These days the U.S. is the world’s most militaristic power, threatening, droning,
bombing, invading, and occupying far more countries than any other nation. Operating
on the well-established principle that might makes right, American presidents
routinely intervene with neither domestic nor international legal warrant, as
in Syria today. Washington also routinely sanctions allies as well as adversaries,
insisting that every person in every nation follow US dictates.
Today America is lawlessly engaged in low-level aggression against Syria. US
troops have occupied much of the north, protecting the Kurdish zone known as
Rojava, seized Syrian oilfields in the east, for both politics and profit, and
cut Syrian roads, including the main route to Baghdad, Iraq – based solely on
the president’s illegal orders. Imagine the Syrian army invading Montana, guarding
a secessionist ministate, occupying the state’s shale oil fields, and blocking
highways heading east toward Washington, D.C.
The US also is engaged in a dangerous minuet with Turkey, which occupies part
of Rojava. Ankara views Syrian Kurds as a threat and twice invaded northern
Syria, including last fall after pushing America aside. Turkey established the
“Syrian Interim Government,” dominated by radical Islamist insurgents
who have murdered and ethnically cleansed Kurdish inhabitants. The Pentagon
admitted that Turkey “actively supports several hardline Islamist militias
and groups ‘engaged in violent criminal activities’.”
Finally, Washington is supporting jihadist rule in the Turkish-protected Idlib
enclave, the only part of Syria still under insurgent control. Although Washington
has deployed no troops there, it provides political support for a leadership
dominated by Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, long linked to al-Qaeda. HTS, reported
the Commission of Inquiry on Syria, “detained, tortured and executed civilians
expressing dissenting opinions, including journalists” as well as “indiscriminately
shelled densely populated civilian areas, spreading terror among civilians living
in government-held areas.” Just a couple weeks ago the al-Qaeda affiliate
abducted an American journalist and his driver, after he reported on the group’s
use of torture.
Thus, Washington, despite its humanitarian claims, is backing enemies of America
who are as brutal as the Assad government. Despite repeated accusations of genocide
against Damascus, the Syrian conflict was a vicious, multi-sided civil war with
few good guys. The half million killed included many allies of the regime, such
as Alawites, Assad’s co-religionists. Max Blumenthal of Grayzone recently
reported on an investigation of the atrocity photos used to justify sanctions
under the Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act: “investigators have determined
that at least half of the photographs in the ‘Caesar’ trove depict the bodies
of government soldiers killed by the armed opposition.”
Ironically, American behavior in Syria mimics that of Russia in Ukraine’s Donbass: illicitly occupying a sovereign state and promoting repressive autonomous regions within. In doing so, President Tweety McTreason is risking conflict with Syria and its allies, Russia, Iran, and conceivably even Lebanon’s Hezbollah, despite his frequent complaints about “endless wars.”
The possibility of combat is real. A couple weeks ago Syrians manning a checkpoint
and a U.S.-Kurdish patrol engaged in a brief firefight. Around the same time
tribal forces allied with Damascus shelled an American base. Bigger news was
last week’s clash between American and Russian troops – allied with Damascus
– which resulted in four US injuries. In July a Russian patrol blocked transit
of American military vehicles.
A far more dangerous incident occurred two years ago, when a large contingent
of Russian mercenaries unsuccessfully attacked a position held by Americans
and Kurds. (Moscow disclaimed responsibility for the incident.) Moreover, Turkish
President Recep Tayyip Erdogan repeatedly threatened to attack American units
stationed alongside Kurdish forces in Rojava. Last fall US personnel twice came
under artillery fire by Turkish units.
Nevertheless, at the moment the bipartisan War Party in Washington, which supports American military intervention everywhere for every reason, is in full cry, demanding retaliation against Moscow for challenging the Pentagon’s illegal presence. These same legislators refused to authorize administration war-making in Syria. Probably because they know they cannot explain let alone justify America’s involvement.
The current US deployment is little short of mad. The Obama administration
originally proposed intervening to destroy ISIS, but the last territory held
by the Islamic State was recaptured in March 2019. Existing forces from Syria
and surrounding nations are capable of preventing an ISIS renaissance. Indeed,
that may be the only issue that everyone in Syria agrees on. Anyway, if Washington
had not been more interested in ousting Assad than halting jihadist violence,
the Islamic State would have had far less opportunity to wreak havoc from the
Today some 600 American military personnel are tasked with simultaneously forcing
Assad from office, ousting Iranian and Russian forces allied with Damascus,
protecting Kurds from Turks, and apparently everyone else, and ensuring that
the Islamic State does not stage a repeat performance. Damascus is likely to
increasingly challenge US forces. The more uncomfortable America’s presence,
the harder for Washington to achieve its mission and greater the pressure on
Washington to withdraw. Yet so long as US policymakers are determined to play
imperial power and lawlessly occupy a country riven by conflict, the potential
for violent confrontation will be great. And next time someone could escalate,
creating a genuine crisis.
Yet geographic and resource piracy might not be the worst aspects of current
US policy. Syrians who have been harmed by their own government now are being
punished by Washington, which is using sanctions under the Caesar Syria Civilian
Protection Act to destroy the already ravaged Syrian economy and immiserate
the already-impoverished Syrian people. Regime elites can protect themselves
to some degree. Most Syrians – more than 80 percent of whom fall below the poverty
line – are helpless.
U.S. policymakers care nothing about the impact on Syrians. They are focused
on preventing reconstruction of a nation that has suffered through nine years
of war, which cannot help but punish the victims. The US special representative
for Syria, James Jeffrey, glories in the resulting human hardship, explaining
that the administration hoped to turn Syria into “a quagmire for the Russians.”
Unfortunately, Washington’s harsh strategy is working. Observed
Syrian writer Ishtar al-Shami: “Sanctions apply to vital institutions
that provide important support (like clothing) for millions of Syrians. Among
these institutions are the Central Bank of Syria as well as other banks, the
oil and gas sector, Syrian airlines, and companies exporting and importing goods
and services.” He also cited people’s complaints that the penalties “do
not punish the government as much as they punish the Syrians living in their
country,” pushing “them further into poverty and suffering.”
Similarly, wrote Joshua Landis and Steven Simon, both at the Quincy Institute,
the new law “further immiserates the Syrian people, blocks reconstruction
efforts, and strangles the economy that sustains a desperate population during
Syria’s growing humanitarian and public health crisis.”
The impact on the streets was predictable. After the law’s implementation Chole
Cornish of the Financial Times observed that “the immediate impact
of the act has been felt in the form of higher goods prices as the threat of
sanctions roiled the currency market.” The Independent’s Patrick
Cockburn concluded: “Millions of ordinary Syrians are having to choose
between buying food to eat and taking precautionary measures against coronavirus.”
In the last six months the number of Syrians who are food insecure increased
by 1.4 million to 9.3 million, more than half of the population, according to
the World Food Program.
America’s friends are not exempt from harm. The Voice of America’s Namo
Abdulla reported: “Recent US sanctions against the Syrian government
are already hurting US allies in the country’s northeast.” So, too, aid
organizations. Last month, explained the New York Times, “medicine
is already becoming harder to bring into the country. Insurance companies are
telling aid organizations they will not cover certain procedures. A.T.M.’s have
shut down, causing relief workers to waste precious time standing in line to
However, well-fed, -paid, and-housed politicians, journalists, and policy wonks
in the West do not care, since their objective is to create mass misery.
Two months ago Jonathan Spyer at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies
triumph: “The United States has ensured that [Syria’s] underlying issue
remain unresolved. The resulting stalemate – marked by frozen conflict, continued
poverty, and a messy de facto division of the country – has prevented a triumph
for Assad and his allies. This will remain the country’s only practical future
until Assad and his allies are finally prepared to negotiate on terms that their
opponents are willing to accept.”
Spyer’s attitude recalls Madeleine Albright’s infamous justification when asked
about the death of a half million Iraqi babies due to US sanctions: “We
think the price is worth it.” No hardship of Syrian civilians is considered
too great by Washington policymakers. And if the project fails – so far Assad
has refused to play his assigned role and surrender – the humanitarian destroyers
will move on to their next victim, consciences clear.
Alas, Washington’s barbarity is exceeded only by its stupidity. The US has
repeatedly tried the same strategy elsewhere, with no success. Every other case
of “maximum pressure,” most importantly Iran, Venezuela, North Korea,
has failed completely. As have the slightly less harsh sanctions applied to
Cuba and Russia. Each fiasco merely convinced the administration and Congress
to redefine success as hurting vulnerable foreign civilians. This is now America’s
approach to the entire world, while pretending to be the shining city on the
hill acting as a global example.
In practice, Syrian sanctions are more about attempting to appear to be doing something than actually doing something to force Assad from power. Who imagines that the regime, triumphing after nearly a decade of war, is going to yield to Washington now? Assad isn’t concerned with his people’s welfare and his government has faced far worse.
Serious analysts recognized that the strategy was likely to fail from the start.
For instance, Mona Yacoubian of the US Institute of Peace concluded that the
law was not “enough to bring the regime down. It just means, unfortunately,
more suffering for ordinary citizens.” Cockburn’s judgment was similar:
“In practice the Caesar Act does little to weaken President Bashar al-Assad
and his regime, but it does impose a devastating economic siege on a country
where civilians are already ground down by nine years of war and economic embargo.”
Admitted al-Shami: “Despite the serious effects of the sanctions, a positive
reaction from the regime is unlikely.” Instead of adopting political reforms
the Damascus government “recently launched military campaigns against opposition
forces in southern Syria.”
Jeffrey’s desire to create a “quagmire” by ruining Syrian lives is no more realistic. Russia saved Assad in war but has no obvious means to force him from power. Moreover, Moscow invested much to ensure military victory against forces generously funded by the U.S. and Gulf States. Keeping the Syrian regime, as opposed to population, afloat will cost far less. Compare that to the expense of American involvement in Vietnam, the archetype of an international “quagmire” in American parlance: far more money was spent, and the even bigger burden was returning body bags.
Weakening Assad also makes him more dependent on Washington’s adversaries.
As Simon pointed out, administration “policy will increase [Assad’s] reliance
on Russia and Iran, whose influence in Syria the US seeks to roll back.”
For instance, in mid-August Damascus agreed to Moscow’s request to expand its
airbase at Hmeimim.
Even worse would be a state collapse. The result could be constant, low level conflict or another full-fledged civil war. Alas, Jeffersonian democracy would be unlikely to arise from a Mad Max world in which a plethora of countries, movements, groups, tribes, and perhaps even local warlords ruled and fought. The results of American intervention in Iraq, Libya, and Yemen certainly offer no reason for optimism.
When the Arab Spring hit Syria in 2011 the only logical US policy was to stay
out. Although a humanitarian tragedy, Damascus did not matter to America security.
Attempting to fix a brutal, multi-sided civil war where another great power
had historical dominance was a fool’s mission at best. Officials were not justified
in risking American lives, wealth, and influence on issues of minimal importance
and policies with great likelihood of failure.
However, after the collapse of the Soviet Union overweening hubris joined abundant
hypocrisy and sanctimony to dominate US foreign policy. The reigning American
attitude became “what we say goes.” So, unsurprisingly, in Syria the
Obama administration exacerbated an already difficult situation.
By insisting on Assad’s ouster, the US discouraged both the government and
insurgents from negotiating. By targeting a secular dictator, Washington ensured
that religious minorities, who were robbed, slaughtered, and displaced in Iraq,
would back Assad to avoid an Iraq replay. By threatening an American takeover
in a country long allied with Moscow, the administration encouraged Russian
By attacking the Islamic State while backing supposedly “moderate”
forces, the administration ensured that Damascus would ignore the first and
battle the second. By offering weapons, money, and training to largely nonexistent
democratic-minded insurgents, usually subservient to more powerful Islamist
radicals, the US indirectly subsidized hostile jihadist factions, including
the local al-Qaeda affiliate.
After more than nine years the Obama/Trump campaign in Syria had failed as
completely as US interventions in Iraq and Libya. Yet Washington refuses to
consider an alternative strategy. American officials sanctimoniously applaud
their own efforts while risking the lives of US military personnel and imposing
hardship on foreigners, who suffered most from endless war. America’s only meaningful
result was to demonstrate its power to impose great harm on the least among
us. It is a strategy for policy fools and political cowards.
Indeed, after American and Russian personnel clashed, the Pentagon denounced
Moscow’s “deliberately provocative and aggressive behavior.” Members
of the House Armed Services Committee, who have refused to vote on the administration’s
illegal Syrian operations, issued
a statement denouncing “Russian military aggression toward US troops”
and “aggressive behaviors” by “Russian forces.” Yet these
descriptions more accurately describe Washington’s counterproductive, illegal
The problem goes well beyond Syria. US foreign policy has become an illegal,
almost criminal, enterprise. Members of Congress refuse to fulfill their constitutional
responsibility to vote on deployment of US forces to numerous foreign battlegrounds.
Washington is actively immiserating desperate populations around the world,
without influencing their governments’ policies. Yet legislators refuse to be
honest with their constituents. Consider: after the administration discussed
withdrawing forces from Syria, the Democratic House voted to criticize the administration
for plans to withdraw from Syria forces whose deployment legislators had never
voted to authorize.
The latest U.S.-Russia clash should act as Thomas Jefferson’s famous “fire
bell in the night.” The potential for a bigger conflict is very real. Sami
Nadir of the Levant Institute for Strategic Affairs observed: “There is
a new Cold War prevailing in Syria and any escalation could pave the way for
a regional or international war given the fact that the big powers are directly
present on the ground and not through proxies, as used to be the case in the
past.” America’s political leaders are recklessly making the country less
secure. No where is the need for a genuinely “America first” foreign
policy more desperately required.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant
to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of Foreign Follies: America’s New