This interview with Josha Landis, an academic studying the Middle East and an expert on Syria, is quite a good dissection of the contradictory and incoherent nature of US foreign policy in the region. I disagree with some of his points — particularly when he downplays the radical and democratic dimensions of the initial uprising by sidelining the importance of unarmed factions — but his analysis of the tensions in the US foreign policy and military establishments are spot-on. There are strong desires to both 1) contain and roll back Iranian regional hegemony, and 2) contain and roll-back Salafi-jihadist organizations, but the kicker is that these goals can’t be accomplished at the same time since these two forces are primarily fighting one another.
These aren’t the only forces at play, however, and this passage from the interview raises the question of how the US relationship with the radical leftists of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will evolve.
The present critique among some think tankers in Washington is that Assad is too weak to reconquer Syria, so the United States will have to step in, particularly if it wants to defeat ISIS quickly. They argue that Syria is a land of many different social and cultural environments. The Century Foundation, the New America Foundation, and the Center for a New American Security have published policy papers advocating in one way or the other that the United States keep special forces on the ground and reinforce regional rebel groupings. They envision carving out autonomous areas that would give the U.S. leverage and presumably force both the Russia and Assad to the negotiating table. They refuse to say that they are for partitioning Syria. Instead, they talk about a framework of autonomous regions. But in the end, it is all pretty much the same thing. It’s about retaining control over areas of Syria to give the US leverage.
This rhetoric of Syria’s diversity of “social and cultural environments” and “a framework of autonomous regions” sounds a whole lot like the ideology of the Syrian Kurds and their allies, derived from Marxist and anarchist thought, which emphasizes a decentralized political system, local governance, and respect for religious and linguistic and ethnic diversity. How much the US would actually be willing to support such a system is deeply questionable, of course, especially considering that there have been plenty of cool rhetoric from both rank-and-file members and officers in Syria about abstaining from any long term alliance with US imperialism. But it is still very likely that the political vision of the Syrian Kurds and their allies will get rolled up into the US plan for the region, at least to the extent that it hampers the ability of the Assad-Iran-Russia alliance from pushing the US and the Gulf monarchies back out of Syria.
Opportunistic support is hardly a new thing for DC foreign policy and military elites. Consider the fact that many of the ghouls and goblins in the incoming Trump administration have deep ties with a self-styled “Marxist Islamist” Iranian rebel group, which sounds like a caricature of what American right-wingers are supposed to have nightmares about. One wouldn’t think that US elites would have any interest in such a group ideologically — but in geopolitics, ideology is easily trumped by whether one can poke at an enemy.