Does the U.S. want regime change in Syria?

The U.S. missile strike on a Syrian military air base in early April seemed to signal an about-face by the new Trump administration. Days before, U.S. officials had signaled more clearly than before that the U.S. was prepared to accept the continued rule of dictator Bashar al-Assad, after years of rhetorical, though not material, support for the opposition that developed out of the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprising of 2011.

Then came the Tomahawk Cruise missile strike against the Shayrat Syrian Arab Air Force base--the first time that the Pentagon attacked a Syrian government target. The same administration officials were now talking "regime change"--and issuing stern warnings against Assad's main international sponsor, Russia, despite previously friendly relations. Since then, though, the administration's exact wording of its policy has varied from time to time and official to official, and nearly three weeks lster, there has been no second U.S. strike. Damage from the attack on the Shayrat air base didn't prevent the Assad regime from resuming its punishing air attacks on opposition forces.

So what does the Trump administration want to achieve? We asked Anand Gopal, a journalist who has reported from Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle East war zones for The Atlantic, Harper's, The Nation and other publications, and the author of the award-winning No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban and War Through Afghan Eyes. Gopal talked to Ashley Smith about the situation on the ground in Syria since the missile strike and the consequences for the future.

U.S. fighter jets return from an air strike against Islamic State in Iraq and Syria targets (Sgt. Shawn Nickel | Wikimedia Commons)

THE U.S. has been at war against ISIS in both Iraq and Syria for nearly three years. Why did Trump suddenly reverse his policy of de facto collaboration with Assad in this effort to attack his airbase in Syria?

WE SHOULD not be misled by Trump's crocodile tears following the chemical weapons attack that killed many men, women, and children in northern Syria. You cannot credibly claim to be moved by the plight of Syrian civilians when you attempt to categorically ban them from entering this country as refugees.

Moreover, Trump's attack was not the start of a new U.S. intervention in Syria. The U.S. has been heavily involved for five years and has been bombing the country for three. It has conducted nearly 8,000 air strikes against a variety of targets, from ISIS to al-Qaeda to members of the anti-Assad opposition, and many civilians have died as a result.

What's new is that this is the first time the U.S. has targeted the regime, after years of assiduously avoiding doing so and even indirectly helping the regime.

To understand this expansion, we should look at the context of U.S. involvement in the country. Since the beginning, the U.S. has sought to control the Syrian revolution and civil war to ensure that there would be no outcome directly opposed to American interests.

The core American interests in Syria are: one, defeating ISIS and similar groups; and two, preserving the network of dictatorships and client regimes in the region, especially Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar. Popular revolutionary movements directly threaten this project, especially when they pose the possibility of overthrowing client regimes and replacing them with independent states.

A successful revolution in Syria--especially one outside of American control--would have profound effects across the region, including in American client states. So although the U.S. doesn't like Assad and would like to see him step down, it prefers the continuation of Assad's regime to any potential revolutionary alternative from below. It would like, in other words, a Yemen-type solution to the Syrian crisis.

This is why Obama both refused to strike Assad and refused to give the Syrian opposition the adequate means to defend itself from the regime. Instead, the U.S. manipulated the flow of arms, selectively cutting off aid to groups that focused on fighting Assad and not only ISIS. The U.S. and the regional states provided just enough to keep the opposition on life support, hoping to eventually force a Yemeni-type negotiated settlement that preserved "stability" in the region.

As Trump came to office, the situation on the ground in Syria happened to change dramatically. The Assad regime is now clearly winning the war, making the stakes of a pinprick strike against him lower than ever. It was in this context that Trump felt comfortable enforcing "red lines" where Obama wasn't.

For the regime to deploy weapons that the U.S. has determined are outside the bounds of acceptable warfare is an affront to U.S. credibility as a hegemonic power. The U.S.'s attack was meant to send a clear signal that this power will not be challenged by any actor in the region, whether it be the opposition in Syria or the Assad regime.

Of course, there are also ancillary domestic benefits that Trump accrues from such an attack, such as signaling his independence of Russian policy at a time when his Moscow ties are under intense scrutiny.

In general, though, despite confused and contradictory statements from the administration, there is as yet no evidence that the U.S. has shifted towards a regime-change policy in Syria.

Such a policy would have to entail a massive aerial campaign, such as Afghanistan in 2001, or massive support to the opposition, such as Afghanistan in the 1980s, when the U.S. supported armed groups against the then-USSR occupation. Neither of these appear very likely.

Instead, after years of only policing the opposition, we are likely to see the U.S. occasionally police Assad as well, all toward the aim of preserving the core American interests in the region that I mentioned.

HOW WILL Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers respond? What impact will these developments have in the region?

ONE IMMEDIATE benefit that Assad gained from the U.S. attack was that it appeared to reaffirm Russia's commitment to the regime at a time when Moscow had a rapprochement of sorts with Turkey, which has been backing some Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups against the regime--and it was deepening cooperation with one of the Kurdish militias in Syria, known as the YPG.

Given this--and because the strike was so limited that it didn't significantly impact the regime's ability to bomb--it's possible we will see Assad continue to occasionally test Washington's willingness to enforce this red line. That could mean another chemical attack in the future.

This, however, remains to be seen. Trump's policy so far has been unpredictable, making potential responses from the U.S. difficult to forecast. Either way, the regime is going from victory to victory. After crushing the resistance in Aleppo, it succeeded in repelling rebel offensives in Homs and Damascus.

IT SEEMS like Assad and his backers are succeeding in routing the last remnants of the Syrian Revolution, leaving only the jihadist opposition in control of the last redoubt of Idlib. What are conditions like in Syria now after the fall of Aleppo?

THE SYRIAN battlefield is extraordinarily complex, but as a simplification, you can say that the non-regime side of the equation consists of six forces.

Starting with the strongest, politically and militarily, they are: one, the YPG, a left-wing Kurdish group that is closely allied with the U.S.; two, Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham, the descendant of al-Qaeda in Syria; three, the northern Free Syrian Army and allied groups, which are backed by--and in some cases effectively proxies of--Turkey; four, the Southern Front, consisting primarily of revolutionary-nationalist Free Syrian Army groups south of Damascus; five, ISIS; and six, civilian revolutionary activists.

The weakness of the FSA and of what was once the mainstream democratic opposition is due to a number of factors.

First and foremost, of course, is the sheer brutality of the Assad regime, which crushed any sign of democracy, freedom or dignity wherever it appeared. But the problems go much deeper than that.

To start with, both the U.S. and the regional powers sought to manipulate these elements to serve their interests, not the interests of Syrians. For example, when the regime was besieging Daraya--one of the iconic centers of the revolution, where ordinary people built a local council in the attempt to rule themselves democratically--FSA groups in the Southern Front wanted to save their comrades, but were blocked by Jordan, which did everything from stanching the weapons flow to closing the border to block ambulances.

The reason was because both Jordan and the U.S. were worried that a successful rebel push in Daraya might threaten the nearby capital of Damascus. Today, fighters in the Southern Front are so frustrated with Jordan's stranglehold that there's talk of defecting to ISIS, which is actually fighting the regime.

Similarly, in northern Syria, a longstanding FSA group lost its foreign funding when it insisted on focusing on fighting Assad, leading it to eventually join Hay'at Tahrir al-Sham for access to better resources and protection.

This is an example of how the popular narrative on the left about Syria has it backwards: The U.S. has not been supporting "extremist" or "al Qaeda-linked" groups in Syria at all. Instead, many groups have joined al-Qaeda because they lacked serious outside support.

There are also internal reasons for the weakness of the FSA and the mainstream democratic opposition.

The revolutionary councils that popped up around the country in 2012-13 sought to include all segments of Syrian society. While this may have seemed laudable at the outset, it was, in fact, effectively a popular front strategy--the councils often included, or were dominated by, the big landowning families and the prominent traders of the community.

But if the councils were to be the seed of a new alternative state, they should have taken the question of revenue seriously. This would have meant directly confronting the class divisions in Syria, which in many ways were at the root of the uprising to begin with. This might have included confiscating the property of the wealthy and redistributing it to meet the revenue needs of the councils.

Instead, the councils and their armed protection--the FSA--sought outside funding from NGOs and foreign intelligence agencies, which inevitably introduced corruption and fragmentation, creating the space for Islamic fundamentalists to challenge their authority.

It's no coincidence that the three strongest state-building movements in Syria--ISIS, Jabhat al-Nusra and the left wing YPG--relied very little on foreign funding. ISIS's main source of revenue, for example, was confiscation, followed by taxation and oil.

Of course, it's easy to make this critique in the abstract, but we should also recognize the extremely difficult conditions that the rebel movement was operating under.

To begin with, the sort of organized left that might have made class demands was very weak in Syria, in large part because of the legacy of Baathist rule, which co-opted or crushed any type of progressive alternative.

Meanwhile, ISIS and Nusra could draw on the legacy of fundamentalist political organizing, and the YPG could draw on the longstanding organizational and ideological perspectives of its parent group, the Kurdistan Workers' Party in Turkey.

THE TRUMP administration seems to have escalated the war against ISIS in both Syria and Iraq. Does this represent a departure or a continuation of Obama's policy?

IT MAY seem like Trump has escalated Obama's wars--which is what he promised to do, saying that he wants to "bomb the shit out of ISIS."

But until now, this has actually not been the case. The increase in civilian casualties in recent months has happened for three reasons, all of which are related to the current phase of the battle or are rooted in Obama's policies.

First, the Mosul offensive against ISIS's last major stronghold in Iraq has shifted from the eastern half of the city to the western half. The two sides of Mosul are very different. Many eastern neighborhoods tend to have larger houses that are more spread apart, whereas western Mosul contains tightly packed neighborhoods and a higher population density.

It's very difficult to hit a house in air strike and not damage many others simultaneously. The timing of the Mosul battle is such that the offensive was finished in the eastern half just as Trump was assuming office.

Second, Obama has steadily relaxed the rules of engagement in the war on ISIS, most recently in late December, making it easier for frontline soldiers to call in coalition air strikes.

Third, the offensive to retake Raqqa, which is ISIS's stronghold in Syria, is now beginning. This offensive was planned by Obama, and Trump is carrying out Obama's policy to the letter.

Of course, it's possible that Trump may indeed escalate the war in the near future. One area where this seems most likely is Yemen, where there is talk of bulking up the U.S.-backed Saudi onslaught there.

On one level, this is because Yemen represents a low-hanging fruit for the anti-Iran hawks in the administration--some of the forces that Saudi Arabia is targeting with its air war have ties to Iran.

In Iraq, the U.S. has been forced to rely partially on Iran, the main backer of certain militias that are now fighting ISIS in Iraq. And the U.S. has effectively ceded Syria to Iran and Russia. So Yemen is the one place where the U.S. and its allies can hit Iran hard.

Moreover, the U.S. has significant economic interests in the region, beginning with the Houthi-controlled port of Hudeida, through which many commercial vessels pass. There has been talk of a U.S.-backed Saudi and Emirati coalition to seize this port, which might spark a major humanitarian crisis if the fighting forces its closure, leaving many Yemenis without food or other basic imports.

IT SEEMS likely that the U.S. and its highly contradictory alliance will defeat ISIS in the coming months. What will defeat look like? Will a military victory lead to any lasting political settlement in Iraq or Syria?

THE DEFEAT of ISIS will look very different in Iraq and in Syria.

In Iraq, the offensives will succeed in toppling ISIS, but will keep in place many of the same predatory phenomena that helped fuel ISIS's rise in the first place. This includes a variety of militias that have committed grave human rights violations; security forces responsible for torture and disappearance of individuals accused of "terrorism"; and a wildly kleptocratic Iraqi state.

This may not necessarily mean that we will see an ISIS 2.0, but it does indicate that the country is likely to be unstable and prone to insurgency for a long time to come. The disaster that the U.S. set in motion with its invasion in 2003 won't end any time soon.

In Syria, on the other hand, the main phenomenon that fueled the rise of ISIS was the brutality of the Assad regime. The YPG is the key anti-ISIS force, and in areas where it has ejected ISIS, locals generally much prefer them to the regime--even in Arab-majority cities like Manbij.

The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which contains the YPG as its key component, will likely capture Raqqa by the end of this year.

The YPG system of local councils, while far from perfect, is a vastly superior alternative to ISIS or the rule of Assad. The Kurdish regions in northeastern Syria, known as Rojava, along with Arab-majority areas like Manbij and Raqqa, will probably make up a de facto independent region within the Syrian state.

However, it's unlikely in the long run that the U.S. will continue to back the YPG after the fight against ISIS is over, because the U.S. is hostile to some of the group's left-wing ideals, and because of the U.S.'s alliance with Turkey and the Barzani government of Iraqi Kurdistan, both of whom are mortal enemies of the YPG, will come first.

The U.S. is merely using the YPG for its own ends, and once it abandons them, there's a possibility of a showdown between the regime and the YPG.

In the end, a combination of brutality from the regime and cynical manipulation by outside powers means that the revolution is at its weakest point since it began with the Arab Spring in 2011. The revolution may be edging closer to total defeat, but among many Syrians inside the country and among the refugee diaspora--who tasted freedom and dignity for the first time in their lives--it will never be forgotten.