From Consortium News
Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton addressing the AIPAC conference in Washington D.C. on March 21, 2016.
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A new coalition of US-based organizations is pushing for a more aggressive U.S. intervention against the Assad regime. But both the war in Syria and politics in the United States have shifted dramatically against this objective.
When it was formed last July, the coalition hoped that a Hillary Clinton administration would pick up its proposals for a more forward stance in support of the anti-Assad armed groups. But with Donald Trump in office instead, the supporters of a U.S. war in Syria now have little or no chance of selling the idea.
One of the ways the group is adjusting to the new political reality is to package its proposal for deeper U.S. military engagement on behalf of U.S.-supported armed groups as part of a plan to counter Al Qaeda, now calling itself Jabhat Fateh al Sham.
But that rationale depends on a highly distorted presentation of the problematic relations between Syria's supposedly "moderate" rebel groups and Al Qaeda's Syrian offshoot.
The "Combating al-Qaeda in Syria Strategy Group" was formed last July by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), according to the policy paper distributed at an event at the Atlantic Council on Jan. 12.
The "Strategy Group" also includes Charles Lister of the Middle East Institute and Jennifer Cafarella of the Institute for the Study of War, both of whom have advocated direct U.S. military force against the Syrian regime in support of the armed opposition.
But it was CNAS that had the political clout to bring the coalition together under what appeared to be very favorable circumstances. Michele Flournoy, the founder and CEO of CNAS and a former third-ranking Pentagon official, was reported to be Clinton's likely choice for Secretary of Defense during the 2016 presidential primaries. And the June 2016 report of a CNAS "study group" co-chaired by Flournoy was in line with Clinton's openly declared support for a more muscular US intervention in Syria.
That report had called for a U.S.-declared "no bombing zone" to protect armed opposition groups, vetted by the CIA, from Syrian and Russian attacks. Flournoy had then described the policy in an interview as telling the Russian and Syrian governments: "If you bomb the folks we support, we will retaliate using standoff means to destroy [Russian] proxy forces, or, in this case, Syrian assets."
Expecting a Clinton Victory
The new coalition of think tanks began meeting last summer when the politics in the United States seemed favorable for a political campaign for U.S. military intervention in Syria.
On Sept. 30, Lister published a lengthy essay calling on the United States to provide shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to "moderate" opposition groups as well as to threaten attacks on the Syrian army if it violated the ceasefire. Lister was obviously hoping that President Clinton would adopt that policy option a few months later.
Now the new strategy group is trying to sell the same proposal to Trump, calling it "a holistic, preventative counter-terrorism policy that empowers moderate Syrians ... to overcome extremists in Syria." It argues that Al Qaeda is seeking to gain control over areas now controlled by "moderate" forces in order to establish "an enduring Sunni extremist order in Syria."
But the argument that these armed groups, which the U.S. has supported in the past, would be prepared to resist Al Qaeda's long-term caliphate with more money and arms and U.S. bombing of Assad's air force, is too divorced from reality to have traction in Washington now. In fact, the so-called "moderate" armed groups have never been truly independent of Al Qaeda in Syria. They have depended on the highly disciplined troops of Al Qaeda and its closest allies and the military strategy devised by Al Qaeda commanders to pressure the Assad regime.
Lister himself has been clear on this point. Under his proposed plan for the United States to use the threat of military force against the regime, the CIA-vetted "moderate" armed opposition groups were not expected to end their military cooperation with Al Qaeda's Fateh al-Sham or to separate themselves physically from its forces, as had been provided in both the February and September ceasefire agreements.