How US Allies Aid Al Qaeda In Syria


That was a US Democratic congressman's unequivocal response when asked whether Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be a part of the country's political transition.

"He shouldn't play any role, except to go and be tried for war crimes," Eliot Engel, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the US House of Representatives, told Middle East Eye last week.

Engel's unwavering stance that Assad must go remains the prevailing opinion in Washington - at least publicly - despite successive victories for the Syrian army and its allies on the battlefield and the United States' apparent inability to topple the government in Damascus.

Last week, Engel joined his Republican counterpart on the House committee, Michael McCaul, to condemn human rights abuses committed by Damascus and commemorate the 8th anniversary of the Syrian uprising.

Photos of starved bodies in Syrian prisons, bearing the marks of torture, hung in a Congressional hall across from the Capitol building last Thursday as the congressmen berated Assad and called for his departure.

Engel also used the event to announce he planned to reintroduce the "No Assistance for Assad Act",  which would ban US aid for reconstruction efforts in areas under Syrian government control.

But eight years after Syrians rose up against their government, US policies on the ongoing conflict appear more muddled than ever - and a lack of clarity hangs over Washington's stance on the Syrian president's fate.

If Assad must go, as US politicians insist, what's their plan to topple him?

The war

In March 2011, Syrians staged protests across the country that were met with a deadly crackdown from security forces. The once-peaceful demonstrations turned into an armed rebellion, resulting in a civil war that has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions.

Eight years later, Assad's hold on the presidential palace appears secure after a string of victories for pro-government forces, who have repelled rebels from almost all of Syria's urban centres and the outskirts of Damascus.

With only a few exceptions, both Republicans and Democrats in the US are still calling for the ouster of Assad, however.

Even the administration of President Donald Trump, which has portrayed itself as being opposed to the interventionist policies promoted under Barack Obama and George W Bush, says Assad cannot remain Syria's leader.

"It's very hard for us to envision a future of Syria in which Bashar al-Assad can play a responsible role," a US State Department official told reporters during a background briefing earlier this year.

Trump AFP>
Trump first announced plans to withdraw US troops from Syria in December (AFP/File photo)

Still, Trump has announced that he is pulling US troops from Syria, a move that sparked the ire of lawmakers and led to the resignation of US Secretary of Defence James Mattis late last year.

Now the White House is reportedly revising that decision. Washington will leave 1,000 soldiers, almost half of its current troop total in Syria, the Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday, citing US officials.

The size of the force, however, is too small to change the realities of the war, analysts say.

"Unfortunately, the American role [in Syria] has come and gone," said Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

"The United States would have had a chance to influence things in Syria early on in the civil war, but now the United States is basically out of luck and has no more cards to really pressure anything."

He said with Russian bases, Iranian forces and Tehran-backed militias on the ground in the war-torn country, US forces would not be able to tilt the balance of the war, even if Trump decides to keep all of them there.

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