US officials and analysts have been warning Syria’s Civil War could quickly devolve into a proxy war between Russia and the United States, but to hear them talk lately, that proxy war has been going on for some time already, and they’re not liking America’s chances.
With both sides fighting ISIS, officials have previously sought talking points complaining that Russia was doing it wrong. Lately, however, the US narrative has shifted toward ousting the Syrian government, and since Russia isn’t doing that, it’s a “proxy war.” And since Syria’s government is in a less precarious position than they were a year ago, America is “losing.”
These over-simplistic goals and interpretations of an increasingly complex war quickly break down on further analysis. The primary targets of Russia and Syria have been al-Qaeda’s Nusra Front and ISIS. Nusra hasn’t lost significant ground in the year since Russia began its involvement, and if anything has gained major territory in Aleppo at the expense of minor losses in Latakia and Homs. ISIS, on the other hand, has lost territory, including around Palymra, which was indisputably the major Syrian military gain in 2016. Syrian forces have also held off ISIS advances in Deir Ezzor, strengthening their position.
In the simplistic version, Assad is stronger and that’s bad, and the CIA wants to send more missiles to rebels to change that. In reality, however, Assad’s gains are coming predominantly against ISIS, meaning effectively the US is seeing ISIS’ losses as America’s losses in this proxy war.
Underpinning this preposterous shift in priorities is the ongoing discussion of joint US-Russia coordination against Nusra Front. It’s unsurprising, given their views, that so many intelligence officials oppose this coordination. After all, if they see anti-Assad forces like ISIS as de facto US proxies, the same inevitably applies to Nusra, which is a lot closer tied to directly US-armed factions.
Officials seem to be gambling that this more honest discussion of the proxy war view of Syria will undercut the Russia coordination talks in a way that wild allegations of the whole State Department-proposed effort being a “ploy” by Vladimir Putin ever could. At the same time, it changes America’s war-fighting priorities dramatically, and in ways that a lot of higher-ranking administration officials probably aren’t going to be eager to publicly acknowledge.