Syria’s Tragedy: A Different Narrative

Beyond all the reporting about Syria’s conflict and carnage and the fall of Aleppo to government forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad are important backstories and narratives that seldom, if ever, make it into print. Some of them provide background, content, and perspective supportive of Dr. Imad Harb’s recent essay for the National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations’ Analyses and Assessments series.

Dr. Harb took issue with President-elect Trump’s allegations that Syria has no strategic significance for the United States. Beyond the numerous rationales to the contrary that Dr. Harb so effectively provided – his line of reasoning is powerful and persuasive – the following are further considerations.

Taken individually, these phenomena do not equal the force of the zeroed-in strategic perspective that is a feature of Dr. Harb’s essay. Considered collectively, however, it would be hard to argue that, beyond the immediate and dire humanitarian issues that cry out for an effective rescue and relief response, Syria, for so many additional reasons, is not of immense strategic importance.

Humanity’s Treasures

The classical and modern day country that is, or at least was, Syria – which for the longest time was one of the world’s richest open-air museums and which brims with archaeological treasures – remains at once immense and diverse. Buried in its lands are the relics and remains of those who paved the way before modern peoplehood came to be and whom those with ancestries rooted in the so-called West are the descendants of, including the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Elamites, Nestorian Chaldeans, Greeks, Romans, and many, many more.

In my sixteen visits to Syria in the 1980s and 1990s, one curator of its treasures after another declared that, of the nearly 450 archaeological sites in the country, the number that had been opened was only forty. When the dust of the rebels’ defeat subsides and a sense of normalcy returns to the country, it would seem fair to ask what, therefore, awaits humanity in the gems of insight into human history and heritage that lie beneath Syria’s lands?

With the devastation visited upon Syria these past five years still unfolding, the ensuing losses to knowledge echo the tragically near identical earlier and continuing ones tossed to the winds next door. Indeed, they bear an indelible footprint from the ongoing American-induced chaos – in Rafidain, or historical Mesopotamia, the land between the rivers – in the wake of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of Iraq.

Palmyra, northeast of Damascus in the Syrian desert, contains the ruins of one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world. Standing at the crossroads of several civilizations, its art and architecture married Greco-Roman techniques with local traditions and Persian influences. Palmyra was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980. It has suffered significant damage during periods of occupation by ISIS. Photo: Dr. John Duke Anthony, mid-1990s.

In one of the first acts accompanying America’s trampling of Iraq’s sovereignty and ending its political independence in 2003, U.S. soldiers, ordered to seize control of the Ministry of Petroleum, sped past the country’s unsurpassed historical museum. In so doing, to the delight of vandals, they left not only the museum, but also the priceless remains of numerous other Iraqi archaeological sites, together with numerous weapons depots, unguarded.

The world’s immediate and lasting response was massive and pervasive disbelief. As if in one voice, many asked: “How could such a powerful America be so mindless of the moral and humanistic obligation to protect one of the world’s richest storehouses of knowledge and understanding related to humankind’s destinies and its earliest achievements and limitations since time immemorial?”

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GCC-U.S. Relations Under a Trump Administration

By Dr. John Duke Anthony and Fahad Nazer

The results of the U.S. Presidential Election last month confounded most American political pundits and many professional pollsters. Donald Trump’s upset victory over Hillary Clinton also surprised many observers in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (the GCC is comprised of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates). Almost immediately after the result was announced, though, it became clear that leaders from the region were ready to embrace the new President-elect and prepared to quickly adjust to the new political reality.

Within hours, GCC officials congratulated President-elect Trump. They expressed a desire to strengthen the decades-old partnerships between their respective countries and the United States. According to at least one Saudi Arabian news outlet, President-elect Trump conveyed a similar sentiment to King Salman. The two reportedly spoke by telephone within hours of the election results. Each side appears to be fully aware of what lies ahead. All appreciate how difficult it will be to overcome the unprecedented political violence and insidious sectarianism that has convulsed seven of the 22 Arab countries in recent years.

Proactive Aspirations

Numerous observers in the GCC countries have expressed hope that President-elect Trump’s administration will adopt a proactive approach to the turmoil in the region. Others are particularly eager to ascertain what, if anything, he may do differently than the Obama administration regarding the threat posed by militant groups like the so-called Islamic State. Just as importantly, there is anticipation that the new President will take seriously the GCC’s deep concerns about Iran’s policies in the Arab world.

Leaders from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates at the recent 37th Gulf Cooperation Council Heads of State Summit in Bahrain. Photo: Saudi Press Agency.

The reference to the latter concern is especially Tehran’s support of militant non-state actors like Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Popular Mobilization Units in Iraq, and the Houthi rebels in Yemen as well as what further assistance it may extend to the government of President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus. It is difficult, of course, at this early stage to ascertain the contours of what may, at some point, become known as the “Trump Doctrine.” Even so, important lessons can be drawn from history.

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Redefining the Syrian Predicament to a Trump Administration

A seismic change is taking place in the United States while important foreign policy issues confront its ascendant political leadership. From a resurgent Russia to a dangerous Chinese grab of international waters in the South China Sea, and from the troubled Middle East to uncertainties facing Europe, the new Trump administration – as heir to America’s leadership legacy – will have to hit the ground running on January 20, 2017. Among the insanely complicated challenges it will have to untangle and help resolve is the Syrian civil war and tragedy that has caused internal destruction and invited foreign actors to interfere and intervene in the heart of the modern Levant.

Syria the Unimportant?

President-elect Donald Trump made it clear during his improbable presidential campaign that the United States should just cede Syria to Russia and Iran and allow them to help its president destroy whatever opposition he faces. Incorrectly, and ignorantly, he claimed that the trio was fighting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). However, to the contrary, the evidence is that the brunt of Russia’s, Iran’s, Lebanon Hezbollah’s, and the Iranian-led Afghan Shia’s military action has been against the moderate opposition.

In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.
In Aleppo, Syria, four-year-old Esraa and her brother Waleed, three, sit on the ground near a shelter for internally displaced persons. Photo: UNICEF/UN013175/Al-Issa.

Candidate Mr. Trump also opined that Syria does not constitute an American strategic interest. This claim has actually been bandied about not only by Obama administration officials. Some Republican politicians and members of the foreign policy community in the American capital also adhere to this view. Neither claim – that Russia and its allies’ attacks have been directed entirely against ISIS and that Syria is of no strategic interest to the United States – was or is true. Mr. Trump’s analyses and assessments are therefore not only perilously flawed; in light of the facts, they are downright dangerous, the exact opposite of accurate, and, as such, constitute serious threats to American and American allies’ national security and related interests.

What Must Come

The first imperative the new administration will have to examine about Syria, come next January, should therefore be Mr. Trump’s claims regarding Syria. Some of the more misleading claims admittedly carry a grain of accuracy and for that reason are seductive, but at the end of the day they are half-baked and hardly the grounds for making sound and effective policy regarding the country. These include the assertion that Syria lacks sufficient hydrocarbon resources to make it a pivotal ring within the international economic chain that American global hegemony cherishes, a perception that is buttressed by the fact that, with the advent of shale oil, the United States’ need for offshore sources of energy has decreased dramatically. A second perception that adds to the confusion is grounded in the fact that, notwithstanding Syria’s having long maintained the peace on Israel’s north-eastern border, and despite its having administered the American-approved Syrian condominium over Lebanon during and after the latter’s civil war, no Damascus government has ever been a pillar of American foreign policy in the Middle East.

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U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS

The National Council is pleased to present the most recent addition to its Analyses and Assessments series: an essay on “U.S.-GCC Relations and the Fight Against ISIS.” The author, Dr. Imad Harb, is a Non-Resident National Council Distinguished International Affairs Fellow.

Dr. Harb has served as an Adjunct Professor at Georgetown University, George Washington University, and the University of Maryland. Earlier, he worked for seven years as a researcher and analyst in the GCC region. He also served as a Senior Program Officer for Education at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), where, in 2008, he authored a USIP Special Report on “Higher Education and the Future of Iraq.”

The author takes measure of the robust and enduring defense and security relationships between the United States and the GCC countries. In so doing, he takes note of the nature and extent of progress made by the 67-member coalition battling the so-called Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Dr. Harb examines the need to plan now, not later, for the reconstruction and stabilization efforts necessary for the territories already liberated – and those yet to be liberated – from ISIS control. In so doing, he identifies the numerous but little reported contributions that GCC countries have made in the fight against ISIS. He also highlights the ongoing challenges to domestic security as well as external deterrence and defense that the region continues to face.

In the process, Dr. Harb acknowledges the ways in which robust GCC-U.S. cooperation is working for the respective partners’ and parties’ collective and mutual as well as individual interests and benefit.

In terms of timing, the atmosphere for producing such an essay could hardly be more receptive. The moment, moreover, could hardly be more propitious. The evidence for both is rooted in the extraordinary array of summit-like meetings of late among the coalition’s principals.

The sheer number of these high-level gatherings has been remarkable. So, too, among the participants has been the seriousness and intensity of their deliberations. Together, these endeavors have hardly been mere academic exercises. To the contrary, they have been the opposite.

Conventional Opinions, Thoughts, Wisdoms

They have exposed the purveyors of so-called informed opinion. They have revealed the quackeries of established thought. They have uncovered what otherwise passes, but should not be allowed to pass unchallenged, as conventional wisdom.

As such, they have helped mightily to counter many of the cynics. Among these were the perennial pessimists. Counted among them were those professional naysayers who had never regarded the GCC-U.S. relationship as a serious alliance or even a credible geopolitical arrangement to begin with.

A National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations delegation of Model Arab League students and faculty advisers, led by National Council Founding President and CEO Dr. John Duke Anthony, visits Queen Effat University in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry with Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Adel Al-Jubeir at a July 2016 meeting in Brussels, Belgium with other regional Foreign Ministers from the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Photo: U.S. Department of State.

Dr. Harb’s essay therefore refutes the many who had seemed resigned to believe that whatever the parties to such international leadership summits might agree to – in terms of how best to wage the war against ISIS – is likely to be too little and too late.

In the process, the essay’s author underscores how numerous analytical factors are frequently missed or receive insufficient attention in American commentary regarding the Arab countries, the Middle East, and the Islamic world.

In this, one might ask, “Is there nothing new under the sun?” What’s new and exciting is that, yes, there is.

This has arguably been and remains the case with regard to the anti-ISIS campaign’s efforts to come to grips with ISIS’ roots and rise. And it continues, too, to be the case in the battle to free the territories that ISIS has captured.

Aims and Aspirations

In any rational effort to comprehend how ISIS came into being and what is a driving force for many of its members, it would seem unquestionable that one should, and would, focus foremost on first factors, on causal realities.

With this as context, metaphorically speaking, would the phenomenon of there being a “Made in the United States” label in the eyes of so many ISIS’ victims ordinarily be viewed as a commonplace occurrence?

No, researchers and writers would ordinarily regard something of this nature, context, and dimension as no everyday experience but, rather, a reality and insight of profound importance and relevance.

Yet an insight as significant as this, key as it is to one’s knowledge and understanding of the roots, formation, and evolution of ISIS, is frequently overlooked, forgotten, or ignored.

So, too, for many commentators, is the otherwise seemingly inexplicable reason for how and why so many U.S. government policies, positions, actions, and even attitudes have severely damaged key American foreign policy objectives in Arabia and the Gulf, one of the world’s most vital regions.

“Of what objectives is one talking about,” would be a legitimate question. The answer: the maintenance of security and stability, something so basic to any people’s existence and prospects for future development and prosperity – which is arguably just as legitimate – that it could hardly be clearer and more straightforward.

Included among the decisions with the gravest negative consequences was the George W. Bush Administration’s rejection of the United States’ GCC allies counsel not to attack Iraq.

That the United States’ invasion and occupation of Iraq caused the deaths and maiming for life of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands more Iraqis and other Arabs, there can be no doubt.

That one group of human beings could and would attack and murder another group of human beings who are not in the process of mounting an imminent attack begs the simplest and therefore the most profound of questions: “Why?”

Truths and Consequences

If this and the mainly American policies, positions, actions, and attitudes towards Palestine from the very beginning fail to provide insight into the raison d’etre and staying power of ISIS, insofar as its leaders and rank and file members from the beginning have been and remain so anti-American, then what would?

In the process of killing a country – of destroying a nation and a people that had not attacked the United States or posed any grave danger to U.S. interests – America cannot say it didn’t know what might happen.

America did know. Its Arab and especially its GCC friends, allies, and strategic partners in the build-up to the invasion and occupation repeatedly said, “Don’t do it; don’t do it; don’t do it – you don’t know what you’re doing! You’ll be in over your heads and not know how to get out.”

Prior to the American-led attack against Iraq, this writer participated in separate meetings with two quite different GCC foreign ministers in their respective countries who reiterated this message. The ministers spoke to members of delegations of American leaders for whom it was my privilege to lead to the GCC region’s countries on fact-finding missions up to the day in March 2003 when the invasion began.

But speak the truth as often and as forcefully as these and many another Arab leaders did, it was all for naught.

Did not the military action that the United States commenced in 2003 unleash the torrents of carnage that continue to this day? And if not, what did?

Does it require a rear view mirror or a replay of the recordings from years past to underscore that the present challenges which the United States’ GCC allies cautioned against more than a decade ago are – surprise, surprise – also the ones that a robust and enduring GCC-U.S. partnership are working to solve?

This latter question is but one among numerous others that Dr. Harb’s essay seeks to address.

Dr. John Duke Anthony
Founding President and CEO
National Council on U.S.-Arab Relations
Washington, DC


Much has been said about the supposedly troubled relations between the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. Many in Washington have gone out of their way to paint the relationship as weakening in a way and to a degree not previously envisioned. The “evidence”: some cite a desire on the part of the Obama Administration to shift its focus to East Asia to counter Chinese adventurism.

Others point to something else. They cite the brokering by the United States of a nuclear deal with Iran. From this perspective, the latter will purportedly pave the way to a full return of American-Iranian relations but only – and some would claim obviously – at the expense of the GCC.

Still others note the United States’ lukewarm attitude regarding the Syrian quagmire, and/or what appears to be a hands-off approach toward pressing concerns elsewhere, whether elsewhere in the Arabian Gulf or in the wider Middle East.

And yet, the reality is that, in contrast, the nature and extent of political coordination and military cooperation between Washington and Gulf capitals have seen a robustness that proves the exact opposite.

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An Existential Political Economy of Post-Conflict Syria, Yemen, and Libya

Syria, Yemen, and Libya are clear cases of de-development via destruction and devastation. Each has its own inter-ethnic, tribal, historical, political, resource, and economic stresses that have contributed to its present astonishing violence. One could write a library of books about what brought each country to the state it is in now. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the multitude of crises each faces.

Post-Conflict, Long-Term Needs

It may be that Syria, Yemen, and Libya will ultimately be divided into smaller countries. While this would be unfortunate, it may be an inevitable part of the region’s transition.

It also may take many years, if not decades, for these countries, whatever they end up being, to reach the point where the guns are silent. But silencing the guns will not necessarily bring stability and peace in the long run. If the underlying causes of the violence are not properly dealt with, these countries will endure recurring nightmares of destruction.

Staffan de Mistura, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, meets with representatives of the Assad government on February 2, 2016 in Geneva.
Staffan de Mistura, United Nations Special Envoy for Syria, meets with representatives of the Assad government on February 2, 2016 in Geneva.

Indeed, if these countries are not developed and their people are not given realistic hopes and dreams for a better future, they will fall back into violence. Syria, Yemen, and Libya have shattered economies. Getting them back to a state from which they can grow with their people will involve massive injections of funds. Syria may need at least $500 billion, Yemen at least $250 billion, and Libya at least $200 billion. These amounts will need to be provided fairly quickly to stave off the demons of war and conflict, but not so quickly that the countries cannot absorb the funds and as a result fall into hyperinflation or worse.

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U.S. Policy in Syria: Weighing Bad Options

The Islamic State’s carnage in Paris and other recent attacks have added more urgency to the challenges facing the Obama administration’s approach to the Syrian crisis. Critics have labeled the approach indecisive, reactive, pathetic, late, absent, dangerous, and other adjectives that reflect the quandary in which Obama and his national security team find themselves.

The speed with which events are unfolding in Syria and associated battlefields – from Iraq to France – forces the administration to constantly consider variations of the following options. But because none of the choices are optimal, Obama and his team often seem immobilized as they attempt to find solutions to what has become a massive political, military, and humanitarian disaster. While future U.S. policy in Syria cannot be predicted, it is likely that Obama, in the waning days of his presidency, will continue to battle ISIS from the air, reject calls for American boots on the ground, and rely on Gulf partners to support the fight against Assad.

Direct Military Involvement

Since the start of the Syrian civil war in March 2011 the administration has resisted becoming militarily involved in what it believes should have been a domestic affair leading to the removal of an autocratic leader and his repressive regime through a peaceful transfer of power. Many opportunities for a reversal of this reluctance to use force have presented themselves: the regime’s chemical weapons use in 2013, its ongoing barrel bomb onslaught against civilian targets, and Turkish and other allies’ pressure to establish no-fly zones to provide safe havens for non-combatants and for a potential opposition provisional government or civil administration.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops.

Obama sees no gain from a military involvement that harks back to the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, two countries from which he was and remains anxious to withdraw American troops. Calls by Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham in late 2015 to introduce 20,000 American troops equally to Syria and Iraq increased pressure on the administration. Nevertheless, the outcome of such calls is contingent on whether the countries named by the McCain-Graham initiative – Egypt, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia – accept fielding the balance of the total number of forces proposed – 100,000. Given these countries’ domestic worries and regional commitments, this would be a tall order. The latest row between Saudi Arabia and Iran following the former’s execution of Shi‘i religious figure Nimr al-Nimr, along with 46 others, assures Riyadh’s reluctance to engage in such a scheme.

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