Recently held round of talks in Vienna has, contrary to expectations, reinforced instead of reducing geopolitical rivalries of the competing states.
While the Americans, Russians, Saudis and Turks have been part of earlier peace efforts, the recent meeting significantly featured Iran at the table. However, little of real substance was achieved at the meeting.
While Russia and Iran have stood by Syrian ruler Bashar al-Assad, the US, Turkey and the Gulf Arabs have been arming, training and funding the opposition.
Hence if these external backers of Syria’s warring factions — it was expected prior to the Vienna meeting — could come to an agreement, the bloodbath in the Arab country could eventually give way to normalcy.
Instead of achieving any meaningful progress on the crisis, the meeting turned out to be yet another reminder of how Syria continues to be a tangled web, where a variety of geostrategic opponents have been squaring off for the past four years.
This includes the Americans competing with the Russians, as well as the Saudis and Iranians crossing swords in the proxy battlefield of the Levant.
In the meantime, caught between the regime, the opposition and the ruthless self-styled Islamic State (IS), the Syrian people have had to face an extended nightmare.
It is ironical to see that while the US officials were busy discussing “peace proposal” in Vienna on Friday, the US President announced, on the same day, their decision to send special operation forces to northern Syria.
There is hardly any doubt that the US decision to send troops, marking the first full-time deployment of US forces to the chaotic country, will further complicate the matter.
Although it was announced that these troops will not be involved in active combat, Pentagon will not be informing the Russian military of the exact whereabouts of its ground personnel, thus sowing seeds of any potential mishap.
This deliberate “secrecy” suggests that, in keeping with the US’ disapproval of the Russian military campaign against all terrorist organizations currently active in Syria, the real purpose for Obama sending in the troops is perhaps to restrict Russian offensive operations by introducing the risk of bombing American forces.
In effect, the US Special Forces seem to be used as “human shields” to protect American regime-change assets on the ground.
On the other hand, this decision also clearly suggests the hollowness as well as irrelevance of “dialogue politics” that the main actors involved in Syria were trying to pursue in Vienna.
Not only is it a reflection of the US’ uncompromising and unchanged stance on Assad, but is also likely to cause escalation in the war.
Given Russia’s indiscriminate bombing of terrorists and Pentagon’s deliberate “secrecy” about their troops’ exact location, it is possible that the US “advisers” might find themselves in the middle of Russian jets. Such a situation will certainly not help in “peacefully” resolving the crisis.
While The Washington Post was quick to locate the cause for this decision in Russia’s military operations against “rebel forces arrayed against the regime”, Russia reacted against it and did actually warn the US of enhancing “proxy war risks.”
The war will escalate as the US “advisers” will not merely be advising the so-called “rebel” forces. While their whereabouts will certainly be kept secret, these troops will be engaged in active combat.
As a matter of fact, active involvement is a tactic that the US strategy to carve Syria into “free zones” is cornerstoned on.
A clear hint about the imperative to get actively engaged in Syria was provided by Carter in the recent US Senate hearings.
He clearly told the lawmakers that military’s elite counterterrorism forces would increase the pace of raids.
In addition to it, as The Washington Post reported, many Republicans and Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton have openly favored the idea of carving Syria into “safe zones” and “no fly zones.”
While the US officials continue to claim that the “cardinal purpose” of this move is to “defeat the IS,” it is, however, clearly a move to establish long-sought “buffer zones” or “safe zones” in Syria to restrict not only Russian operations but also Syrian Army’s access to its own territory.
There is hardly any doubt that the US air power will be used to cover these Special Forces, creating a de facto “no-fly-zone” wherever they operate.
The US official claim is, therefore, a very calculated bluff that they are selling for general public consumption.
For instance, the world media is almost littered with the news that the US decision to send troops to Syria is a “major policy shift.”
The mantra of “policy shift” tends to imply that the US Government has been forced by the prevailing circumstances to commit ground troops.
The US was always going to send troops to Syria. The question, therefore, was never “if” but “when.”
It was now, as it turns out, the best time, as far as the US administration’s point of view is concerned, to send troops.
As a matter of fact, were the US not to take this decision, they seem to think, the Russian campaign might have wiped out “friendly forces.”
In other words, notwithstanding the mutually agreed proposal for “nation-wide ceasefire” and the establishment of a transitional government, the US decision to send in troops is a very calculated response to Putin’s decisiveness in engaging in Syria, which in turn has seen, since the beginning of the Russian campaign, a clear shift in the balance of power.
Indeed, the Russian campaign has not only unquestionably shored up President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but it has also sent a message that opponents of Assad (including some ostensible US allies among the rebel fighters in Syria) were equally going to be the targets of the fiercest military attacks.
The so-called “ceasefire” therefore is yet another Western tactic to create a space for their supported jihadi groups to regroup, or if possible, secretly spread to other areas to deny Russia clear targets.
The reality of Russian success was openly accepted by America’s top military official, General Joseph F Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, when he told a Senate Committee that Russia’s air support had changed everything.
“The balance of forces right now are in Assad’s advantage,” he said.
His assessment clearly appeared to contradict upbeat assessments by the White House last month that indicated Assad’s government had suffered a “series of military losses and was losing control.”
On the other hand, General Joseph’s assessment provides the necessary context against which Obama’s not-so-surprising decision to send Special Forces into Syria must be interpreted.
Already, as Los Angeles Times reported, Pentagon intelligence had concluded that Russian air attacks, which began Sept. 30, and growing involvement by Iranian-backed forces have helped Assad’s military advance on several critical fronts and extend his grip on power.
According to Moscow’s own assessment, over 1600 targets were destroyed during the first month of their operation. This success has, therefore, certainly caused apoplexy in the US, as also is Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Therefore, as it is self-evident, Obama’s decision to send troops is indeed more about inhibiting Russian success in destroying the sundry anti-regime forces on the ground than about either “helping the fight against Islamic State” as claimed, or is actually a prelude to a large scale American invasion of Syria.
And, therefore, what we can expect in the months to come is escalation of the war and the possibility of a direct clash between Russia and the US, seeds for which have already been sown.
Salman Rafi Sheikh is a freelance journalist and research analyst of international relations and Pakistan affairs. His area of interest is South and West Asian politics, the foreign policies of major powers, and Pakistani politics. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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