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No, the US has not made 'well-meaning efforts to broker peace' in Syria

Analysts and journalists in the mainstream media continue to skate over the inconvenient truths of the US's contradictory Syria policy

Testifying to the United States House Committee on Foreign Affairs late last month, the highly respected Syria analyst Charles Lister asserted the Obama administration had made “repeated, well-meaning efforts to broker peace” in Syria.

This belief in the “basic benevolence” of the US underpins much of the mainstream commentary on the ongoing conflict. For example, in 2013, the Guardian’s foreign affairs specialist Simon Tisdall noted that Obama “cannot count on Russian support to fix Syria”.

Embarrassingly for Lister and Tisdall, the historical record clearly shows that far from being a “well-meaning” broker for peace, the US (and UK) have, in actual fact, repeatedly blocked a peaceful, negotiated settlement in Syria. 

Sabotaged efforts

A key date is 2 August 2012 – the day Kofi Annan, the United Nations and Arab League envoy to Syria, resigned after failing to reach a peace deal with many of the participants in the war at talks in Geneva.

Writing in 2015, Professor Avi Shlaim, Professor Emeritus of International Relations at Oxford University, provided some important context for the collapse of the talks.

“British ministers [following the lead of the US] keep repeating the mantra that Assad is part of the problem, not part of the solution. In truth, he is a very large part of the problem, but also an indispensable part of any negotiated solution,” Shlaim noted. “Western insistence on regime change in Damascus sabotaged his [Annan’s] efforts and forced him to resign.”

In July 2012, then UN-Arab League envoy Kofi Annan looks on before a meeting on Syria at the United Nations Offices in Geneva (AFP)

Professor Hugh Roberts, the former director of the North Africa Project at the International Crisis Group, agreed with Shlaim’s analysis. “Western policy has been a disgrace,” he argued in the London Review of Books. “They sabotaged the efforts of the UN special envoys, Kofi Annan and then Lakhdar Brahimi, to broker a political compromise that would have ended the fighting.”

In addition to playing a blocking role in the peace talks, by supplying, the US has played a key role in lengthening and escalating the conflict

The West’s negative role at the 2012 Syrian peace talks has been confirmed by Andrew Mitchell, the former British secretary of state for international development, Chatham House’s Dr Christopher Phillips in his book The Battle for Syria, and veteran foreign correspondents Jonathan Steele and Patrick Cockburn.

Amazingly, in 2015 then US secretary of state John Kerry himself admitted that the US demand for Assad’s departure upfront in the peace process was “in fact, prolonging the war”.

Contradictory policy

On 17 August 2012, it was announced that the seasoned diplomat Lakhdar Brahimi would succeed Annan as the UN and Arab League envoy to Syria. Less than two years later, Brahimi himself resigned after also failing to achieve a peaceful settlement to the fighting.

“I would put a lot of blame on the outside forces – the forces, the governments and others who were supporting one side or the other. None of these countries had the interests of the Syrian people as the first priority… everybody is to blame,” Brahimi told Al-Jazeera’s Mehdi Hasan in March 2016.

“The entire world. What did the Americans do? What did the French do? What did the British do?”

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad meets with UN-Arab League peace envoy Lakhdar Brahimi in Damascus in October 2013 (AFP/SANA)

As Brahimi’s testimony hints at, other actors also bear a heavy responsibility for the breakdown of the talks and the continuation of the ongoing conflict, especially the Syrian government and its backers, Russia and Iran. However, as a British citizen, my focus in this article is the United States, the UK’s closet ally.

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In addition to playing a blocking role in the peace talks, by supplying – as Kerry told Syrian activists last year – an “extraordinary amount of arms” to the Syrian rebels and working with its regional allies to send in arms, the US has played a key role in lengthening and escalating the conflict.

The Syrian specialist Patrick Seale was fully aware of “the central contradiction in US policy” in 2012: “Although it says it supports the Annan plan, it is unashamedly undermining it by helping to arms the rebels” a depressing reality many expert voices warned about in 2013, including the UN secretary-general and two former NATO secretary-generals.

The fog of propaganda war

Frustratingly, despite this slew of first-hand testimony and expert analysis, it is Lister’s evidence-free misrepresentation of the US role that informs the popular understanding of Western involvement in Syria – which suggests we are in the midst of a huge propaganda war directed at Western publics.

The inconvenient facts around the US’s role in the Syrian bloodbath challenge a number of media-fuelled shibboleths

And even more frustratingly, it is likely to stay this way because the inconvenient facts around the US’s role in the Syrian bloodbath challenge a number of media-fuelled shibboleths: from the portrayal of Assad and Putin as the only "bad guys" in the war to the oft-repeated myth of US non-intervention in the conflict.

Hell, if the US’s real role in Syria became better understood then people might also start asking awkward questions about other recent conflicts, such as Serbia in 1999 and Libya in 2011, where the US has presented itself as sincerely seeking peace when it has really been pushing for war.

A billboard of Assad and Putin seen in Aleppo in March 2017 (AFP)

In the end, one particularly ugly conclusion is inescapable: if the West has been involved in blocking peace initiatives and therefore extending the fighting, it also means the West is partly responsible for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been killed in the ongoing slaughter and the mammoth refugee crisis – a world away from the US being a well-meaning peace broker.

- Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in London and the author of The March that Shook Blair: An Oral History of 15 February 2003. He tweets @IanJSinclair

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: US Secretary of State John Kerry and Boris Johnson, UK foreign secretary, at a UN Security Council Meeting on 21 September 2016 on the situation in Syria (AFP)