When I lived in rural Ireland years ago, a favorite joke started with an American tourist stopping a local farmer and asking for directions to Cork. The farmer pondered a moment before answering, “Well, if I was you, I wouldn’t be going there from here.” Anyone advising Washington on where to go in Syria has little choice but to admit that he’s as bewildered as that tourist in the Emerald Isle.
One place to start, though, is Lebanon. For the past week, Lebanese Shiite militia Hezbollah has been fighting to remove jihadists belonging to the Islamic State and the former Jabhat al-Nusra from the Syrian side of the border. Within Lebanon, the army, with British assistance, has sealed the border against incursions of the kind witnessed in 2014 when the Islamic State captured the largely Sunni village of Arsal and kidnapped more than 20 Lebanese soldiers and policemen. This month, the Lebanese army and, over the border, the allied forces of Hezbollah and the Syrian military have caught the jihadists in a pincer. Whether or not the Lebanese and Syrian armies colluded in the venture, it appears to be removing the jihadists from the region.
Hezbollah, which for years controlled Lebanon’s border with Syria, has in the past year ceded one base after another to the Lebanese army. The army, in turn, has built fortresses and watchtowers to prevent jihadist infiltration from Syria while permitting Hezbollah free access back and forth to assist Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s troops. The strategy has been working for Lebanon, which has not, as many feared, become a second theater of the Syrian civil war. Now, however, the United States has declared its intention to slash the Foreign Military Financing budget for Lebanon from last year’s $85.9 million to nothing at all.
Lebanon used the funds to train its army, upgrade its weapons and deploy its aircraft and drones to watch jihadists coming near its territory. Without the presence of the Lebanese army along the border and the state sovereignty it represents, the country’s eastern Bekaa Valley could revert to its state of the 1970s and 1980s. In those days, militants from Abu Nidal’s Libyan-backed assassins to Hezbollah kidnappers roamed free. Lebanon has been rid of that sort of thing since its 15-year war ended in 1990. But a weakened state and army would leave behind a power vacuum, and an open border would invite jihadists, who are losing in Syria and Iraq, to flee to Lebanon.
Since the Syrian civil war began in March 2011, the United States has pursued policies that can only be called schizophrenic. On one hand, CIA-trained rebels opposed al Assad. On the other, the United States did not want jihadists to prevail in Syria and turn Damascus into a base for worldwide subversion. The jihadists, however, were the best fighters in the battle against al Assad. If Washington wanted the Syrian president out, it had to back them – as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey did – or send more American troops, as George W. Bush did in Iraq in 2003. And no one wanted another American invasion of an Arab country.
The United States has sent troops to support a Kurdish-led militia, the Syrian Democratic Forces, in northeastern Syria. While the Kurds have taken territory in which large numbers of them live, they have also encroached into Arab regions where they are not welcome. Moreover, they have kept open their links to the Syrian government in the justified belief that it will win the war and reimpose state sovereignty across the country. Most Syrian Kurds appear to understand that the United States will drop them as soon as they have removed the Islamic State from Raqqa and the surrounding desert, if only to please Turkey’s anti-Kurdish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
The question of where the United States goes from here presupposes that it has to go anywhere, that it must do something, that it has to pick sides. Before the war began, Syria was an ally of Iran and Russia. The Iran connection, including Syria’s support for Tehran’s proxy, Hezbollah, has particularly irked the United States. And in the past six years, Syria has become more dependent on Iran and Russia — a dependence that will deepen as long as the war endures. Thus, the policy of weaning Damascus from Tehran and Moscow has been a clear failure. The strategy of using the CIA to aid al Assad’s enemies was problematic from the beginning, and the belief that rebels armed and trained by the CIA in southeast Turkey would not join jihadist organizations turned out to be a fantasy. U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has just reversed its predecessor’s policy of assisting Syrian rebels. The New York Times commented on July 19, “Officials in the Obama administration conceded that there was no way to predict the future loyalties of those who received American arms, despite a lengthy vetting process.”
Syrian rebels — especially in Idlib province, where many of them have congregated since leaving areas they surrendered to the government — have been fighting among themselves. They were divided from the beginning, and most Syrians are aware that the rival groups were doing the bidding of whichever country paid them without taking the population’s wishes into consideration. An enlightening new book of interviews with Syrian citizens, Wendy Pearlman’s We Crossed a Bridge and It Trembled, quoted a fighter named Abdel Halim from the ostensibly moderate Free Syrian Army: “We were just a bunch of friends. The dollars started flowing into the commanders’ pockets. The good ones got killed or pushed aside. The bad ones became more powerful.”
So, where does Washington go from here? Is the goal to end the war or to defeat the al Assad government? If the first, then the United States and Russia must work together to persuade Iran, the Syrian government and a thousand or so rebel militias to agree to terms for a solution. If the second, it will take more than the tired formula of aiding moderate rebels to beat al Assad’s Russian-backed army while the jihadists snipe at their backs. Like the Irish farmer, I wouldn’t want to be going anywhere from where we are.