The US Game Plan in Syria
The war in Syria, which is now entering its eighth year, has not received much attention in the Indian media, though it is one of the most important geopolitical events of the 21st century. More than half a million people have been killed in the last seven years, and more than ten million made refugees, both inside and outside the country.
The world woke up to this [man-made] humanitarian disaster only when the refugees started washing up on the shores of Greece in 2014, and trekking across the continent in search of refuge. Panic broke out in many countries, some of which erected physical barriers to prevent their entry.
The story began in 2011, when a coalition of the West and the Gulf, led by the US, began operations to effect regime change in Syria, because Syria's President Assad, belonging to the [Shiite] Alawite sect, was close to Iran and Russia.
The US-led "Coalition," which included Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Jordan, in addition to several NATO members, such as Britain and France, launched an insurgency in Syria in the summer of 2011, in the name of "Arab Spring."
Foreign mercenaries from various countries, trained in camps in Turkey by Western instructors, were infiltrated into Syria. Their primary objective was to overthrow the regime of President Assad and replace it with a proxy of the West, which would take instructions from Washington and Tel Aviv.
By the summer of 2014, the Coalition was on the verge of inflicting a military defeat on Assad, whose forces were outgunned by the insurgents, which included such groups as al-Qaida and ISIS; they were receiving large quantities of weapons, paid-for by their Gulf benefactors, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
It was at this point, in September 2014, that Russia entered Syria [legally], at the invitation of President Assad. The Russian air force quickly disrupted supply lines from Turkey to the insurgents fighting Assad and decisively changed the course of the war within a few months.
The liberation of Aleppo in December 2016 marked the military defeat of the Coalition- an inflexion point in global geopolitics since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. America's "unipolar moment" had finally come to an end. Putin's Russia felt confident enough to take on the US and its allies.
But by this time the US had begun another game in Syria: building bases and deploying troops in areas inhabited by the Kurds in the north and north-eastern Syria, which also happened to be the site of Syria's major oil and gas fields.
As a result, the US is currently believed to have set up eight bases in these areas, which are home to some 2000 [uninvited] US troops in the country. Their presence in Syria is illegal under international law.
The government of President Assad now controls all the major cities in western Syria, as also the country's coastline on the Mediterranean Sea. But Syria's largest oil and gas fields in the East, across the Euphrates, are under the control of the US and its proxy militia-the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).
Till the end of the last year, the US explained its [illegal] presence in Syria as aimed at uprooting the Islamic State (ISIS), which had announced the establishment of a "Caliphate" in Syria in 2014, with its capital in Raqqa. In its official statements, the US declared that it would stay in Syria "as long as takes" to defeat ISIS.
That happened several weeks ago. ISIS has been decisively defeated by Syrian, Russian, and Iranian forces in Syria. The Coalition, along with the SDF, also claims to have played some role in defeating ISIS, which may be partly true; the full story of their activities is more complicated.
So ISIS is gone, but the US troops and bases in Syria remain intact. US officials now say their forces will stay in Syria "as long as it takes" to "stabilise" the country.
It was against this background that the US forces attacked fighters allied with the Assad government on the night of Feb. 7, killing more than 100 Syrian soldiersÃ¢â‚¬â€a large number by any standards. Casualties on the Coalition side were limited to one SDF fighter, who was injured.
The Americans claimed that they attacked the Syrians in "self-defence," and had "alerted" the Russians in advance that they would do so if attacked. The Syrian soldiers were trying to take over some oil and gas fields held by the Kurdish SDF, backed by the US.
The situation boils down to this: Troops affiliated to the Syrian government, trying to take control of oil and gas fields in their own country from their own [Kurdish] countrymen, were attacked by the troops of a foreign country, whose presence in Syria is illegal under international law. As a result, more than hundred Syrian lives have been lost.
Which brings us to the current game plan of the US in Syria viz. retaining control of the country's major oil and gas fields and denying their revenue to the legitimate govt. of Syria; using US bases to harass Assad's forces, the Russians, and the Iranians; effecting regime-change in Syria; and using the Syrian Kurds as proxies and foot soldiers to undermine the Assad government.
The authors of this scheme include elements of the US "deep state" particularly the CIA, Pentagon, the Jewish lobby and the weapons manufacturers. All of them have their own reasons for doing so. For some it's money; for others, it is geopolitics, control of natural resources, and lust for more territory etc.
All of these elements are only partially under Trump's control; most of them have their own agenda and are operating on autopilot.
Autopilot is good as long as the path and destination are clear. But in Syria, both are unclear. Moreover, the other players, viz., the Russians, Iranians, and the Hezbollah, will try to make life hard for the Americans. And President Assad has said that he intends to take back "every inch of Syrian territory."
The question is: what price are the CIA and the Pentagon prepared to pay for their Syrian adventure? How many body bags can they stomach, before they are forced to leave Syria?
Because the Syrians and their allies don't have the body bag problem. They have just lost 100 soldiers but remain undeterred.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India who has served in several Indian missions around the world, including in the United States, Syria, Libya, and Saudi Arabia.)