Statecraft lessons from northern Syria

The unprecedented combination of political chaos, cross-cutting military confrontations and strategic contradictions in northern Syria reached a record-setting point two days ago. That was when Brett McGurk, the U.S. special envoy to the coalition fighting Daesh (ISIS), and the Department of Defense said, “We call on all armed actors to stand down and take appropriate measures to deconflict and open channels of communication.”I salute them heartily, for this is a very sensible statement, and would make an excellent policy for any government involved in Syria. I applaud the U.S. government for this statement because standing down, deconflicting and opening channels of communication are precisely among the urgent moves that need to be taken to find a way out of the hell that Syria has become for its people and for many others.

The really awkward problem, however, is that McGurk and the American government do not seem to follow their own rhetoric. American actions on the ground in Syria have been precisely the opposite of what McGurk and the DoD now recommend. Washington has repeatedly fueled and funded military attempts to topple the Assad government in Syria; played a major role in expanding the conflict to encompass all the major regional and many world powers; proved incompetent or unwilling to communicate with both legitimate and unsavory actors on the ground (rather bizarre, given U.S. negotiations with the Taliban); and enhanced regional disorder by actively pursuing ground and drone-and-missile militarism in half a dozen Middle Eastern states.

The U.S. is not the main or only party responsible for wars and chaos in Syria and the Middle East. Every major local and foreign party has a share of the blame for the troubles and traumas that define many shattered quarters of the Arab world. We should criticize the actions of the Syrian government, Iran, Hezbollah, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, various Kurdish groups, the U.K., France, Jordan, Qatar and many others.

Yet only the U.S. government insults the intelligence of all human beings in the world who do not work for the U.S. Department of Defense by saying that we all need to “deconflict” and “communicate” – when Washington is the party that has military bases in 130 countries around the world, and has been bombing, killing and boycotting assorted real and imagined enemies in the Arab-Asian region virtually nonstop for nearly the past quarter century.

With what results? The U.S. now still on-and-off actively bombs targets in Syria, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Several of those countries are threatened with disintegration, have become the world’s leading generators of terrorists and refugees, and damage neighboring countries, especially Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, in troubling ways, with dangerous long-term consequences.

So I give the U.S. government an A for rhetoric, and a D-minus for policy outcomes in this arena. I repeat that we need to criticize all the other local, regional and global actors in this conflict that play their own destructive roles. But the U.S. deserves special attention for the chaos-generating militarism that it has pursued for decades – due to its global and regional military reach and destructive impact, and incessantly attacking, sanctioning and boycotting adversaries, while unconvincingly calling for policies of communicating and deconflicting.

Most bizarre of all, many people still want the U.S. to increase its military engagement in Syria to bring an end to the fighting. How could more militarism be the key to reducing the destruction that has been caused precisely by the recurring militarism of so many parties, including the U.S.?

The big story in northern Syria to my mind is the lessons we all learn from decisive policies – not necessarily noble or ethical policies – by determined governments that clearly know their interests and capabilities, and how to deploy their hard and soft power assets to preserve their national well-being. Governments and political movements that hang around learn how to attack, defend, kill, destroy, retreat and make deals when needed.

This violent and ugly process has been going on in this region for about 5,000 years, especially in the ancient Mesopotamian area that comprises Syria-Iraq, and neighbors Turkey. Its core elements for success have not changed for millennia: Know your goals, your friends, your enemies and threats, and, especially, know yourself.

Turkey, Russia and Iran are the leading actors in this process to date; assorted Kurdish groups, the Syrian government, Hezbollah, Saudi Arabia, and Al-Qaeda and its associates come in the second tier of actors that waver between focused national fortitude and slightly reckless and imprecise military shows of strength. The U.S., France, Jordan, U.K., Daesh and others in the bombs-away school of foreign policy lag far behind.

There will be no winners in this terrible series of overlapping wars in northern Syria, only destruction for the Syrian people, and more pain and troubles for their neighbors and the world. We should only anticipate some lessons in the success or failure of states, depending on how well or poorly they calibrate their rhetoric, diplomacy and military alliances and actions in order to meet clear and realistic objectives.

Rami G. Khouri is published twice weekly by THE DAILY STAR. Follow him on Twitter at @RamiKhouri.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 31, 2016, on page 7.




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