Syria is preparing an offensive to regain control of the southwest of the country near the Daraa and Quneitra regions. The area is occupied by al-Qaeda and other insurgent groups associated with them, and a substantial portion is controlled by ISIS. But the US says it is opposed to the Syrian action because it would violate the de-escalation agreement made between the US, Jordan, and Russia. The administration has warned that it will take “firm and appropriate measures” if the operation is carried out — effectively putting the US squarely on the side of ISIS and al-Qaeda.
Negotiations are now underway to determine the fate of the region, with Israeli media reporting that a possible deal could include a Russian agreement to prevent the involvement of Iran and Hezbollah from any operations in return for the Israeli agreement to refrain from intervening against Syrian government attempts to take area.
However, the US warning makes clear that the administration regards the presence of ISIS, al-Qaeda, and associated forces as preferable to the Syrian state, and that it would like to maintain these in the area to prevent a Syrian advance. This is conducive with the overarching goal of keeping Syria weak and divided, of attempting to punish Russia and its allies for defeating the US-backed opposition by turning the Syrian victory into a liability.
Other factors are also at play. Part of the area in question is adjacent to the Golan Heights, which were seized by Israeli aggression in 1967 and have remained under Israeli occupation ever since. This occupation is illegal under international law.
In order to maintain its hold over the Golan and establish a buffer between it and the Syrian government, Israel has been supporting various insurgents along the border. These groups includeal-Qaeda, while medical support is given to all opposition fighters. Whether they be al-Qaeda, ISIS, or others, Israeli military spokesmen have explained that they are tended to “irrespective of their identity.”
Giving insight into the frame of mind behind these Israeli decisions, Israel’s former Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon has in the past stated that he would prefer it if Syria were taken over by ISIS, rather than by Iran. If he had to make a choice, he’d “choose ISIS,” he said.
Israel’s military intelligence chief, Major General Herzi Halevy, said that Israel doesn’t want ISIS defeated in Syria given the current dynamic, seeing the group as non-threatening and a buffer against Iran and Hezbollah: “Israel does not want to see the situation in Syria end with [ISIS] defeated, the superpowers gone from the region, and [Israel] left with a Hezbollah and Iran that have greater capabilities.”
It is not that Israel wants ISIS or other jihadists in the area, but rather that it doesn’t care one way or another. The main concern is preventing Syria and Iran from recapturing the Golan area, and, throughout the war, undermining and attacking the Syrian state along with its allies.
The strategic thinking was explained very bluntly by a team of Israeli academics at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, an Israeli-based think-tank. In a candid report from 2016, the authors state that “The continuing existence of IS [Islamic State] serves a strategic purpose” because it “can be a useful tool in undermining” Iran, Hezbollah, Syria and Russia. Therefore, “The destruction of Islamic State is a strategic mistake”, as the report’s title reads.
This is all hardly surprising in light of the actual historical events, yet it might be to those who take seriously the public professions that the US and its allies’ overarching concern is to impose “a lasting defeat against ISIS.”
The war in Syria began as a result of the efforts of the US to organize an armed insurrection against the government under cover of the 2011 protest movement. The US took advantage of Syria’s violent crackdowns and used them as moral justification for what it was doing.
Throughout the conflict, the US blocked a political settlement by demanding an unacceptable precondition while threatening to continue the violence and bloodshed if the Syrian authorities did not capitulate. This was called the “Assad must go” policy.
Very early on, US intelligence was warning that the armed insurgency the US and its allies were supporting was being “driven” mainly by Islamists, Salafists, and al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, director of the DIA between 2012 and 2014, said that “the jihadists, … were in control of the opposition.” An all-source intelligence appraisal from the DIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff issued in 2013 reportedly confirmed that the programme to support rebels had been co-opted by Turkey to groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.
US allies directly supported the extremist elements while the US supported the groups deemed most palatable for a Western audience.
However, there was no definite separation that divided the two. The US-supported factions were often entrenched with the extremists and in general fought alongside them due to the dynamics of the battlefield. US supplied arms were therefore quickly appropriated by al-Qaeda and the other jihadists. Al-Qaeda allowed the CIA-supported groups to appear as though they were independent in order to maintain the flow of CIA arms, while the US also encouraged this perception to distance itself from al-Qaeda.
Years before ISIS established itself in Syria, it was known to US intelligence that a caliphate of some sort would arise as a result of the continued influx of support to the armed opposition. The US maintained the arms flow because of the strategic advantage such a development provided: the rise of ISIS was seen as an opportunity to exert pressure on Assad.
After ISIS was established it therefore received direct support from the US’ allies, and indirect support from the US, since the arms and fighters provided to the CIA-supported groups were funneled in various ways into the hands of ISIS.
In keeping, the US-led anti-ISIS air campaign was aimed less at defeating ISIS, than at making it appear as though the US was taking action while at the same time allowing ISIS to thrive and fight the US’ enemies. As such, ISIS expanded and grew during this period.
After Russia intervened and threatened to destroy ISIS, the US quickly allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militias and used ISIS’ presence in the north of the country — a result of US policy — as a pretext to justify the occupation of northeast Syria. Liberating territory from ISIS provided the necessary legitimacy.
After establishing its control over northeast Syria, the US began protecting one of the last remaining ISIS pockets in the area. The reason for doing so was articulated by a fighter who is backed by the United States. He explained to the Financial Times that he thought the US “could be allowing small Isis pockets to survive so they can attack and weaken the regime and its main backer in the region, Iran.” For its part, the US announced that “it will not carry out strikes against the militants’ [ISIS’] last remaining fighters as they move into areas held by the Assad regime in western Syria.”
This all fits in well with the intentions outlined in the Trump administration’s recently released National Defense Strategy.
The document explained that the main concern of US planners, “the central challenge to US prosperity and security”, will be that of great power rivalry, of “the re-emergence of long-term, strategic competition” against the “revisionist powers” — meaning mainly Russia and China.
Recently, the US began an operation against ISIS in the area, but the efforts have been half-hearted and no real progress has been made — again, not surprising given the dynamic outlined above.
Orders From the Occupier
In keeping with these consistent objectives, it seems that Israel and the US would prefer to maintain the status quo in southwest Syria. This position is justified on the grounds that a Syrian operation would violate the de-escalation agreement that the US “remains committed to maintaining.”
Since the exact delineation of that agreement has not been published, there is no way to know if this is true, but regardless, the question is moot.
The US has illegally invaded Syria and is actively occupying its lands. This is illegal both under domestic and international law. It follows then that the US is in no position to dictate terms, aside from those of its withdrawal.
The US attempts to justify its occupation through specific UN Security Council Resolutions which call on all states to help fight to defeat ISIS. However, those resolutions clearly state that this is only to be done “in compliance with international law” and with respect for “the sovereignty, independence, unity and territorial integrity of the Syrian Arab Republic.” The US presence is not approved by the Syrian authorities and thus violates the UN Charter. It was also specifically designed with the intent of undermining Syria’s sovereignty and independence.
Furthermore, the US and its allies both directly and indirectly supported the Islamic State. This alone invalidates the stated reasons behind the occupation. If it does not, it is tantamount to accepting the inclusion of a loophole within international law whereby great powers are free to support terrorist organizations inside a target country and then use this as an excuse to invade and occupy it, as an arsonist who comes to put out the fire.
US Congress as well has never approved the US involvement inside Syria, making it illegal under US law. The resolutions also call on states to fight ISIS as well as al-Qaeda and its affiliates; to “eradicate the safe haven they have established over significant parts of Iraq and Syria.”
Throughout much of the time the US was taking territory from ISIS, up until president Trump ended the CIA’s rebel support program, the US indirectly supported al-Qaeda by funneling weapons to the moderates under their command, who then often ended up handing the weapons to al-Qaeda.
The US also openly tried to prevent the Syrian army from eradicating “the safe haven they have established” in places like Aleppo and more recently in East Ghouta, by opposing the Syrian operations to retake these areas. This was not done because of outrage over the indiscriminate bombings and devastation that the Syrian operations wrought, as evidenced by the similar devastation imposed by the US’ own operations, but to deny Syria from controlling substantial territories inside the country and to increase its own strategic advantage.
With these interests being the dominant drivers of policy, it should be no great surprise that the US has, again, intervened in Syria in a way that helps to protect al-Qaeda and ISIS. It is in keeping with a consistent strategy, whereby the groups the US claims to oppose prove useful in accelerating geopolitical goals and thus are either empowered or safeguarded.
Throughout, the goals and tactics have remained consistent. The intentions are to consolidate US hegemony by undermining the Syrian state, prevent it from reclaiming its territories, control its energy resources, keep it embroiled in conflict, and so on. If the presence of extremists helps to further such interests, it follows that this would be exploited in service of these ends.
Indeed, once the true history is properly understood, such things are only to be expected.