One of the largest sources of confusion on the conflict Syria are deceptive and lazy media reports which have routinely failed to distinguish between the actors in the conflict and explain the critical nuances in the situation on the ground. One news agency will publish a headline proclaiming “US support for rebels”, for example with arms-drops and aerial cover, when the article always subsequently reveals the “rebels” in question to be the Syrian Democratic Forces – a group which officially maintains a policy of “neutrality” towards the Assad regime and practically has always collaborated with its forces (notably in the recent fall of Aleppo, in which the SDF sided with the Assad regime against the FSA). Despite this fact dozens of other news agencies will recirculate the original misleading headline, with the SDF mistakenly labelled a “rebel faction” despite declaredly not being part of the Syrian rebellion.
Today, this false reporting comes to a head. For here are the constantly cited “US-backed “rebels”” giving up the city of Manbij to the Assad regime, to avoid it falling to the real “rebels” of the Free Syrian Army. The US-backed and counter-revolutionary so-called “Syrian Democratic Forces” would rather the genocidal, dictatorial Assad take power than the democratic revolutionaries of the Arab Spring.
The “rebel” factions that the US has directly supported in Syria have always been those that do not fight Assad – in other words rebels that don’t rebel. The SDF position on Syria is identical to that of the US – a “third option” theoretically distinguishable from the regime but which ultimately involves indirect support to it. This “regime preservation by proxy” has been US policy in the conflict, helping it to avoid the criticisms which would otherwise arise from unmediated direct support – with other “proxy” US-backed allies of the regime include Iraqi army brigades (who currently form the biggest ground forces of the Assad regime) and the Egyptian al-Sisi regime.
The “temptation” was of depriving Russia of its naval base at Tartous, or conversely of having a Lebanese March 14-style regime in Syria that would pull away from Iran and Hizbullah (although this latter temptation became redundant with the Iran nuclear deal). But the Americans were never willing to pay the price of revolutionary “chaos” for this, especially once the “chaos” in Libya began to convince them that “regime change” there had been a mistake.
That all changed when Obama’s bluff was called in August 2013 – and again with the expansion of IS in Iraq in mid-2014 (with Ukraine in the meantime giving Clinton’s adventurism a far more promising point of pressure on Putin than Syria had ever been).
So I would date the “third party counter-revolution” policy from mid-2014. Before that, it had been a policy of half-hearted support for the “counter-revolution within the revolution”, on condition that the USA wouldn’t have to do any of the heavy lifting and wouldn’t have to risk a direct confrontation with Russia.
For their part I think the Russians felt betrayed enough in Libya that they weren’t willing to take any risks in Syria – and that the Ukraine crisis and the sanctions on Russia that followed it increased Russia’s paranoia, however obvious it might have been that Obama was angling for an “anti-terrorist” partnership with Russia and Iran in Syria and Iraq.
I don’t think that Putin regarded Obama as being an especially reliable “partner” in this sense, for the reasons above and given that the USA’s historic regional allies continued to provide some (however limited) practical assistance to the anti-Assad forces, even if the USA didn’t.
And in any case, Putin seems ideologically and strategically far more inclined towards “partnerships” with semi-colonial regional players like Iran and Turkey than with Russian imperialism’s most immediate global imperialist rival, something that I suspect that Trump’s search for a detente with Russia will founder on.
So yes, just as the “anti-war” movements tried to oppose the “regime change” that wasn’t happening instead of the “war on terror” that was happening, they also based themselves on a concrete strategic assessment that was only half-true before 2013/14, and increasingly fantastic afterwards.
All I’d add is that a large part of the Syrian opposition shared their illusions from the opposite direction, imagining that the USA had any intention (or any real objective interest) in supporting their cause, and falling into increasingly pathetic pleading the more that this vain hope failed to materialise.
But yes, it’s ironic that Western policy benefited the Assad dictatorship that they criticised more than the Sisi dictatorship that they didn’t. Just like British policy in Palestine benefited the Haganah far more than the Arab states (Britain’s nominal proteges) or indeed the Palestinians.
And just like Western policy in Bosnia aided the Serbs (who unlike Assad they did at least bomb on a few occasions) far more than it benefited the Bosnians (who were forced to accept the permanent ethnic division of their country), with Croatia playing the role of the YPG to the Sarajevo government’s FSA.
Whilst I used to also say that ideally the US would like a more pliable ally than Assad to weaken ties with Russia and Iran etc., I found that Assad was actually completely heading into that direction before 2011; Wikileaks will show that he was willing to cut ties with Hamas and even Hezbollah in exchange for normalised ties with the US and Israel, and Iran was even destabilising him by 2010 for fear of losing him. There was simply no need to replace him. Of course if you go back you’ll find much deeper links between the West and the Assads, certainly amongst the oldest ties between the West and any republican dynasty in the region, from the time of the pro-French grandfather to the US-admired father to the British-adored son, here of course you’ll find that the regime used to have potentially the best ties with the West that you could ever expect a country still occupied by Israel to have, collaborating with the US and Israel throughout the Lebanese civil war against the PLO, then the Gulf war, then War on Terror etc.. Barring Jordan (which lost the West Bank, which wasn’t really part of it) the regime offered quite possibly the least resistance to Israel from any of the countries occupied in 1967 – less than Lebanon, less than Egypt (despite having 3 more decades after we sold out) and less than the Palestinians. The timing of the rebellion – perhaps months or a year away from a treaty with Israel – actually saved him, I came across a report recently where it stated that before the uprising the Israelis were worried that a peace treaty with Assad wouldn’t work for fear that the population wouldn’t accept it.
Re the FSA, I have no doubt that the US wanted to infiltrate the movement and some of its officers, and without a doubt along with other regional states they probably succeeded (just look at the Southern Front). However why i think that doesn’t constitute them actually considering putting them in power is because it was clear to anyone who could open a Youtube video right from the start to see what the FSA consisted of – this was not a regular professional substitute regime army (a la Haftar for Qadaffi, Hadi for Saleh or Sisi for Mubarak) but essentially a grassroots popular-militia force that was (ironically) far closer to the ideals of the Ba’ath (resistance to Israel, regional unity, and originating from the socio-economically neglected provinces and regions that were once the Ba’ath’s heartland vs the urban centres which became regime strongholds, etc.) than the regime’s version of the Ba’ath which was diluted to the minimum level possible that could sustain legitimising rhetoric (thus condemning US invasion of Iraq in line with popular opinion, whilst later collaborating with the Americans against the Syrians it allowed to be sent to fight there; allowing limited support to Hezbollah whilst negotiating with Israel, practically recognise it in public and condemning all internal calls for opening a front with the Golan as “treachery”, etc.). In that vein it would become clear that whilst the Syrian opposition was, like the Lebanese one, Sunni, it was by no means a 14th March replicate and was probably far closer to Hezbollah than it was to the former. Nor were the FSA brigades ever under the effective command of defected soldiers, who became a numerical minority vis a vis armed civilians as time passed on. The US never took away legal recognition of the regime, in other words it supported the regime keeping its UN seat at the UN despite the opposition’s transitional government trying to get US recognition.
Re a few other things you said: I think for sure it is correct to say that the US policy included half-hearted support for the “counter-revolution within the revolution”, I 100% agree. The US put its hands in all the baskets, and literally could be argued to have helped and undermined in one way or the other all four sides of the civil war – the rebels, the regime, the Kurds and ISIS. Indeed, perhaps it is the most demonically genius reality that the precise nature of the US “politically” supporting the opposition allowed it to control what the opposition got – in short infiltrating the opposition like a trojan horse to undermine it from within – whilst the precise opposite of the US politically *not* supporting the regime perversely allowed it to have a complete hands-off policy on what the regime received via its US-backed friends, like Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, since there was no expectation for the US to be “involved” with the arming of the regime. If the US had taken a declaredly pro-Assad position from the start, (besides being politically stupid and unnecessary) there would both be massive attention and focus drawn to how the US was seizing weapons shipments at the Jordanian and Turkish borders and subsequently massive backlash against it. Instead, official US support of the opposition meant that reports that the US was actually trying to control what went to the rebels would be perversely headlined as “CIA said to be steering arms to the rebels” instead of the reality of them actually trying to steer the arms *away*. What’s that phrase, war is peace, ignorance is strength? Again, the US distancing itself from the regime allowed it to support the regime more than any other thing. You have to admit it is devilishly genius.
I don’t think however that contradicts that the US policy was also “third party counter-revolution”, though maybe this terminology is not perfect for the period between 2011-13 as at that time US allies like Iraq and indirectly Lebanon were not really supporting Assad as much and the US support for Assad by its blockading of weaponry etc. was, if anything, direct not “by proxy”. I’ve tried to note that above and make it clear that whilst counter-revolution by proxy was definitely an aspect of US policy, this did not preclude the US also directly supporting Assad, whether via arms embargoes, airstrikes against his enemies (both moderate and extreme), intelligence-sharing or other measures.
I also think that you are correct in the political opposition’s embarassing and redundant pleading for help from the Americans and their refusal (until very late) to expose US policy, though I should note that the political opposition’s attitudes was not identical to that of civil and armed revolutionaries on the ground and the biggest campaigns against actual US intervention in the conflict generally came from those. I’ve definitely been often frustrated by the repetitive broken record of some Syrians who’ve completely failed to understand the full dimensions of how cynical and calculated US policy was until very late (if ever), with them often being reluctant to even verbalise US policy as being pro-Assad until much later, if ever (generally thinking of it as “incoherent” or “weak”), whilst still talking of US “inaction” or still asking for the US to end its “non-intervention”, narratives which have actively misrepresented what is happening – as you say, like the anti-war movement – when they should have instead been talking of US *action* actively taking place in favour of the regime and asking specifically for the US to do the opposite of “intervention”, and that is to actually *stop intervening* and allow the rebels to get what they need from external sources. This ultimately all has to do with the details and knowledge of them, for instance knowledge that it wasn’t the US that was providing the arms, but it was the US that was controlling what was going in (it all crystalised in my head for instance maybe in the last year, that it was actually active US intervention – not Russian or Iranian – which was the most crucial element in the rebels not winning this conflict). Yet ultimately this was not the issue just with Syrians – indeed I’m sure many of our pro-revolution Western friends would repeat the same sort of stuff here of US “inaction”, “incoherence” and opposing labeling US policy as “pro-Assad”, even whilst refusing to call it “pro-rebellion”. And I think if you take a survey of activists and pro-revolution Syrians by 2013 (and I’ve seen such interviews at the time), most were EXTREMELY cynical about the US and most would’ve recognised it as a problem and said that “it needed to stay out”.