When it comes to the Syrian conflict, or any conflict of similar proportions, no American government has been marked by such a state of confusion as that of Barack Obama’s administration today. Obama’s policy towards the Syrian crisis has been marked by weakness and a lack of vision, both of which have informed two principle approaches thus far. The first of these has been to allow the international system to play an even greater role in the conflict, while the second has focused on placing political and economic pressure on the Syrian regime from afar. However, as the situation in Syria grows more and more complex, so does the American stance towards the crisis, which clearly reflects the state of confusion plaguing not only the US and its allies but also the Syrian regime in response to the US’s reaction.
The constant change in American attitudes towards Syria can be attributed to the fact that many notable personalities have heavily criticised the Obama administration’s policies. Nor is such criticism uncommon in the history of the United States. The current administration has experienced four notable shifts throughout the time of the Syrian crisis and as such, American policy towards Syria has been affected to some extent by the following individuals: Obama’s special envoys for Syria, Fred Huff and Robert Ford, their predecessor and former CIA director Leon Panetta, former secretary of state Hilary Clinton and the recently resigned secretary of defence Chuck Hagel.
The first of the four shifts mentioned above refers to the US decision to support the opposition in Syria rather than imposing economic sanctions on the Syrian regime. The second shift is marked by the US administration’s decision to withdraw its support for the opposition, while the third was its belief that it could alienate the regime’s allies through a professed “war on terror”. Finally, there came the realisation that none of these approaches were effective in reaching a solution to the Syrian crisis.
Yet, President Obama is clearly devoting what is left of his term to propagating the view that the Syrian conflict is truly a war between equals, i.e. a civil war par excellence, which would help explain why the United States has attempted to prevent the Independent International Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic from conducting a proper investigation. In this regard, the question of whether or not Bashar Al-Assad stays in power will not be a precondition to any potential solution to the Syrian conflict; though this does not necessarily mean that he will, in fact, stay in power. The United States is working to create a sharp distinction between political and military battles because the issue of military violence far exceeds the question of whether or not Al-Assad will stay in power. That is, that a ceasefire between all parties may not necessarily be contingent upon whether or not Al-Assad agrees to step down. According to Obama’s outlook on the situation in Syria, politics cannot be determined by military outcomes, and therefore the international and regional repercussions of the Syrian crisis cannot be determined solely on the victory of one side or another.
At this stage, the United States sees Al-Assad’s survival as something that is imperative should the international community wish to prevent the fragmentation of Syria. Thus, they must convince oppositional parties that Al-Assad’s continued grip on the reins of power is part and parcel of a political process rather than a prelude to it. The task of ensuring this outcome has been assigned to Russia, which has been using its relationship with Syria as a tool to regain its platform in the international arena. Thus, it is no coincidence that Washington recently announced its refusal to recognise a new Syrian coalition as a true and legitimate representative of the Syrian people.
Obama was very frank at last month’s G20 summit in Australia when he said that Washington seeks a solution in Syria that would appease both international and internal parties. He emphasised that the Syrian people will have no choice but to reach a sense of understanding with Iran, Turkey and the Syrian regime. However, Obama’s vision requires for certain changes within Syria’s current political reality as it is defined by the emergence of ISIS, which not only has allowed for an increased presence of foreign troops from Iran and Hezbollah, but also a new Turkish-American initiative that seeks to establish a buffer zone along the Turkish border.
The essence of American policy towards Syria can be defined by the Obama administration’s desire to convince the Syrian people that defeating Al-Assad military does not necessarily mean that he must be replaced politically. More importantly, the US wants to foster the idea that fighting terrorism is currently the priority in Syria, which cannot afford any major political changes in terms of the current regime.