I asked Chollet recently why the CIA's ginning up our own anti-Assad forces in Syria would give the United States more "leverage" over Sunni allies. His reply was: "Because then the whole thing would collapse around us!"
But of course the growing US "skin in the game" didn't give the administration leverage over the Sunni allies' policies in Syria; it did exactly the opposite, making the US complicit in the Sunni project of using the jihadists and Salafists to maximise the pressure for the overthrow of the Syrian regime. Not a shred of evidence has ever surfaced suggesting that the US has done anything to pressure its allies to cut off the channels of arms that were strengthening the al-Qaeda-linked militant group, al-Nusra Front.
As a result, the Sunni arms-to-jihadists strategy and the US support for "moderates" were two parts of a broader political-diplomatic strategy of pressure on Assad to step down. As former US ambassador Robert Ford observed in February 2015, "For a long time" the administration had "looked the other way" while the US-supported forces were coordinating with Nusra Front.Russian intervention
That strategy was upended when the Russians intervened forcefully in September 2015. Obama, who was firmly committed to avoiding any direct conflict with Russia over Syria, vetoed any threat to use force in Syria in response to the Russian intervention. For almost a year, Obama relied on cooperation with the Russians as his primary political-diplomatic strategy for managing the conflict, producing two ceasefires that ultimately failed.
The fate of those two ceasefires has revealed more fully the illusory nature of the great power role the US has pretended to play this past year. Kerry committed the United States to two ceasefire agreements based on the premise that the United States could separate the armed groups that the CIA had armed and trained from the Nusra Front-led military command. The reality was that the United States had no real power over those groups because they were more heavily dependent on their jihadist allies than on the United States for their continued viability.
But underlying that failure is the larger reality that the Obama administration has allowed its policy in Syria to be determined primarily by the ambitions of its Sunni allies to overthrow Assad. The administration has claimed that it never favored the destruction of Syrian institutions, but that claim is contradicted by its acquiescence in the Sunni allies' support of Nusra Front.
US complicity in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in the Syrian war, and now in the massive civilian casualties in the Russian bombing of Aleppo, does not consist in its refusal to go to war in Syria but in its providing the political-diplomatic cover for the buildup of the al-Nusra Front and its larger interlocking system of military commands.
A US administration that played a true superpower role would have told its allies not to start a war in Syria by arming jihadists, using the fundamentals of the alliance as the leverage. But that would have meant threatening to end the alliance itself if necessary -- something no US administration is willing to do. Hence the paradox of US power in the Middle East: in order to play at the role of hegemon in the region, with all those military bases, the United States must allow itself to be manipulated by its weaker allies.