The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is due to deliberate on Tuesday on bipartisan legislation introduced by Democrat Robert Menendez and Republican Bob Corker that would, as Robert Zarate of the Foreign Policy Initiative notes, “allow U.S. military assistance to vetted Syrian rebels, authorize the imposition of new sanctions on sellers of arms and oil to the Assad regime, and create a $250 million transition fund for post-Assad Syria.”
These are all good ideas, although the provision of military assistance to the rebels should have begun a year or two ago; if it had, extremists might not have gained such prominence in the rebels’ ranks and Bashar Assad would not have been able to stage a dismaying comeback with the aid of Hezbollah and Iran. Yet is never too late to act.
Now that we refer to the timeline of the Syrian civil war in years instead of days or months, it can be difficult to perceive singular turning points. But the reports coming today out of Homs Province on the battle over the strategic city of Qusayr seem to be describing just that. As the New York Times notes, the battle, which is pitting the Syrian government’s forces and Hezbollah against Syrian rebels, has resulted thus far in government control over more than half the city for the first time.
The importance of Qusayr can be gleaned from the Washington Post’s essential story from May 11 as well. “All [Assad’s forces] need now,” a Syrian analyst tells reporter Liz Sly, “is to hold the coast, Homs and Damascus, where the institutions of governance are.” The Assad regime has stabilized, and the portrait being painted now is one in which the outcome of the conflict is more likely than not to be a Syria with Bashar al-Assad still in power controlling most of the country except for some jihadist-run enclaves. But it would be a mistake to consider this a return to the status quo. In many ways, the perpetuation of current trends is going to yield a balance of power very different from the pre-war one.
The end of the Cold War brought about an attitude adjustment in American culture toward several aspects of the tense, decades-long conflict with the Soviet Union. That adjustment is worth keeping in mind with today’s report that the Russian successor to the KGB has detained an American accused of spying for the CIA, because it’s doubtful the post-Cold War change was more pronounced on any subject than the spy game. Where once Americans saw Russian spies access the highest reaches of the government and couldn’t help but wonder what other walls might have ears, the U.S.-Russian espionage trade suddenly became either goofy or romanticized–sometimes both.
How else to explain the reaction to the discovery of Russian spies living in America 2010? They were either incompetent or making fools of their own bosses back in Moscow by sending back “intel” they had culled from the pages of American newspapers. And of course they were all satellites revolving around Anna Chapman, the redheaded Russian spy who, upon repatriation in Russia, immediately launched a second career as a model and television show host. In one fashion show, Chapman traversed the catwalk flanked by men dressed as Secret Service agents–and this was playfully reproduced by U.S. newspapers. Everyone seemed to be having a great time.
The Obama administration’s stand-on-the-sidelines policy in Syria has been premised on the assumption that it was only a matter of time before Bashar Assad’s downfall–his “days are numbered,” administration officials have been saying for the past two years. Not so fast. This dispatch from Washington Post reporter Liz Sly in Beirut suggests that the battle is actually swinging in Assad’s direction, thanks in large part to the extensive aid he is receiving from Iran and Hezbollah.
Iranian Quds Force and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters are actively engaged in hostilities–not only fighting themselves but also helping the Assad regime to organize and train a new militia force made up primarily of Alawites that is far more loyal to the regime than the Sunni-dominated ranks of the regular army. The National Defense Force, as this militia is known, is using guerrilla-style tactics against the rebels, fighting them block by block.
There is an unfortunate pattern in which countries believe that they can utilize al-Qaeda against their enemies, and never suffer the consequence for such cynicism at home. In the early 1990s, for example, Saudis both publicly and privately donated to al-Qaeda. The extremists’ jihad was fine—even honorable—many Saudis believed so long as they fought abroad and not within Saudi Arabia itself. While al-Qaeda was perfectly happy accepting Saudi largesse, within a decade al-Qaeda terrorists were striking at the Kingdom, targeting not only foreign compounds but also seeking to assassinate members of the ruling family.
Syria likewise played with al-Qaeda throughout much of the last decade, turning Syrian territory into an underground railroad for suicide bombers and other terrorists destined for Iraq. The Sinjar documents (analyzed here in an excellent report by Brian Fishman and Joseph Felter) show how al-Qaeda transited Syria with the cognizance if not direct assistance of senior Syrian officials. Today, of course, al-Qaeda-linked radicals have turned their guns on the Syrian regime. Bashar al-Assad played with fire, and his regime got burned.
It is a sign of how truly desperate the administration that it seems be expecting Russia to solve the Syria crisis. This approach is being endorsed even by those, like the veteran diplomat Zalmay Khalilzad, who should know better on the grounds that there is no other real alternative.
If so, then there is no way out of this morass, period. Because Russia has no interest or desire to help save Syria or America’s allies in the region from the consequences of a catastrophic civil war. Russia is happy to stand on the sidelines and benefit from arms sales to the embattled Assad regime–possibly even the dispatch of sophisticated air-defense systems (although Moscow is unscrupulous enough to pocket Syria’s payments without actually delivering the missiles in question).
Peter Wehner is absolutely correct to lambaste President Obama and his failure of leadership on Syria. There is nothing more corrosive to U.S. credibility than voided red lines. The fact that Obama turned his back on the Syria chemical weapons red line just after the 25th anniversary of Operation Praying Mantis, the largest surface naval engagement since World War II and President Reagan’s response to Iranian mining of the Persian Gulf, shows just how far American credibility has tumbled in recent decades.
Republicans are wrong, however, to pressure Obama to begin provision of lethal arms to the Syrian rebels. If the United States could not vet two Chechen immigrants living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with regard to their ties to radical Islam, it is doubtful that U.S. authorities can do so with regard to Syrian personnel who do not speak English and for whom background checks and vetting would be considerably more difficult, as they live in a war zone. Nor can the United States count on Turkey which, under the leadership of its unabashedly Islamist prime minister, has made a policy decision to support the Nusra Front, a group which the United States considers to be an al-Qaeda affiliate.
Barack Obama is once again learning the hard way that governing is harder than campaigning. And America is once again learning that Mr. Obama is much better at campaigning than he is at governing.
The most recent example is Syria. We have a situation in which America has been a virtual non-actor in the conflict–“leading from behind,” in the memorable words of a top Obama adviser–and the results have been catastrophic: upwards of 70,000 Syrians dead, more than a million people displaced, the increasing destabilization of the region (including our close ally Jordan), and opposition to the Assad regime cozying up to Islamist forces after having been denied sufficient aid by America.
I don’t pretend for a moment that the options we had, and have, in Syria are easy or self-evident. The range of options includes only difficult ones, with each course of action presenting possible downsides. Of course, that’s usually the case when it comes to presidential decision-making. As for Mr. Obama, he is continuing to learn that the world is an untidy place, largely immune to either his words or his wishes, and that there are costs to inaction as well as to action. What is astonishing is that these truisms never seemed to dawn on Obama when he ran for president in 2008. Back then, he convinced himself that the world would bend to his will. He was, after all, a man who declared he would heal our planet and slow the rise of the oceans and repair America’s image in the world.
It turns out it wasn’t quite that easy after all.
“Americans are exhibiting an isolationist streak,” the New York Times reports, one sentence before thoroughly refuting its own claim. That’s the way the Times opens its story on its latest poll on American attitudes toward intervention in Syria and North Korea. But then the Times follows that claim with this one: “While the public does not support direct military action in those two countries right now, a broad 70 percent majority favor the use of remotely piloted aircraft, or drones, to carry out bombing attacks against suspected terrorists in foreign countries.”
The national conversation on foreign affairs is a bit muddled, in part because the Republican Party is in the wilderness and searching for its post-Iraq identity, and in part because Barack Obama, the current Democratic president, ran on the supposed amorality of George W. Bush’s foreign policy and then relied on Bush’s strategy and tactics once he won election. So neither Democrats nor Republicans can say for certain where their party stands on some of the thorniest of foreign policy issues. And the Times is clearly confused by this; I doubt, for example, that countries subject to abundant drone strikes supported by 70 percent of Americans would suggest that U.S. voters are “isolationist.”
Let me see if I’ve got this straight: U.S. intelligence agencies are reported by the Los Angeles Times to be in agreement “that Syrians have been exposed to deadly sarin gas in recent weeks,” but they refuse to blame the Syrian regime “because of the possibility — however small — that the exposure was accidental or caused by rebel fighters or others outside the Syrian government’s control.”
If the Times is to be believed, this, apparently, is the fig leaf that President Obama is using to justify his inaction even after it is clear to the entire world that Bashar Assad has flagrantly violated the “red line” laid down by the president. Are we seriously to believe that rebels somehow have taken chemical weapons out of Assad’s stockpiles and are using it on Syrian civilians themselves? If you believe this, then I have some fine beachfront property in Syria to sell you.
There is one more lesson to draw from Israeli revelations about Syria’s alleged use of sarin gas against insurgents, which Max Boot commented on yesterday. Middle East dictators’ arms procurement, whether through purchases abroad or domestic production, was always geared first and foremost toward enabling their armies to crush internal dissent.
The Assad family always justified its WMD arsenal as a necessary step to achieve strategic parity with Israel in a classic deterrence game. And whether that was all they had in mind vis-à-vis Israel, deterrence worked at the state-to-state level. But regardless of whether Israel’s assessment is correct, when it comes to domestic enemies, nothing will deter a dictator whose life and power are at stake.
President Obama has repeatedly said the U.S. will not get directly involved in Syria, refusing even to provide arms to the rebels, unless Bashar Assad crosses the “red line” of using chemical weapons. It was never explicitly said what the U.S. would do in that contingency, giving rise to the suspicion that the answer is “not much.”
Well, now Israel has called Obama’s bluff. A senior Israeli intelligence officer, Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, has said publicly what has previously only been rumored: “The regime has increasingly used chemical weapons.” Specifically, Israeli intelligence believes, as the New York Times notes, that a March 19 attack “involved the use of sarin gas, the same agent used in a 1995 attack in the Tokyo subway that killed 13,” and that the “attacks killed ‘a couple of dozens’…in what Israel judged as ‘a test’ by President Bashar al-Assad of the international community’s response.”
Administration insiders appear to be acknowledging the obvious, if not quoted for attribution: namely, that the Syrian insurgency is full of extremists and that, if the insurgency were to prevail now, the result could a government not to our liking. But the result of this realistic analysis is an unrealistic course of action. The Wall Street Journal reports that:
the U.S. has sought a controlled increase in support to moderate rebel factions. President Barack Obama is expected as early as this week to authorize the provision of nonlethal military aid such as body armor and night-vision goggles to moderate fighters, though officials said Mr. Obama still opposes sending American arms and taking unilateral military action.
The administration goal, according to people briefed on the effort, is to provide enough aid to strengthen U.S.-vetted fighters without tipping the balance so far that Islamists who dominate rebel ranks will be able to overrun the regime and its institutions.
President Obama’s crippling passivity in dealing with the Syrian civil war seems to be explained, at least in part, by a widespread expectation in and out of the administration that Bashar Assad is finished no matter what the U.S. does or doesn’t do–that it’s “only a matter of time” before he is toppled.
I still think that is the most likely outcome, but it is worrisome to see that Assad’s forces have succeeded in breaking the rebel siege of two of his northern military bases in a part of the country that has been largely seized by the insurgents. The New York Times quotes a resident of the northern town of Idlib: “To be honest, after seeing the army’s operation today, there is a widespread fear among people that regime forces will soon regain control of other areas in the province.”
Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk begins his book on the Clinton administration’s Mideast diplomacy with the initial focus on brokering peace between Israel and Syria, then led by Bashar al-Assad’s father Hafez. Assad’s demand was a full Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights in exchange for a full peace. The Israeli prime minister at the time, Yitzhak Rabin, was open to it both because he wanted real peace with Syria–Israel already had a longstanding peace agreement with Egypt, a certain level of cooperation with Lebanese officials and armed forces, and a relationship with Jordan that was a peace agreement in all but name, which was finally signed in 1994–and because he thought it would encourage the Palestinians to want peace as well.
He was right about the latter point, though the Palestinians would end up hijacking the entire process and peace with Syria never happened. But ahead of a trip to Washington to meet with Clinton, Rabin wanted to know how the U.S. would guarantee the peace, as Indyk phrases it, “especially in the event of Asad’s death.” Would Clinton put American troops on the Golan, if it came to that and Israel was proscribed by the peace agreement from sending its own troops? Clinton asked Colin Powell for his advice. Indyk recounts the exchange:
In all the discussion of the Iraq War’s 10th anniversary it seems nearly everyone has missed the most glaringly relevant detail. George W. Bush went to war to avoid in Iraq exactly what we see today in Syria: an uncontrollable mass-casualty conflagration ignited by the collision of Ba’athism, jihadism, and weapons of mass destruction. Things didn’t go as planned, but the idea was laudable and prescient.
In September 2003, explaining the importance of deposing Saddam Hussein, Bush stated: “The deadly combination of outlaw regimes, terror networks, and weapons of mass murder is a peril that cannot be wished away. If such a danger is allowed to fully materialize, all words, all protests, will come too late.” Clearly the notion of a dullard! But speaking of too late, here’s Canadian Foreign Minister John Baird talking to the Globe and Mail a few days ago:
“A big concern is the chemical weapons stockpiles falling into the wrong hands” amid the chaos as rebels fight to topple the Syrian government of Bashar al-Assad, Baird said in an interview. “We wouldn’t want to see an al-Qaeda affiliate getting a hold of this or Hezbollah get a hold of it.”
Rafik Hariri, a Lebanese nationalist who served as that country’s prime minister between 1992 and 1998, and again between 2000 and 2004, was assassinated on February 14, 2005, after having stood up to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s demands that Lebanon extra-constitutionally extend the tenure of pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud. Popular outrage in the wake of the assassination led to the Cedar Revolution, an uprising of the Lebanese people against Syrian domination. Alas, the fickleness of the March 14 coalition combined with the empowerment of Hezbollah that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice blessed in the short-term pursuit of quiet ended hope that the Cedar Revolution would fundamentally transform Lebanese society. (Michael Young’s The Ghosts of Martyr’s Square, which I reviewed for COMMENTARY in May 2010, remains the best account of the period).
In subsequent years, Syria and its fellow-travelers at the United Nations managed to slow-roll the investigation and tribunal process meant to bring Hariri’s killers to justice. Now, the Beirut Observer has published photographs of the elusive main suspect, Mustafa Badr al-Din, Hezbollah’s second-in-command. The newspaper attributed the photographs to www.stop910.com, a website which purports to hound Hezbollah. Badr al-Din, like the late Hezbollah terrorist mastermind Imad Mughniyeh, has long sought to keep out of sight, and to keep any recent photographs from surfacing.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has an important op-ed in today’s Washington Post, has long expressed reticence about U.S. efforts to arm the Syrian opposition. When I was in Baghdad last fall, both officials and ordinary Iraqis expressed concern about the radicalization of the Syrian opposition. That does not mean that they loved Syrian President Bashar al-Assad more: He had provided the underground railway through which for years so many al-Qaeda terrorists had infiltrated Iraq. Nor does fear of the opposition provide an excuse to enable Iranian supply of Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
Still, the Iraqis—like the Turks and Jordanians—are more attuned to events transpiring in neighboring Syria than are many U.S. senators. And while the senators may be acting with their hearts in the right place, the situation on the ground in Syria has changed dramatically since the debates began. Pundits are correct to question why the Obama administration felt a “responsibility to protect” in Libya, but turned their blind eye toward the suffering in Syria. The best parallel for what is transpiring in Syria, however, is no longer Libya but rather Bosnia, which had no shortage of war criminals on all sides of the fight.
Showing once again the difficulty of keeping any “covert action” truly secret, the news media have been full of stories in recent days about how the U.S. is providing assistance to arm and train the Syrian rebels.
The New York Times actually tracked the flow of aircraft delivering arms bought by Saudi Arabia and Qatar and channeled through Turkey and Jordan with American advice and assistance. The Wall Street Journal, in the meantime, reports that the American intelligence community is sharing information with the rebels, while the Associated Press writes of the CIA training effort going on in Jordan for secular rebels.
President Obama was confronted with the anxieties of the Middle East yesterday when the first question he received at his press conference with Benjamin Netanyahu was about Syria. “Morally,” began the question ominously, “how is it possible that for the last two years, tens of thousands of innocent civilians are being massacred and no one, the world, the United States, you are doing anything to stop it immediately. On a practical level, you have said today and also in the past, that the use of chemical weapons would be the crossing of a red line. It seems like this line was crossed yesterday. What specifically do you intend to do about it?”
Obama began his answer by noting that there is no proof or consensus on whether chemical weapons have, in fact, been used. Then he pushed back on the accusation he’s done nothing: “It is incorrect to say that we have done nothing. We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have had hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”
That wasn’t much of a response, because the question was what is being done to “stop it immediately,” and nothing the West is doing would seem to qualify. And in fact the reporter’s question was representative of the current mood here in the States as well, in which calls for Obama to intervene in Syria are growing as quickly as the wisdom of such intervention seems to be fading.