The nature of international politics is often considered to be such that continuously defies clear and absolute judgement; however, notwithstanding the complexity of inter-state relations, very often we come across such instances where understanding of the policy of a state, or of an alliance, does not defy understanding and judgement. From the very beginning of the crisis, it has been absolutely clear that the US and its allies are pursuing a regime-change policy in Syria—a policy that not only is still valid but also continues to define their strategy. Materialization of this objective pits the US against Syria and its allies and engages both parties in war—and in war soldiers are killed. Therefore, the US clarification about striking Syrian soldiers due to the so-called “human error” is only an attempt on its part to mystify the actual nature of its objectives in Syria. Nothing else can better explain the strike that killed around 80 soldiers than the fundamental reason for the US’ military engagement in Syria i.e., execution of regime change policy in Syria.
While one strike in itself was, and always is, far from sufficient to achieve this objective, a strike, however, does convey to its targets and to those who observe it the objective being pursued. In this case, the immediate objective was to inflict heavy damage on the Syrian army and render it vulnerable to attacks by other, western supported, militant groups. The objective was, to an extent, achieved. This is evident from the developments taking place immediately after the US-led strike. A weakened Syrian army unit enabled an ISIS advance on a hill overlooking the air base, which was specifically targeted by the US-led coalition. While the objective of this co-ordinated operation was to quickly capture the base, it was thwarted by a timely action by the Russian warplanes that were called in to hit ISIS positions.
Had the attack been successful, it might have caused massive destruction. ISIS had, prior to the attack by the coalition, repeatedly attacked and failed to capture the government-held air base, which is an isolated enclave deep in extremist-held territory. The government controls the air base and parts of Dayr az Zawr city, while ISIS controls the entire province by the same name. An ISIS advance in Dayr az Zawr would have, and would still, endanger the lives of tens of thousands of civilians living in government-held areas and force the Syrian army out of the territory.
What would have such a scenario implied for the over-all situation of Syria is not so difficult to grasp. While the US has now stated it “regrets” the bombing, it has not, in any way, apologized to Syria for this wanton act of mayhem, thus confirming its unchanged position vis-à-vis Syria, which continues to remain a clear cut target of the regime-change conspiracy—a policy that has been applied by NATO in many countries since the end of the Second World War. The most recent cases of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria confirm that this policy has remained unchanged.
The latest conformation to the unabated continuation of this policy has come from one of the most important NATO ally, Turkey. On November 29, Turkey’s self-styled “caliph” said, reiterating NATO’s long held objective, that the Turkish military had launched its operations in Syria to end the rule of (the cruel) Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
He further said, “Why did we enter? We do not have an eye on Syrian soil. The issue is to provide lands to their real owners. That is to say we are there for the establishment of justice. We entered there to end the rule of the tyrant al-Assad who terrorizes with state terror. [We didn’t enter] for any other reason.”
While this statement has come as a surprise to Russia, leading Kremlin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov to say that they were hoping “our Turkish partners will provide us with some kind of explanation about this”, the move itself not only largely reflects the dual game Turkey is playing in Syria but also shows how the former fundamentally continues to adhere to the NATO’s central objective in Syria, thus debunking the myth of Turkey’ estrangement with the US or the EU or the NATO itself.
The tacit continuity of co-operation between Turkey and the US is not limited to the perusal of identical objectives. On the contrary, it is co-operation on the ground that speaks volumes about Turkey’s actual position and policy vis-à-vis Syria. For instance, Turkey’s operation Euphrates Shield, which begun in August and which is supposedly aimed at rolling back ISIS from the Syrian region bordering Turkey, had actually begun, succeeded and territorially spread under the protection, assistance and advice provided by the US military. The US advisers assisted the operation from inside Turkey, while US warplanes conducted airstrikes alongside Turkish ones in support of the offensive. Could we still say that Turkey and the US were, or are, on the collision course since the failed coup attempt in Turkey in July 2016?
This co-ordinated attack was followed, in September, by a welcome note by the NATO chief about Turkey’s enhanced role in Syria against “terrorism” and attacks of all kinds.
The continued co-operation between Turkey, which had initially officially sent troops to Syria to fight ISIS, and the US and Erdogan’s recent claim that they are in Syria to send Assad home unambiguously show the way this alliance is working in the region. With Turkey’s operation Euphrates Shield expanding into operation occupation, and with Turkey equally seeking to enlist US support to capture al-Bab, there remains hardly any room to doubt that the US and Turkey are seeking to achieve what the ISIS had earlier achieved, and then lost, in terms of capturing the Syrian territory.
With ISIS being itself unable to withhold the Syrian offensive being backed the Russian forces and Iran backed militias, Turkey and the US, as also their Arab and Western allies, were left with no other choice but to directly intervene in Syria to deny the Syrian army the opportunity to have the whole of Syria under its control.
This being the case-scenario of Syria, the Pentagon’s clarification about the September strike being a result of “human error” is erroneous. What, on the contrary, perfectly corresponds with the US policy and objectives it is pursuing in Syria is not this clarification but the strike itself—something that, had it been successful, might have allowed IS to bring an entire province under its sole control and considerably damage the Syrian army.
What this scenario reveals is that the earlier policy of bringing regime change in Syria through proxy groups is now being replaced by a policy of direct intervention and gradual insertion of NATO in the conflict via Turkey. Conflict in Syria is therefore not ending, only its dynamics are changing from in-direct to direct intervention.
Salman Rafi Sheikh, research-analyst of International Relations and Pakistan’s foreign and domestic affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.