The Trump Administration Is Probably Right On Syria – And For Once Their Motives Don’t Matter

Ok, so I don’t want to get too far down the Syria rabbit hole here because that’s one hell of a rabbit role and I promised myself I wasn’t going to pen any diatribes today.

But I did want to briefly comment on something rather important that’s been making the rounds over the past 48 hours. Consider what U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley told reporters on Thursday:

You pick and choose your battles and when we’re looking at this, it’s about changing up priorities and our priority is no longer to sit there and focus on getting Assad out.

Do we think he’s a hindrance? Yes. Are we going to sit there and focus on getting him out? No. What we are going to focus on is putting the pressure in there so that we can start to make a change in Syria.

Needless to say, that marks a break with US foreign policy precedent. The Obama administration had for years insisted upon Bashar al-Assad’s ouster as a kind of prerequisite for cooperating with Moscow in what is supposed to be a joint effort to stabilize the war-torn country from which scores of refugees have fled to Western Europe.

Simply put, it is impossible to overstate how complex a situation this is. And to the extent the administration’s stance represents some kind of conciliatory gesture towards the Kremlin, it’s probably a really bad position to take.

But… and this is a really big “but”… to the extent the position described above by Haley can be taken at face value, it’s probably a better position than continuing with the “Assad must go” narrative.

US policy in the Mid-East is a disaster and has been for as long as anyone can remember. The situation in Syria is emblematic of what happens when Washington tries to implement regime change by providing under the table support to warring factions with questionable motives (obviously that’s putting it nicely).

At the risk of oversimplifying, this is probably a case where the folks whose views on geopolitics I generally despise are mostly (if accidentally) right.

Anyone who knows anything about the sectarian divide is well aware that Riyadh is the problem when it comes to supporting, institutionalizing, and funding extremism. Wahhabism is poisonous and at the end of the day, separating the ideology espoused by ISIS and al-Qaeda from that promoted by Saudi Arabia is almost impossible.

So while Iran’s push to preserve the Shiite crescent, dictate Iraqi politics, and surround its Sunni enemies by establishing a proto-state in Yemen under the Houthis is certainly cause for concern – especially when you throw in Hezbollah – right now it’s Sunni extremism that’s the problem.

And if we’re all being honest, the Sunni extremists in Syria have received all kinds of support from Washington, Riyadh, and Doha. As for Turkey, Ankara’s role is so shrouded in nefarious secrecy that one almost doesn’t even want to know the whole truth. The point: as much as Russia’s involvement in Syria caused further pain and suffering, as dangerous as the IRGC and Hezbollah are, and as brutal and dictatorial as Bashar al-Assad most certainly is, the US, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey are on the wrong side of history in this fight. Which means it’s time for something to change. That doesn’t necessarily mean supporting Assad – but it does mean putting a stop to the CIA’s pet projects in the country which have been nothing short of embarrassing and disastrous at almost every turn.

Everything said above represents a gross oversimplification of the story. But that’s unavoidable. You cannot write anything comprehensive or all-encompassing about the sectarian divide. It’s impossible. So it’s just a matter of where a given post, paper, or book falls on the “inadequate/oversimplification” continuum.

At the end of the day, I am by no means confident that the Trump administration’s stance on Syria represents an independent assessment of the conditions on the ground and I doubt seriously if it’s a coincidence that the “let’s not worry about Assad” position just happens to align with the Kremlin’s take.

But in this case I don’t care because one thing’s for sure, continuing to perpetuate the cycle of violence by covertly arming and funding the opposition isn’t going to do anything to help this person…

Syria

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