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 a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.

FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
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Under pressure at home, Donald Trump will struggle to deliver what Saudi Arabia wants

Above all, the Gulf states want stability. Can this beleaguered US president bring order?

There is a nervous energy around Riyadh. Fresh palm trees line the roads from the airport, punctuated by a wall of American flags and corporate slogans: “Together we prevail.” All the street lights are suddenly working.

The visit of any American president is always a lavish affair in Saudi Arabia, but there is an optimism to this visit that evaded the Obama years and even the recent visits of Theresa May and Angela Merkel.

Yet, there are two distinct parts to this trip – Trump’s first overseas engagement as president – that will determine its success. The first is relatively straightforward. Trump will sign huge defence contracts worth billions of dollars and offer trading opportunities that allow him to maintain his narrative of economic renewal for American businesses.

For the Saudis, too, these deals will fit into their ambitious project – known as Vision 2030 – to expand and diversify their economy away from its current dependence on oil revenues. Both parties are comfortable with this type of corporate and transactional government, enjoying the gaudy pomp and ceremony that comes with the signing of newly minted deals.

The more complicated aspects of the trip relate to its political dimensions. As the Middle East continues to convulse under the most significant turmoil to envelope it since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, what Gulf leaders desperately want is the re-establishment of order. At its core, that is what will define Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia – and the Saudis are optimistic.

Their buoyancy is borne of shared regional interests, not least curbing Iranian influence. Ever since the Arab uprisings in 2011, Tehran has asserted itself across the Levant by organising hundreds of proxies to fight on its behalf in Syria and Iraq. Closer to home, too, the Gulf states accuse Iran of fomenting unrest within Shia communities in Saudi Arabia’s eastern provinces, in Bahrain, and in Yemen.

All of this has left the House of Saud feeling especially vulnerable. Having enjoyed an American security umbrella since the 1970s, Obama’s pursuit of the Iran deal left them feeling particularly exposed.

In part at least, this explains some of the Kingdom’s more frantic actions at home and abroad – including the execution of prominent Shia cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, and the war in Yemen. Both are really about posturing to Iran: projecting power and demonstrating Saudi resolve.

Trump shares these concerns over Iranian influence, is prepared to look the other way on Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, and is deeply opposed to Obama’s nuclear deal. Riyadh believes he will restore the status quo and is encouraged by the direction of travel.

Just last month Trump commissioned a review of the Iran deal while the US Treasury imposed sanctions on two Iranian officials. Saudi Arabia also welcomed Trump’s decision to launch cruise missiles against a Syrian military base last month after Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons in the town of Khan Sheikhoun.

These measures have been largely tokenistic, but their broader impact has been very significant. The Saudis, and their Gulf partners more generally, feel greatly reassured. This is an American presence in the region that is aligned to their interests, that they know well and can manage.

That is why Gulf states have rushed to embrace the new president ever since he first entered the Oval Office. Saudi Arabia’s deputy crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (colloquially known simply as “MBS”), already visited him in Washington earlier this year. The Emiratis and others followed shortly afterwards.

A spokesman for Mohammed bin Salman later described the meeting with Trump as an “historical turning point” in relations between the two countries. A White House readout of the meeting baldly stated: “The President and the deputy crown prince noted the importance of confronting Iran's destabilising regional activities.”

Now that Trump is visiting them, the Saudis are hoping to broker an even broader series of engagements between the current administration and the Islamic world. To that end, they are bringing 24 different Muslim leaders to Saudi Arabia for this visit.

This is where Trump’s visit is likely to be fraught because he plans to deliver a major speech about Islam during his visit – a move that has seemingly no positives associated with it.

There is a lot of interest (and bemusement) from ordinary Saudis about what Trump will actually say. Most are willing to look beyond his divisive campaign rhetoric – he did, after all, declare “I think Islam hates us” – and listen to him in Riyadh. But what can he say?

Either he will indulge his audience by describing Islam as a great civilisation, thereby angering much of his political base; or he will stick to the deeply hostile rhetoric of his campaign.

There is, of course, room for an informed, careful, and nuanced speech to be made on the topic, but these are not adjectives commonly associated with Donald Trump. Indeed, the pressure is on.

He will be on the road for nine days at a time when pressure is building over the sacking of the former FBI director James Comey and the ongoing investigation into former national security advisor Michael Flynn’s contacts with Russia.

It is already being reported that Trump is not entirely enthusiastic about such a long overseas programme, but he is committed now. As with almost everything concerning his presidency, this extra pressure adds a wild air of unpredictability to what could happen.

Away from the lucrative deals and glad-handing, this will be the real standard by which to measure the success of Trump’s visit. For a relationship principally defined by its pursuit of stability, whether Trump can deliver what the Gulf really wants remains to be seen.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

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