US officials unable to deal with Syrian conflict

Obama administration seems unable and unwilling to deal with the grave situation in Aleppo.

Sadly, it is likely that nothing new will happen

2016/10/16 Issue: 77 Page: 5

The Arab Weekly
Gregory Aftandilian

The growing humanitarian crisis in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo and elsewhere in the country, fuelled in large part by Syrian and Russian air strikes, has led to consternation and condemnation in the United States but neither US policymakers, nor the major-party candidates are offering much in the way of practical ideas to solve it.

Even US Secretary of State John Kerry, who has spent many hours meeting with his Russian coun­terpart to try to end the violence and start a political process, has expressed deep frustration and anger over the course of events. All of these efforts, including a negotiated ceasefire, have come to naught. Kerry on October 7th said that the Syrian regime and the Russian government should be investigated for war crimes.

In a candid moment with a group of Syrian exiles a few days earlier, Kerry revealed that he had been long in favour of US military action in Syria but had lost that argument with the White House several years ago.

Other members of the adminis­tration of US President Barack Obama have expressed frustra­tion over the Syrian crisis. According to the Washington Post, when Kerry’s recent cease-fire deal with Russia fell apart, Obama ordered his subor­dinates to come up with new policy ideas.

One of these ideas, proposed by some Pentagon officials, was to use cruise missiles against Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces in Aleppo. This position was supported by many State Depart­ment officials who had argued for a more robust policy.

When a meeting was convened at the White House, however, top Defense Department officials reportedly backed off from the idea and instead proposed giving more arms to rebel fighters and ramping up the fight against the Islamic State (ISIS). Apparently, they did not want to risk a confrontation with Russia over Aleppo.

All of this is consistent with Obama’s often-repeated assertion that there is “no military solu­tion” to the Syrian conflict. Obama presumably wants to keep the focus on ISIS by relying on air strikes and US special forces to bolster Syrian Kurdish forces and select Arab fighters.

The US candidates for president also seem bereft of new ideas for dealing with the Syria crisis.

During the October 9th presi­dential debate, Democratic Party nominee Hillary Clinton said she was opposed to deploying US ground troops in Syria and that, if elected president, she would provide more arms to Syrian Kurds and Arabs fighting ISIS, as well as target ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.

This position is nothing new. It is essentially what the Obama administration already is doing even if Clinton’s rhetoric sounds more hawkish.

Clinton did say that she sup­ported a no-fly zone and a “safe zone” for Syrian refugees in the area but she did not elaborate on how it would be created and defended.

Republican Party nominee Donald Trump was even less forthcoming. He listed a series of atrocities perpetrated by ISIS as a way of emphasising the threat posed by terrorism — and perhaps to detract viewers from the recently leaked tape of his lewd comments about women.

Later in the debate Trump said that while he does not like Assad, he underscored that Assad, Russia and Iran “are killing ISIS and they have lined up because of [our] weak foreign policy”. Trump conveniently avoided the question about what to do about the mounting humanitarian crisis in Aleppo and openly disagreed with his running mate, Mike Pence, on this issue.

During the vice-presidential debate on October 4th, Pence said that “provocations by Russia should be met with American strength and if Russia [continues] to be involved… in this barbaric attack on civilians in Aleppo, the United States of America should be prepared to use military force to strike military targets of the Assad regime.”

When asked during the October 9th debate to comment on Pence’s remarks, Trump said: “He and I haven’t spoken, and I disagree.”

This is the first time in recent memory that a presidential candidate and his running mate have had an open disagreement about a major foreign policy issue, though Pence later attempted to finesse the issue by claiming that the presidential debate moderator had misrepre­sented his comments on Syria.

Sadly, it is likely that nothing new will happen in terms of a new US policy approach towards Syria over the next few months — and maybe beyond.

The Obama administration, worried about a military entan­glement and a possible clash with Russia, seems unable and unwill­ing to deal with the grave situa­tion in Aleppo, while neither of the presidential candidates is offering any new ideas that could mitigate the Syrian crisis.

Future historians will undoubt­edly write that, besides condem­natory statements, the US political establishment did nothing to stop one of the worst humanitarian crises of the early 21st century.

Gregory Aftandilian is a lecturer at the Pardee School of Global Studies at Boston University and is a former U.S. State Department Middle East analyst.

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