitor whilst its down. However people misinterpret the nature of Israel’s strikes on Hezbollah. Israel’s strikes in Hezbollah are not meant to empower the opposition, they are meant purely to hurt a historical competitor Israel for years routinely hit Egypt as well even after the peace treaty with it. It is what Israel does, it is an aggressive fascistic state. If it were up to Israel it would be hitting/weakening every army around it, regardless of the type of relations it has with them (it sees no real friends but “bulwark” rulers who are accommodated). In this case it has actually punitively broken Hezbollah and broken any remnant notion of “resistance” – Hezbollah no longer responds to Israeli airstrikes with rockets onto Israel.
As predicted, Hezbollah’s intervention in the Syrian war ultimately turned it more and more into a clone of the side they came to help (revealing a blatant sectarian brand in its slogans, mass and indiscriminate shelling, etc.), in this case catching the Syrian state’s flu of non-response to Israeli attacks. Israel never objected to Hezbollah’s entry in the war, in fact it probably welcomed it. In Syria Hezbollah has been legitimate target practice for Israel’s aggressive tendencies (since no peace treaty was ever reached with it, even if there was pretty much the same seperation of forces agreement with Hezbollah post-2000 that Syria enjoyed with Israel since 1974, whereby attacks were not permitted during this period from Southern Lebanon, barring in 2006).
Yet simultaneously Israel has been very careful not to alter too much in Syria. When a minor flare-up occurred between Israel and Hezbollah a few months ago after the targeting of a Hezbollah convoy and the killing of one of its leaders, earning on that occasion a Hezbollah response, both sides hastened to communicate (through proxy) to one another that they did not want an escalation in hostilities, and things eventually cooled down. Of course Israel has since violated that understanding and repeatedly struck Hezbollah, but notedly Hezbollah has not since responded. Israel essentially broke Hezbollah, confirming (or pushing over) its transformation into an sect-nationalist power from an ostensibly anti-Zionist/imperialist one (whether this was a transformation or whether Hezbollah has always been like this under the surface, as informed by past and present comments by Nasrallah that their allegiance is and has always been one of unquestionable obedience to the Velayet-e Faqih “Providence of the Jurist” – i.e. Shia Iran’s Supreme Guide, is a matter of debate). Thus Hezbollah has been claimed to have coordinated with US drone strikes against Jabhat al-Nusra in the Qalamoun.
Most importantly however, it was Israel that brokered the US-Russian 2013 Chemical Weapons Deal that “spared” the Syrian regime, and in fact had suggested it (though I maintain that these proposed “strikes” were limited (even if they were going to happen, which I did not believe they were) and the threat of them was overwhelmingly to scare Assad into giving up his chemical stash, for Western fear of no longer being able to control them (and consequently falling into the “wrong hands”) – which worked). This is something that has been amazingly under-reported despite its implications.
[Uploaded – 17/12/2015: Since the initial writing of this post John Kerry has come out declaring the 5-year end-point/terminus of US Syria policy, with a gluttony of statements – most importantly amongst which were “We are not seeking regime change” (I do not set too much weight in American rhetoric and statements and rather prefer to examine their actions, but others do). He has also criticised those who threaten bringing about the “collapse” of the regime (as opposed to a negotiated resignation of only Assad himself)]