Trump follows in Obama's footsteps, leaving Syria's rebels for dead

Trump follows in Obama's footsteps, leaving Syria's rebels for dead
Comment: Trump's decision to end the CIA programme that armed anti-Assad rebels, coupled with strict instructions not to fight Assad, leaves Syria's rebels abandoned, writes Sam Hamad.
7 min read
01 Aug, 2017
Members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces move through destroyed buildings in Raqqa [AFP]
Imperialism, it is often said, has been the downfall of the Syrian revolution against the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Or to those of a political persuasion less ideologically wedded to terms such as imperialism, they might say that the situation in Syria has gone awry due to "foreign interference" or "outside intervention". 

In looking at Syria today, as well as the various particularities of the struggle, this, it could be said, is correct - but not in the way most people think.

While many would have you believe some variant of the idea that the US, or "the West" and its regional allies, are the primary cause of the war in Syria by providing arms to the rebels or "jihadis" to attack the victim Assad, in truth foreign interference has worked and is working against the rebels in every possible way.

The destructive and genocidal nature of Iran and Russia's intervention has been well documented, but perhaps, from a rebel perspective, the most lethal interference has come from those who once claimed to be "Friends of Syria", particularly the US. 

The US under Obama abandoned the rebels. You might say it began with the "red line" that turned out to be a red herring following the Assad regime using sarin gas to commit a massacre in Ghouta, but it began long before.  For, despite rhetoric, it was never the US' intention to decisively intervene in a manner that would allow the rebels to overthrow. 

You might say it began with the 'red line' that turned out to be a red herring

The US maintained a strategy of allowing mostly Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to arm rebel forces with light weaponry, while it famously imposed a blockade on the reception of anti-aircraft weaponry from the rebels. This was the one weapon the rebels really needed, given the extent to which Assad relied on his airforce to both counter rebel advances, destroy free Syrian civil society and, most destructively, carry out ethnic cleansing of liberated civilian areas. 

The final nail in the coffin for the relationship between anti-Assad rebels and the US, and the factor that has allowed the US to essentially withdraw the one foot it had in the mass grave of the Syrian conflict, was the rise of the Islamic State group (IS).

Perhaps one day it will be looked on as one of the most perverse moments in history when Syrian rebels, whether secular nationalist or so-called "Islamists", united in early 2014 to root out the growing problem of IS in Syria. They famously launched an offensive against IS, after a series of incidents involving IS attacking rebels and following public protests against IS' rule, but while the offensive wielded early successes, the under-funded and overstretched rebels were forced to retreat when Assad capitalised on this war on two fronts. 

The US, if it had intervened then at this critical moment, either by pushing for a regionally-imposed no-fly zone (NFZ), or by allowing more and better arms to get to rebel forces, could've averted the problem that would come to define its foreign policy for the next three years and perhaps indefinitely, never mind the human cost. 

For if the rebels had been able to stop IS then, which meant having the resources to fight IS and its informal partner Assad, the so-called "caliphate" that it established following its defeat of the rebels in Syria and prompting its blitzkrieg of Northern Iraq would never have existed. 

But Obama was one thing, Donald Trump is another.

Not only does Trump seem to be continuing Obama's strategy of abandonment of Syrian rebels and appeasement of Russian hegemony over the country, but he seems to be expanding it. Perhaps this is of no surprise, given the Trump administration's murky ties to the Putin regime. But it spells disaster for Syria or the continuing struggle for a free Syria. 

Abdulkadir Salih al-Hatip, remembers the relatives he lost in the Assad
regime forces' chemical attack on eastern Ghouta three years ago [Anadolu]

As with many of the other low points when it comes to US policy in Syria, it often turns out to be just an affirmation of what many people already knew. This is precisely what happened last week, when the US coalition that focuses solely on targeting IS issued a warning to its allies in South Syria that they must be committed to only fighting IS. Any of them who want to fight Assad will no longer receive weapons, training, funds or use of US bases. 

These allies in question are called the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army and are comprised of former anti-Assad rebels that have been co-opted by the US for its fight against IS. The brigades that comprise the Southern Front have been "vetted" by the CIA, allowing them to be trained in Jordan by the US military. But the price for all of this is that they must abandon the fight against the much more destructive Assad regime and its allies. 

Obama put this system into place, while Trump is just stating it outright and expanding it, including by enacting a "de-escalation zone", agreed with Russia, in Southern Syria, centring around Al Tanf (the headquarters of the Southern Front).

This ensures that while Russia and Assad can obliterate areas of Syria held by anti-Assad rebels, they will avoid the coalition's allies in the future after incidents when the US bombed Russian backed, Iranian-led pro-Assad forces that were moving towards Al Tanf. 

The stark declaration by the US prompted one Southern Front brigade, namely Shuhada al-Quartyan, to leave the coalition and the protected area and join up with anti-Assad rebels.

The US professes to be neutral, but its actions belie its further congruence with Russia and thus its support for Assad by proxy

Perhaps more will follow suit, but given the choice is between relative safety and a profusion of resources from the world's largest military power to fight the dangerous but vulnerable IS, or joining the forsaken Syrian rebels who face Russia, Iran and Assad's huge arsenal of raw power, it would be of no surprise if defections were minimal. 

The US continues to claim "neutrality" when it comes to the Syrian civil war, but its actions have always belied its tendency to favour Russia and thus by definition Assad.  Alongside the warning to its Syrian allies not to fight Assad, the US recently announced the end of its "CIA programme" that allegedly armed "anti-Assad rebels", which Trump described as "dangerous and wasteful". 

The programme itself was always half-hearted and never amounted to anything other than small amounts of aid to select rebel forces, but the official announcement of its end is a huge boost to Russia, Iran and Assad.

The US' entire message is that only the fight against IS matters. The millions of lives that have been or are being destroyed by Assad, Iran and Russia do not matter - despite this sectarian genocide being the place where IS in its current form first emerged. The US professes to be neutral, but its actions belie its further congruence with Russia and thus its support for Assad by proxy. 

Read more: Western media must understand there's more to Syria than Assad vs jihadis

The next fear is that the US attempts to co-opt Syrian rebel forces to fight "al-Qaeda" (actually Harakat Tahrir al-Sham - HTS) in Idlib, but given it has ignored the Syrian rebels currently fighting HTS, as well as its warning to the Southern Front, one can only assume any future US policy against HTS would at best circumvent such rebels and their struggle against Assad, or at worst consider them, as Russia, Iran and Assad does, to be "al-Qaeda" too.

Who could say this was impossible in the Syrian war, with its seemingly never-ending litany of catastrophes for Syrians?

Perhaps Trump agrees with Obama that the Syrian rebels are mere "farmers and pharmacists" who deserve no significant support, or perhaps his own ravening Islamophobia determines his disdain for them, but all of these policies are rooted in particularly narrow, self-interested notion that raw power alone can defeat IS, while all that matters is the safety of central governments and existing power centres. 

Thus, the Tigris is foaming with much blood, as civilians who braved the barbaric rule of IS in Mosul are now being subject to massacres and atrocities by fascistic sectarian Shia militias and government forces, backed by the US; that is, if they haven't already been murdered by US airstrikes that hit areas without any care of the scale of the civilian "collateral damage". 

The US doesn't seem to understand or care that it was precisely through this kind of violence and the ideology of raw power for the sake of power that forces like IS were birthed. If it allows Assad to triumph over rebel forces, it will be re-birthed. This is as true of Syria as it is of Iraq, Egypt or Libya. 

Sam Hamad is an independent Scottish-Egyptian activist and writer.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.