Michael Weiss

Obama’s Syria report card

If any party in Syria is happy with the implementation of Obama's war strategy, it's the Assad regime

US President Barack Obama in contemplation. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

It’s been a little over a week since US warplanes, backed by the air forces of five Arab nations, started bombing jihadist targets in Syria and already we can see the lineaments of President Obama’s long-mulled “strategy.” Let’s examine the scorecard, 10 days in.


By bombing the Al-Nusra Front in addition to ISIS, the US may have driven two terrorist organizations that have been at war with each other for almost a year closer together. According to the Guardian’s Martin Chulov, “[m]any al-Nusra units in northern Syria appeared to have reconciled” with ISIS and leaders from both were now holding war-planning meetings to discuss a rapprochement or strategic merger. Whether one formally takes places, with Ayman al-Zawahiri presiding over the marriage or not, seems more an academic question than an operational concern: already 73 Nusra militants have “defected” to ISIS as a result of the air strikes, proving yet again that nothing nullifies jihadi hermeneutics and the narcissism of their tiny differences faster than Tomahawk missiles. 


The obvious consequence of this thaw in relations is that any perceived Western-backed rebel outfit will automatically be branded part of the “crusader” army and thus targeted by both Al-Qaeda and its ultraist offshoot. That wouldn’t be such a bad outcome, of course, were it not for the fact the Free Syrian Army continues to be outgunned, cannot pay its own men wages competitive with those of ISIS and Nusra, and is still shown mostly rhetorical solidarity by the United States.


US Central Command not only hasn’t coordinated its air raids with the Free Syrian Army, often adorably referred to by the Obama administration as America’s “boots on the ground,” but it has actually bombed the FSA. The Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin reported this week that one airstrike landed 200 meters away from an FSA headquarters in Idlib, which was still close enough to kill several rebels. Hussam al-Marie, a spokesman for the FSA, told Rogin: “We have been getting promises that the coordination will be coming, but we have been getting promises since the beginning of this revolution and nothing has happened yet.” Nor does anything appear to be imminent. 


Hadi al-Bahra, the president of the Syrian National Coalition, met with Obama’s national security advisor Susan Rice last week and prevailed upon her to establish a joint coordination center between the FSA and the US military. Rice was “noncommittal,” Rogin quoted an opposition official as saying. In other words, our boots on the ground are cannon fodder. (One hopes that the 5,000 FSA fighters Central Command plans to train by 2016 — by which point ISIS and Nusra may possess 100,000 forces between them — will be seen as less expendable.)


When a Soviet official told Panait Istrati, then being given a guided tour of actually existing socialism in 1930’s Russia, “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs,” the Romanian writer replied: “All right. I see all the broken eggs. Where’s this omelet of yours?” A dozen people, including many women and children, have already been killed by one US missile in what was meant to have been a targeted strike on Nusra in the village of Kafr Daryan, Idlib last week. Abu Abdo Salabman of the FSA told the House Foreign Affairs Committee: “They were carrying bodies out of the rubble. …I saw seven or eight ambulances coming out of there. We believe this was a big mistake.” There will no doubt be more mistakes. 


Syrian activists and rebels have said that they would stoically suffer accidental victims created by an American intervention if it was in the service of dislodging or even weakening Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The current intervention is not, however, with even Obama acknowledging on 60 Minutes that his policy favors Assad — or at least I think that’s what he meant to say in sounding like Hegel script-doctoring an episode of Kung-Fu: The Legend Continues:“I recognize the contradiction in a contradictory land and a contradictory circumstance.” To clarify that muddle, the White House has apparently determined that its so-called “near certainty” principle for avoiding civilian casualties in drone strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan need not apply in Syria, where 200,000 are already confirmed dead. Harold Koh, the former top lawyer at the State Department during Obama’s first term, told Yahoo News: “They seem to be creating this grey zone…If we’re not applying the strict rules [to prevent civilian casualties] to Syria and Iraq, then they are of relatively limited value.”


So it’s a good thing that Assad is still killing Syrians as briskly and ably as ever. Valerie Amos, the Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, told the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs on Tuesday that the regime has “continued its aerial attacks, including the use of barrel bombs. OHCHR has received information that dozens of civilians were killed in Aleppo from such attacks, including women and children. Government forces also continued their heavy shelling of the Joubar neighborhood of Damascus, reportedly killing civilians.” At least now Assad can carry on by pointing to the “collateral damage” entailed by the US example. A joint war on terror can be such a messy business…


Indeed, if there is any party in Syria so far happy with the way Obama’s strategy is being implemented, then it is the mass murders and gang-rapists of Damascus. Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem looked a bit nervous there, for a short while, about what was only a theoretical US invasion of Syrian airspace — he’d said a month ago that without the regime’s permission or coordination it’d be an act of aggression. But now he’s seen what an invasion constitutes in practice and he is pleased. In an interview with the Associated Press, Moallem claimed that Washington sent three messages to Damascus a day before the first strikes occurred on September 23. They were all the same: “We [the US] are not after the Syrian army or the Syrian government.” Now, this could be dismissed as the usual sorry propaganda from a man who has been unable to glimpse his own penis in decades but for the fact that… US warplanes have not touched the Syrian army or the Syrian government. Nor, say US officials, are there likely to do so in the near- or medium-term future. And even though Washington’s been incommunicado over that hat trick of reassurances, Moallem is cool. “Until today, we are satisfied. As long as they are aiming at ISIS locations in Syria and in Iraq, we are satisfied.”  


I take this to mean that the regime is satisfied.


Michael Weiss is a columnist at Foreign Policy and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets at @michaeldweiss

US President Barack Obama in contemplation. (AFP/Brendan Smialowski)

At least now Assad can carry on by pointing to the 'collateral damage' entailed by the US example. A joint war on terror can be such a messy business."

  • commenter8

    Michael Weiss is a brilliant analyst and absolutely correct here. Since this article was written, ISIS got within half a kilometer of Kobane, which is entirely surrounded by ISIS tanks and artillery, and the coalition did only a puny air strike that took out one (1) ISIS vehicle. Does anyone remember the Great Turkey Shoots that wiped out huge numbers of Iraqi tanks a few years ago? All the ISIS tanks around Kobane (the defending Kurds don't have any tanks or artillery) are sitting ducks, perfect targets for American Hellfire missiles. Why aren't the ISIS tanks being slaughtered by coalition airpower?!?

    October 4, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    You ask the question and don't answer it. Do I take it you and Weiss believe in some grand and insidious conspiracy? Or perhaps you and Weiss are the proverbial passenger seat driver who, while understanding virtually nothing of what is actually happening on the ground, elaborate fantastic constructs based on second hand fables garnered from dubious hearsay and unreliable sources to build up scenarios worthy more of the Hollywood movies you imbibed while growing up. Unless that is, you, like Weiss, are a double press agent with a hidden agenda...OOps! I too am a fan of conspiracy theories, just like you.

    October 5, 2014

  • Beiruti

    Mr. Weiss is a very short sighted man. True, Obama has come to the Syrian War late, however, had he come earlier, he would have faced a stronger Assad Regime against a stronger FSA. As it is, he has come to the issue with a weak FSA, a weakened Assad Regime and with Dae3g on the march. The US objective is to contain and then implode Dae3g. Necessarily and in the short term, this provides the Assad Regime some relief, on the surface that is. However, one must remember that the Assad Regime and Dae3g are tacit allies. Dae3g and Assad are sharing oil revenues and petroleum produced at Deir Zour, which is under Dae3g control. So, air strikes on the oil fields and the refinery and pipe lines is impacting the regime negatively. The FSA is a critical part of the US strategy. It is the force that is to move in and occupy the space created by US air power. However, there is no coordination of it with the US nor with itself. The FSA was at one time a competent force, but not any more. Its fighters have gone to Nusra or to Dae3g chasing a better pay check. It would seem that the first thing to do is to get some cash to the FSA so that it can hire its army back. But that is only part of the FSA problem. The other is that they are acting like Lebanese, everyone wants to be the chief and no one wants to be the foot soldiers. It is very disorganized and unless it gets itself together, the US strategy in Syria will fail miserably. So, Mr. Weiss, you were critical when the US did not act. Now that the US acts, you are still critical. If you want American boots on the ground, well, we did that in Iraq and look at what happens when they leave. It regresses back to what it was. So President Weiss, your solution??

    October 2, 2014

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    Beiruti, don't bother with Weiss. This Zionist is paid to attack Obama because Obama is the first US president to stand up to Israel. Weiss's hatred of Assad is fake, as he is tasked to use this pretext to diminish the standing of the first US president in a long time who has both a brain and a heart. You see, Zionists don't like smart American presidents; they prefer the typical ignorant American whom they can keep on their leash, as they have done since the creation of Israel. Obama has broken the Golden Rule and the chosen people now smell blood.

    October 3, 2014