What’s good for the goose is not good for the gander: U.S. policy between Iraq and Syria

News media reports and commentaries point to an interesting lineup of world powers vis-a-vis the civil war in Syria; while Russia and Iran are actively aiding the Syrian government, Europe is split over whether or not send military aid to the opposition forces and the US is supporting a negotiated settlement, which is close to the official Russian position. The US position is understood in the context of textbook formulation of crises management; a negotiated solution allowing the status quo leaders to stay for a short time and therefore to save face and keep the spoiles while exiting the political theatre, but this position contrasts sharply with the post Saddam US policy in Iraq with its debaathification, disbanding the army and the witch hunt of most associates of the old regime, which begs the question why the radical change in policy between Syria and Iraq? What’s good for the Iraqi goose is no good for the Syrian gander? Did the US policy makers learn so fast from the Iraqi experience and want to avoid an Islamist coup at all cost? Or is there something else, something that has nothing to do with the conditions on the immediate ground of the Middle East but with bilateral relations between the US and Russia the ex-super power?

In 1963 the US and the Soviet Union signed a nuclear non-proliferation treaty in Moscow. It was widely circulated at the time that there were secret gentlemen’s agreements attached to the treaty of dividing spheres of influence between the superpowers, according to these territorial divisions Iraq was in the US sphere while Syria went with the Soviets. Today, 50 years laters, we see evidence of dancing in steps between the U.S. and Russia to the same old old tunes, where the dancers avoid stepping on each other’s toes and the secret agreement together with some basic political axioms provide context for otherwise mysterious US moves in the Middle East.

Beginning with the U.S. moving forward to topple Saddam’s regime without prior UN mandate, with confidence that the Russians and their allies will respect the US’s sphere of influence. in 2003 just after the US campaign in Iraq the French and Russians suggested UN run elections, which was probably seen as an attempt at sharing the spoils without paying the price of participation or offering a draw while the US was winning, the suggestion was totally ignored by the Americans and the Russians did not persist, perhapse were reminded of the agreement and reassured that their sphere of influence over the old parts of the Soviet Union will be respected . The priorities of US deployment need to be understood in order to explain the Iranian tide and the American support for sectarian parties and policies, which is baffling and unlike American values if not hypocratic. Preservation of the lives of US soldiers was paramount, the Iranians were seen as the major threat which had to be appeased and were offered a share in the sphere of influence in order to reduce casualties. However, much later, the Iraqi politicians who shared patronage between Iran and the US decided that Iran was a more reliable patron, so the American overt military presence was terminated by the Iraqi government while the Iranian influence is acknowledged and its disguise is growing thinner every day. Effectively, the US preferred to share influence with Iran while shunning the more reliable international community and ended up losing much of its influence in its own sphere.

The US position on Syria seems to be mindful of the ascent of Islamist groups in a repeat or worse case of the post Arab spring; many of the European countries and secular Arab parties feel this way too. However, the Syrian Islamists were brutally victimized by the regime, by victors’ merit nobody can reasonably deny them the rights of struggle, and the partiality of the Iraqi experience shows that the practice of winner-takes-all is the order of the day, so the US does not seem qualified to lecture fairness and inclusive democracy.

The US position is certainly close and getting closer to Russia’s rather than that of Britain and France who are more willing to send military aid to the opposition, so the question remains: How much of the US position is due to respecting Russia’s sphere of influence as decided in a treaty reached 50 years ago during the cold war?

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