LIKE Putin’s strategy in Syria, Britain’s and the USA’s also involves double-crossing old allies and co-opting new ones.
The case that Cameron made for war included a reference to 70,000 “moderate opposition” fighters, whose existence many have been far too quick to dismiss, given the likely far larger size of the Syrian armed opposition.
Cameron was deliberately vague about the identity of these fighters, saying that this information was “intelligence-based”, and that their safety might be threatened if it was known which groups had agreed to join a US-led coalition involving Britain.
However, previous official statements suggest that at least part of this figure included Syrian rebels who “have formally committed to the UN framework for a political solution for Syria under the Geneva Communiqué, and continue to call for direct negotiations to lead to a transition and new political settlement”.
This has gone alongside suggestions that Assad will “have a role to play” in a negotiated transition, potentially leaving him in power until March 2017, followed by a transitional government that would prepare for “elections” in March 2019.
But previous US-led efforts to persuade Syrian rebel forces to suspend their struggle against Assad and concentrate on fighting ISIS alone have come badly unstuck. Last year’s half-billion dollar “Train and Equip” programme saw only 54 fighters sent into Syria out of the 7,000 “vetted” for the purpose, of which, in US General Lloyd Austin’s hilarious words, only “four or five” are now left. Most of the 1,200-strong “New Syrian Forces” trained under this programme have since joined the YPG-led “Syrian Democratic Forces” (SDF), and not the Free Syrian Army (FSA) or its various secular and Islamist allies.
Indeed, despite the apparent “urgency” of a Parliamentary vote on Syria, Britain’s only military action there so far has been to bomb the ISIS-controlled Omar oil fields in early December, followed by a drone attack near Raqqa on 25 December. Nine-tenths of the airstrikes conducted by the US-led alliance so far have been the USA’s, concentrating on similar targets in the ISIS-held regions in the north and the east of the country.
None of these airstrikes have benefited the Syrian opposition, which is under siege from both Assad and ISIS in Syria’s largest city Aleppo and elsewhere. In fact, the main beneficiaries of Cameron and Obama’s actions since the siege of Kobane have been the Kurdish YPG and its subordinate Arab allies in the SDF. Like ISIS, they have taken advantage of Russian, Assad regime and now Western airstrikes to seize territory from the Syrian rebels.
In the process, they are tightening the siege of Aleppo, whose fall to ISIS or to Assad would be a mortal blow to the Syrian revolution, and whose vulnerability places pressure on the “moderates” in the Syrian opposition to join the “Vienna process”.
By backing the YPG, the Western powers can both bypass the fractious Syrian opposition (most of whom are rightly opposed to any process that includes Assad), and establish a direct sphere of influence in Syria that Russia will find politically and militarily difficult to prevent. Salih Muslim, the leader of Rojava’s ruling Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) has offered to allow the USA to build an airbase there; and it is probably no coincidence that the Russian-backed Assad regime, which only a few months ago declared itself “ready to negotiate” with the Kurds, is now indicating that Rojava’s autonomy “has no future”.
Erdogan’s shooting down of the Russian Sukhoi Su-24 probably had as much to do with trying to disrupt this developing alliance (by pushing Obama towards a “premature” confrontation with Putin) as with his stated concerns about Russia’s violations of Turkish airspace, or Putin’s bombing of Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies.