Instead, the new Syria strategy appears to be the military removal of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, even though his forces are the major significant anti-ISIS force inside Syria, and officials now seem to believe that ousting Assad first and cobbling together a new regime from the non-existent “moderate” factions that the Pentagon is supposed to be creating, is the key to the war.Senior US diplomats and US officials told CNN that Obama had asked for a review of US policy in Syria "after realizing that ISIS may not be defeated without a political transition in Syria and the removal of President Bashar al-Assad". The need for a review indicates a realization that putting the defeat of the Islamic State as the first task in Syria was not going to work.
The administration appears to take the change in strategy to be urgent. Within the last week there have been four meetings of the President's national security team that have dealt with US strategy in Syria. CNN reports that "other sources" deny that there is even a review happening but merely constant discussion and "recalibration" of the US fight against the Islamic State. Alistair Baskey, spokesperson for the National Security Council said on Wednesday:
"The strategy with respect to Syria has not changed: "While the immediate focus remains to drive ISIL out of Iraq, we and coalition partners will continue to strike at ISIL in Syria to deny them safe haven and to disrupt their ability to project power. Assad has been the biggest magnet for extremism in Syria, and the President has made clear that Assad has lost all legitimacy to govern. Alongside our efforts to isolate and sanction the Assad regime, we are working with our allies to strengthen the moderate opposition ..."
Part of the problem for the US is that a policy of concentrating on defeating IS in Iraq first while bombing IS in Syria to weaken them has through the bombing united jihadists against the US and turned them against the very moderate rebel groups that the US supports. In some cases moderate rebel groups have simply surrendered or at least lost their territory to the Nusra Front. This disaster should have been foreseen. Perhaps these anonymous leaks by officials to news media such as CNN are trial balloons.
Should the US decide to attack and degrade Assad's forces this could only result in the advance of groups such as the Islamic Front which though not aligned with Al Qaeda are Islamist in their ideological orientation. Unlike Libya where it has taken some time to create something akin to a failed state the US could achieve this end much more quickly in Syria by ousting Assad. The difference might be that the US would no doubt see that things were not working out so they must intervene even more forcefully while trying to entice allies to join them in the quagmire they created.
The Obama administration has requested a half billion to train and equip 5,000 vetted Syrian rebels within a year. One of the vetted groups has already been soundly defeated by the Nusra Front. The program was announced four months ago but the vetting has not yet started. Rear Admiral John Kirby a Pentagon spokesperson said:
"The vetting hasn't started. Once it does start, that will be about a three- to five-month process and then it's about eight to nine months of training after that. So we still (have) a ways to go."
New strategy is also being demanded by US allies such as Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Turkey, all of whom want to get rid of Assad as a priority. There is even talk of negotiations including Russia to somehow form a transition government that would ease Assad and his inner circle out of power but leave much of the regime and its institutions intact. This is surely bizarre. After years of fighting against Assad's forces the rebels would not accept that the armed forces or the regimes institutions simply be left in place during a transition. Again CNN quotes a senior Arab diplomat anonymously of course:
"It's not going to be tomorrow and I don't think anyone even believes that is physically possible. But even if it is a six- or 12-month plan, as long as it has an exit for Assad. But we are glad that we finally see a meeting of the minds with the U.S. that there needs to be a rethinking of the strategy."
At the time that Obama first ordered bombings of IS and the Khorasan group within the Nusra Front in Syria he did not seek the permission of the Syrian government and indicated what action he would take if Assad tried to stop the US bombing raids:
He made clear the intricacy of the situation, though, as he contemplated the possibility that Mr. Assad might order his forces to fire at American planes entering Syrian airspace. If he dared to do that, Mr. Obama said he would order American forces to wipe out Syria’s air defense system, which he noted would be easier than striking ISIS because its locations are better known. He went on to say that such an action by Mr. Assad would lead to his overthrow, according to one account.
Both Syria and Russia claimed that the US bombings in Syria violated international law and the UN charter. The US replied through State Department spokesperson Marie Harf with an ad hominem attack on Russia and a legal justification in terms of US law:
“I find it interesting that Russia’s suddenly taken an interest in international law, given some of their past behavior. The President has the authority as Commander-in-Chief under the United States Constitution to take actions to protect our people. And any action we take overseas, of course, we will have an international legal basis for doing so. I don’t have predictions about what that is, given we haven’t announced additional actions yet.”
As in Iraq and Afghanistan the US may act first and then seek international blessing after they are already occupying Syria either themselves or through their proxies on the ground as might be the case in Syria, although perhaps some US boots on the ground may be required. Russia could easily turn the ad hominem around and point out US actions against international law. The Russians prefer to simply deny what is happening as in the advance of tanks and other equipment into rebel areas of eastern Ukraine, rather than even face the question of violating international law. After all, if you did not do what the other side claims, you are innocent of breaking international law. Of course bombings are hard to hide or deny although Egypt and the UAE take the Russian position and deny that they were involved in any bombings in Libya.
The new developments in US Syria policy give some credence to the theory that bombing the Islamic State in Syria was just a pretense and a way of opening up Syria and the Assad regime to bombing that would oust Assad. It could develop into the Libyan scenario where very quickly the US gains control of the skies after knocking out Assad's defense systems. However, at the same time there will be attacks on radical jihadists such as IS and the Nusra Front.
Perhaps there will be some false flag operation of firing at US planes to set up a justification for the policy. It is unlikely that the US will seek a fig leaf such as the UN motion on Libya by which the bombings were said to be to protect the Libyan people. This would not work because the revived Evil Empire, Russia, would veto the resolution. The appended video from about a month ago predicts what seems to be the changing policy of the US in Syria. Other commentators have made similar predictions and also see the bombing of the IS in Syria as a way to get at Assad. Russian foreign minister Lavrov as well worried about that prospect when the bombings first began.