The ugly truth behind Obama's Syria plan

Targeted strikes to punish Assad will only perpetuate the conflict – and that's exactly what the American government wants.

America's aims in Syria are not what the government wants you to think.

You can see the evidence in what action is being suggested. Jay Carney, the White House chief spokesman, yesterday categorically ruled out regime change as an objective. “The options that we are considering are not about regime change,” he said to the assembled White House press corps. “They are about responding to a clear violation of an international standard that prohibits the use of chemical weapons.” But the targeted strikes being proposed will only perpetuate the butchery – and that is what they are designed to do.

A true solution to the conflict in Syria would have been difficult and incredibly complex even two years ago. It would take a long time, and more money than would probably be palatable to either Britain or America. Solving this problem would mean attempting rapprochement between two factions whose hatred for each other is drenched in the blood of thousands and steeped in years of murder. It is probably impossible.

But nobody is even talking about a solution, and there's a reason for that.

America is not interested in regime change. Obama does not want to be a war-time president. Nor is he interested in the humanitarian argument for intervention for any more than rhetorical purposes. A cursory glance shows his 'red line' of the use of chemical weapons to be ridiculous. The death toll in Syria stands at more than a hundred thousand people. The rhetoric has been that Assad must be “punished” for the use of chemical weapons, but why? The tools used to reach this number are immaterial in the face of that horror. Who cares whether people were killed with shells, mortar or gas?

The truth is that evening the odds in Syria – which the West has already been doing, by drip-feeding supplies and weaponry to rebel forces – has turned a brief if bloody resolution into an interminable meat-grinder, in which no side has the decisive edge, and flattening out some more of Assad's tactical advantages will only maintain this grisly status quo.

Here is why that is attractive to the American government. At the moment, the conflict in Syria is acting as a sort of sump; collecting the resources of America's enemies in a confined space. It's a black hole for extremists. When Assad's army re-took the town of Qusayr in June, they were supported by Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran, too, is supporting him: the Independent on Sunday reported in June that a contingent of 4,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops would be sent to fight alongside Syrian government forces. Tehran has even threatened to strike at Israel should America attack Syria, a move which could start a disastrous chain of events.

On the other side, Jabhat Al-Nusra, widely regarded the most effective and disciplined rebel group fighting the Assad regime, is openly linked with Al-Qaeda; another jihadist affiliate, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), is a hugely powerful faction of the rebel Free Syrian Army.

As far as the White House is concerned, this is a zero-sum game. While these groups are spending money and resources fighting in Syria, the threat they pose to the West is greatly diminished. If Al-Qaeda is focussing on overturning Assad, it is not plotting the next 9/11; and it is even possible that it might be grateful to the US for even miserly airborne assistance. My enemy's enemy, so the saying goes, is my friend.

Obama and his advisers will also be calculating that victory for the rebels in Syria could allow anti-Western sentiment to resurface under an extreme Islamist regime. Another lesson from recent history: in Iraq, it was after Saddam was toppled that things went to hell in a handcart.

So that leads to the awkward conclusion: that a half-hearted airborne intervention in Syria is designed not to rock this deadly boat, but to steady it.

The situation for Putin is much the same. Perpetual civil war in Syria works almost as well for Russia as for the United States. Russia has enormous business ties with Assad's Syria – some 20 billion dollars worth, according to the Congressional Research Service, and they stand to lose this if Assad is toppled – as well as Russia's only military naval base outside of its borders, . But Syria is also a large-scale buyer of Russian arms; spending nearly five billion dollars in the four years to 2010, and that number has increased significantly since the conflict began, with Assad signing deals to buy advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles and MiG-29 fighter jets in just the last few months.

More importantly, the Syrian conflict allows Putin to tighten political support at home in an era of increasing unrest and protest by increasing anti-American, and anti-Western sentiment. With Russia and the US implacable on the UN security council, no resolution is likely, however much Russian foreign ministers may bluster about “catastrophic consequences” if the US and its allies were to intervene.

Russia doesn't want the rebels to win, because it will lose its business and its naval base. America doesn't want the rebels to win because the state they will most likely form will be an extremist Al-Qaeda backed breeding-ground for terrorism, led by the Al-Nusra Front.

So Syria has become effectively a straw man, by tacit agreement of both Russia and America. And as long as the straw man continues to burn, neither side cares how many civilians are lost in the inferno.

Barack Obama walking to the West Wing of the White House. Photo: Getty

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

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How a dark night for Paris was made easier by British messages of support

The French ambassador to the UK reflects on the Paris attacks, and how Britain's response helped make the aftermath more bearable.

I was at a dinner with members of London’s French community when news of the 13 November attacks in Paris first reached me. Our initial reaction – one that I think was shared the world over – was of shock. Young people, out on a Friday night, doing normal things that young people do: chatting, laughing, drinking, dancing. Enjoying the pleasures that are their right, in a city that lives and breathes music, conversation and, above all, liberty.

I felt a tragic sense of déjà vu as I followed the events unfolding on television. Less than a year ago, our country was attacked by murderers and fanatics who wanted to destroy the values that we hold dear. And again on 13 November, I watched as France fell victim to another cowardly and barbaric attack on its way of life.


Fraternité, solidarité

The grief that was shared by the French community here in London was made easier to bear by the messages of support that flooded in from around the country – if anything, even more than after the Charlie Hebdo attacks. I received countless phone calls, emails and letters from British friends, dignitaries, members of the public and faith groups, all conveying sympathy and friendship. I was particularly touched by a statement presented to me by representatives of 140 leaders of the Muslim community.

None was more powerful than the football match between England and France at Wembley, just four days after three suicide bombers blew themselves up outside the Stade de France in Paris. Never has the word “friendly” taken on such a literal meaning. It wasn’t about the football that night; it was about coming together and showing that we won’t live in terror. There have been so many stirring renditions of the French national anthem these past weeks – not least that of the French bass Nicolas Courjal following my appearance on The Andrew Marr Show – but the singing of La Marseillaise by the whole stadium, including the Prime Minister and Prince William, really did move me. I think the front cover of the Metro the next morning summed it up best: “England. France. United.”


Fitting tributes

The embassy in London was a focal point for many who wanted to show their support in the wake of the attacks. A sea of flowers and candles quickly formed outside, with a constant stream of people coming to sign the book of condolence that has now been sent to Paris. Once again, the British people showed that we can count on them in difficult times. I led a minute’s silence alongside the Home Secretary, Theresa May, which was observed all around the country in memory of the victims of the attacks.

Her presence was fitting, given the close relationship that our respective home secretaries have built. There are constant exchanges between the French and British security services, for the threat of terrorism is not faced by France alone. The whole of Europe must ensure that stronger security measures are put in place. We wish to preserve Schengen and the border checks are only temporary measures. But the external border needs to be much more secure and European border guards need to be present.


Beyond Calais

I’m glad that, after a tough summer, our message that Calais is only one part of a Europe-wide migrant crisis seems to have got through. The kind of criticism I heard in July, when I was asked time and again by the press why France wasn’t doing more to prevent migrants crossing the tunnel, is now much rarer. Indeed, Franco-British co-operation has been effective in Calais. But the “Jungle” is still there, inhabited partly by people who would qualify for refugee status and who will need to be taken care of. France is already doing a lot in that regard.


Current climate

Migration was on the agenda last week at the London School of Economics, where I opened a conference on its link with climate change, the last in a series of Franco-British events that the embassy has held in the run-up to the UN climate summit in Paris, which starts on 30 November. Life has to go on as normally as possible after the atrocities. Any­thing else would be a victory for the terrorists. The sense of momentum ahead of the summit is strong and hasn’t been diminished by the attacks. If anything, the sense of urgency is greater than ever. This summit is about securing the future of humanity – what could be more important than that?

Nuclear energy is one of the ways we can reduce CO2 emissions. President Xi Jinping of China’s recent visit to the UK resulted in decisive steps being taken towards the building of a new nuclear plant at Hinkley Point by the French company EDF. This project will provide secure, low-carbon energy to UK homes and reinforce the alliance between France and Britain for decades to come.


Old alliances

On Monday I attended a breakfast in Paris between David Cameron and François Hollande. Witnessing this new testimony to the strength of the century-old Entente Cordiale, I could not help but think, bemused, of those commentators who claim that to ensure the success of the British renegotiation, there will have to be a highly visible Franco-
British spat at a forthcoming European council . . . Speaking of friendship in times of crisis, two days before the Paris attacks, I presented 19 British veterans with the Légion d’honneur, France’s highest honour, in recognition of their role in securing France’s liberation during the Second World War. Over 1,000 have received their medals so far and many more will get them in the months to come. I’ve received a number of poignant letters from them as a result. In the midst of the grief and despair, it will be all the more moving to honour these veterans. They are a reminder that courage, determination and, above all, solidarity will triumph.

Sylvie Bermann is the French ambassador to the UK 

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State