Washington’s Continuing Shame in Syria

This originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

Recent news reports indicate that the Biden administration is orchestrating an agreement between two insurgent groups in northeastern Syria to continue preventing the national government of Bashar al-Assad from regaining control of that region. If true, Washington’s conduct in Syria has reached a new low in terms of basic decency.

Normally, there would be much to admire about a decentralization of political power — especially if it limited the geographic reach of a nasty dictator like Assad. In this case, though, the initiative merely serves the interests of Washington’s cynical, imperialistic policy that already has caused so much suffering for the Syrian people. Moreover, one of the factions receiving U.S. support is an especially odious collection of violent Islamists.

One party reportedly gaining Washington’s blessing is the SDF — the Syrian Democratic Forces, a largely Kurdish group that has been a U.S. client since the earliest years of Syria’s civil war that began in 2011.  That faction at least has some plausible secular, democratic credentials, although Western officials overrate that aspect, much as they do for the government of the autonomous Kurdish region next door in Iraq.  The primary motive for Washington’s longstanding alliance with the SDF is to legitimize the ongoing U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria — the region that just happens to contain most of the country’s oil reserves.

The other party to the U.S.-arranged marriage, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), does not even have a democratic façade. HTS is merely the latest incarnation of Jabhat al-Nusra (the Nusra Front), Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. Granted, Washington has rarely hesitated to back even the most brutal, authoritarian governments or movements if doing so served the larger objectives of America’s political elite. That was certainly the case throughout the Cold War era, and it has continued to the present day, as the cozy U.S. relationships with Egypt and Saudi Arabia confirm. But backing an outright terrorist faction seems a bit much, even by Washington’s lax moral standards.

This is not the first time that the United States has flirted with the likes of HTS. During Barack Obama’s administration, former CIA Director David Petraeus urged the U.S. government to make common cause with Jabhat al-Nusra. He argued that at least some of that organization’s jihadists could be “peeled” away and become useful allies to fight both ISIS and the Assad regime. Such a proposal smacked of either wishful thinking or appalling cynicism. ISIS and Nusra simply disagreed about which organization was the legitimate vessel for the Islamist cause; they did not have significant differences over the nature of that cause or the kind of future, repressive regime they wanted to govern Syria.

The Biden administration’s willingness to support HTS simply to keep Syria divided, Assad’s regime weakened, and the U.S. military presence in northeastern Syria secure, is beyond shameful. Washington’s ongoing military meddling already has created an appalling human tragedy. The multi-year, U.S.-supported effort to unseat Assad has resulted in hideous carnage, as well as the displacement of innocent people throughout Syria. In addition to the more than 300,000 Syrians who have perished in the fighting since 2011, some 6.8 million are refugees.

The huge population flow out of Syria also has produced serious social and political tensions in Europe. Desperate migrants numbering in the millions are trying to find refuge and establish new lives in an alien culture. The extent of the welcome afforded them has varied greatly, but even in the most receptive destinations, extensive discord is now apparent. U.S. policymakers with their obsession to weaken or destroy Assad are to blame for the refugee crisis and the instability that it is creating in Europe.

Biden administration officials need to acquire a belated sense of decency and cease their efforts to foment turmoil in Syria. A good place to start would be to withdraw all U.S. military personnel and end support for HTS and SDF. U.S. leaders must let the Syrian people determine their own political destiny in their own way.

Ted Galen Carpenter is a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute and a senior fellow at the Libertarian Institute.  He also held various senior policy posts during a 37-year career at the Cato Institute.  Dr. Carpenter is the author of 13 books and more than 1,200 articles on international affairs.  His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).

Author: Ted Galen Carpenter

Ted Galen Carpenter, Senior Fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute, is the author of 13 books and more than 1,100 articles on international affairs. Dr. Carpenter held various senior policy positions during a 37-year career at the Cato institute. His latest book is Unreliable Watchdog: The News Media and U.S. Foreign Policy (2022).