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.
Just when you think that the situation in Syria couldn’t get any worse… it does. The conflict is spilling over Syria’s borders and badly affecting its neighbors.
The United Nations Refugee Agency is reporting that the number of Syrians who have registered as refugees (which allows them access to aid and services) has now passed the 1 million mark. The actual number of refugees, many of them unregistered, is higher and millions more are internally displaced within Syria. The refugee flow is growing all the time with at least 7,000 people leaving the country every day. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees warns that “Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster”–and it’s not just Syria that is affected. As the New York Times notes:
Earlier this week, Senator Marco Rubio gave a speech at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in which he called for the United States to provide ammunition to the Syrian opposition. His colleague, Senator John McCain, has long advocated a more forceful line on Syria, including arms for the Syrian opposition. There certainly is a great deal of frustration in national security circles about the situation in Syria, all the more so after revelations that President Obama turned down the unanimous advice of his top military advisers and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when they counseled greater assistance to the Syrian rebels months ago.
Time marches on, however, and the doors of opportunity that existed earlier in the Syrian uprising are now shut. A good argument six months ago does not necessarily make a good argument today, when the winds of war have so decidedly changed the face of Syria.
Secretary of State John Kerry’s announcement that the U.S. was sending $60 million in nonlethal assistance to the Syrian rebels was not exactly welcomed by the recipients of that largesse. Even the moderate opposition leader Moaz al-Khatib complained of “an international decision to prevent arming Syrian rebels with quality arms.”
Meanwhile one of the top rebel commanders in Aleppo told NPR: “We have no need for medical supplies or for food stuffs. We need more than this. If they are not going to offer us weaponry, then the least they can do, which we asked for before, is to give us equipment to remove the rubble.”
Earlier this week, I wrote about the Syrian rebels’ threats to boycott a proposed meeting with new Secretary of State John Kerry, who had been far too friendly with Bashar al-Assad for their tastes and from whom they were not getting enough support. The tactic worked: Kerry has pledged the first direct American aid to armed rebel factions. It is humanitarian aid, not weapons; but as the New York Times notes, it may indirectly help provide them with weapons by freeing up rebel funds for other purposes.
It is a tactical shift for the Obama administration, which had found that American officials’ previous attempts to remove Assad from power by shaking their heads in disappointment at him were going nowhere. The aid is an important acknowledgement that a state run by Assad and a state run by his opponents aren’t the only two possible outcomes of the Syrian civil war. A third, and far from unlikely, result would have the state split along sectarian lines, in slow disintegration, with strategic safe havens carved out for powerful terrorist groups or rogue state proxies–Lebanon, in other words. The Times reports:
What to make of news that the Saudis are providing Croatian surplus arms to the Syrian rebels?
It sounds, at first blush, like a throwback to the 1980s, when the Saudis worked with the CIA to acquire surplus military hardware from all over the world–including in Warsaw Pact states such as Poland–and then deliver them, via the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence Agency, to Afghan rebels fighting the Red Army. We know from that experience that, even with extensive CIA involvement, the Saudis and Pakistanis conspired to provide the bulk of their aid to hard-line Islamist commanders such as Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Jalalludin Haqqani rather than to more moderate mujahideen commanders such as Ahmad Shah Massoud.
In January, as the Syrian civil war closed in on its second anniversary, news broke that was tantalizingly close to a game-changer. Josh Rogin reported that a State Department cable indicated the strong belief that Bashar al-Assad’s forces had used chemical weapons. The next day, Rogin reported a stern denial from the State Department. In the fog of war, the two claims seemed to have roughly equal credibility. But the Obama administration’s denial raised some eyebrows, since President Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons a clear red line that would necessitate intervention in the conflict. Was he moving the red line again, as he had appeared to do just months before, to avoid taking action?
The perception that President Obama was far too willing to find any excuse not to increase help to the Syrian rebels was especially unhelpful for the administration since the president had recently sent another dispiriting message to the Syrian opposition: the announcement of the nomination of John Kerry to be his next secretary of state. Kerry was, of course, one of the least perceptive American senators with regard to the cruelty of the man he called—as aides cringed—his “dear friend” Assad and bought hook, line and sinker the idea that the bloodthirsty tyrant might be ready to reform and moderate his behavior. So it’s not a complete surprise that, as Kerry seeks a meeting with them, the rebels are wondering whether they have any reason to let Kerry use them as props for a photo op to be almost certainly discarded thereafter. CBS News reports:
Whoever becomes the next defense secretary is going to have their work cut out for them, thanks to President Obama and Secretary of State Clinton. Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin reported that the State Department has concluded that Bashar al-Assad’s forces have indeed used chemical weapons against civilians in the Syrian civil war. The use of chemical weapons, of course, has been the Obama administration’s declared red line for U.S. action against Bashar al-Assad’s regime. As Rogin noted:
“The use of chemical weapons is and would be totally unacceptable,” Obama said Dec. 3, directing his comments at Assad. “If you make the tragic mistake of using these weapons, there will be consequences and you will be held accountable.” That same day, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton added: “we are certainly planning to take action if that eventuality were to occur.”
A front-page story in the New York Times this week provides a reminder of something too often forgotten: The American-Israeli alliance is not a one-way street. While Israel obviously derives numerous benefits from the alliance, it also plays an important role in furthering American interests in the Middle East. And one way it does so is through its impressive intelligence capabilities.
The Times report opens with Israeli military commanders calling the Pentagon in late November “to discuss troubling intelligence that was showing up on satellite imagery: Syrian troops appeared to be mixing chemicals at two storage sites, probably the deadly nerve gas sarin, and filling dozens of 500-pounds bombs that could be loaded on airplanes.” The Pentagon promptly notified President Barack Obama, warning that should Syrian President Bashar Assad decide to use them, the weapons could “be airborne in less than two hours — too fast for the United States to act.” Obama responded with a global diplomatic push to stop the weapons from being used, and so far, the effort has succeeded. But it never could have happened had Israel not provided that initial intelligence.
All throughout the Syrian civil war, analysts and human rights groups were at pains to point out the rising death toll and falling share of media and public attention. But underlying the legitimate frustration was a perhaps forced belief–straining under the weight of reality–in the conventional wisdom: the house of Assad will fall; the victims’ deaths will not be in vain.
But the standard rule of conventional wisdom–that it may be the former but is rarely the latter–applies here as well. As Emile Hokayem writes in the wake of Bashar al-Assad’s recent defiant speech:
Ed Morrissey at HotAir flags an interesting Washington Post/ABC poll finds that Americans are overwhelmingly opposed to a U.S. intervention in Syria–unless Syria loses control of its chemical weapons. Or attacks neighboring U.S. allies. Or Bashar al-Assad uses chemical weapons against his people. Or if the intervention is a no-fly zone that doesn’t involve ground troops. In those cases, the vast majority of the public supports it:
In general, 73 percent say the U.S. military should not get involved in the conflict. But almost exactly as many say they’d support U.S. military involvement if Syria were to lose control of its chemical weapons, as do 63 percent if the Assad regime used these banned weapons against its own people – an action that Barack Obama has warned would “cross a red line.”
Similarly, if Syrian forces were to attack nearby U.S. allies, 69 percent say they’d support U.S. military involvement. And regardless of any such specific provocation, 62 percent say they’d favor creation of a no-fly zone, provided no ground troops were used. (That may reflect the success of the no-fly zone over Libya, general preference for air vs. ground combat, or some combination of both.)
Even among those who initially oppose U.S. military intervention, more than half change their position given the specific circumstances proposed, including 69 percent who, despite initial hesitancy, support U.S. involvement if Syria’s chemical weapons stockpile became insecure.
It is no secret that when it comes to staffing, the most famous U.S.-based human rights organizations are skewed more toward Democrats than even universities. The most professional organizations try not to allow partisanship to corrupt analysis, but they are seldom successful. They loved to hate George W. Bush, never mind that many of the policies to which they most objected had their roots in the Clinton administration and have been continued by the Obama administration. When it comes to broader foreign policy, Bush did more to stand up to dictators and thugs than his predecessors. Reagan sought to appease Saddam Hussein, and Clinton repeatedly tried to cut a deal with the Taliban. When it came to unilateral sanctions, Clinton took a far tougher line on Iran than George W. Bush. And when it came to Africa, Bush did more than all his predecessors combined: Clinton’s Africa legacy was his ineffective response to the genocide in Rwanda and the civil war in Sudan.
The coming four years, however, should force real soul searching among the human rights community. President Obama’s reported pick of John Kerry to be secretary of state and the looming choice of Chuck Hagel to be secretary of defense will cement in his cabinet two figures that lack a moral compass in international affairs. If Kerry considered Bashar al-Assad “a dear friend” and a genuine reformer because they had a nice coffee and bike ride together, sympathizes with Latin America’s new populist dictators, and believes human rights should be shunted aside because Vladimir Putin is a sincere democrat, dictators will understand they have a free pass and democratic dissidents will realize they have no friend in the U.S. government.
Sometimes satire can capture the truth in ways that “straight” reporting simply cannot. Case in point: the new issue of Private Eye, Britain’s version of the Onion, has a mock headline: “Obama Warns Syria ‘Kill People Properly’.” It imagines President Obama issuing a warning to Bashar Assad against the use of chemical weapons: “There are ethical ways to murder your own people and there are unethical ways and it’s very clear what the difference is. If President Assad fails to keep killing people in the approved manner, we will have no option but to send an unmanned drone from thousands of miles away.”
I thought of that mock news item as I read the real news from Syria, which is that Assad is now firing Scud missiles at his own people–the very same missiles that Saddam Hussein fired at Israel during the 1991 Gulf War. These are blunderbuss weapons that are hard to aim and as likely to wipe out a kindergarten as a military installation. The fact that Assad is firing them on his own territory is a sign of how much control he has lost and how desperate he has become–as well as a sign of how he is increasingly reluctant to use manned aircraft now that the rebels appear to have gotten their hands on some portable surface-to-air missiles.
Yesterday, Max Boot criticized the Obama administration for the timing of the designation of the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist group. Timing and coherence is not the Obama administration’s forte: If the Obama administration was a person and had a meeting at 1 p.m. on a Tuesday, it would show up promptly at 4 p.m. the following Thursday. I largely agree with Max’s analysis:
On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front? Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition….
I disagree with Max’s implication that the Obama administration should have held off its designation. Max writes, “However justifiable morally, the designation of the Al Nusra Front makes little tactical sense at this moment. From the rebels’ perspective it is simply playing into Assad’s hands without doing anything concrete to bolster the non-jihadist opposition.”
The New York Times has an amusing article today about how Madeleine Albright, Wesley Clark, and other former Clinton administration officials and generals are trying to cash in in Kosovo, which American intervention rescued from Serbian oppression. As a result of the Clinton administration’s actions, Kosovo has become one of the most pro-American places in the world with streets named after both Bill Clinton and Bob Dole and a statue of Clinton in the capital, Pristina.
What are the odds, I wonder, that there will be any similar outpouring of pro-American affection in Syria where, instead of intervening, the Obama administration is standing by even as the death toll climbs north of 45,000? The administration has now recognized a rebel government and blacklisted the Al Nusra Front as a terrorist organization but these small, symbolic steps are hardly leading to an outpouring of affection for Uncle Sam. Far from it. Indeed, as another Times article reports:
The Obama administration’s policy on Syria continues to lurch forward incoherently, the latest development being the designation of the Al Nusra Front, one of the rebel groups fighting Bashar Assad, as a terrorist organization. On the merits the designation is clearly warranted, given the close links between Al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Iraq. But the administration has dragged its feet for years in designating other terrorist groups such as the Haqqani Network even while they were actually killing Americans. The Taliban still hasn’t been so designated. So why rush to designate the Al Nusra Front?
Presumably because the administration is planning to confer diplomatic recognition on the Syrian opposition and wants to make clear its disapproval of the jihadist element of the opposition. But the U.S. has so far provided no meaningful assistance to the Syrian opposition—certainly not arms. The Al Nusra Front has been growing increasingly prominent precisely because it is getting more outside support than other groups—in its case not only from Al Qaeda in Iraq but also from Gulf states.
On one level, the news from Syria is encouraging–Bashar Assad’s regime is losing ground. The rebel forces are fighting on the outskirts of the capital and have managed to capture several military bases, at least temporarily. Many analysts think that the Syrian army is cracking–a plausible if perhaps premature conclusion at this point.
But there is still cause for alarm, not only in the fact that the killing continues, but also in the fact that it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image.
Rumor has it that President Obama is considering Vogue editor Anna Wintour to be his second-term nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. After World War II, well-known public figures and intellectuals such as W. Averell Harriman, Walter Annenberg, and Kingman Brewster, Jr., have held the post. In recent decades, however, presidents have transformed the top slot into a plumb reward for top donors. Leading the London Embassy has become more about style than diplomacy. George W. Bush, for example, chose Robert Tuttle, who had raised more than $200,000 for the president. For his first term, Obama chose Louis Susman, a top fundraiser.
Wintour may be pushing pay-for-position rewards a bit too far. The problem isn’t her fundraising, but rather her judgment. Syria remains a top foreign policy concern for the United States and, should Bashar al-Assad’s forces use chemical weapons, it could be the source of the 3 a.m. phone call Obama fears most. As editor of Vogue, however, Wintour published the infamous and groveling profile of Asma al-Assad, Bashar’s wife. She defended the piece for months, even as Assad’s forces committed the most grizzly abuses against Syrian men, women, and children, refusing to distinguish between combatants and non-combatants. In recent months, Wintour sought to distance herself from the profile, and removed it from the Internet.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated today what President Obama had said earlier, announcing while in Prague that any use of chemical weapons by Bashar Assad is “a red line for the United States.” She went on to issue a not-so-veiled threat: “I’m not going to telegraph in any specifics what we would do in the event of credible evidence that the Assad regime has resorted to using chemical weapons against their own people. But suffice to say we are certainly planning to take action.”
On one level this is unobjectionable. Chemicals are a terrible weapon, a fact widely recognized since their widespread use in World War I. The Chemical Weapons Convention (to which Syria has not signed up) is intended to ban their possession. Their very awfulness–combined with their limited utility (gas, after all, has a way of wafting back to one’s own lines)–has limited their use in warfare over the past hundred years. So it makes sense that Obama and Clinton are making clear their abhorrence of this weapon and signaling stern consequences if it is employed.
It is hardly surprising to read that the flow of Iranian arms continues to reach Syria via Iraqi airspace. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had promised the Obama administration that he would inspect aircraft overflying his country, but his promise has proved hollow. As the New York Times reports:
The Iraqis have inspected only two [flights], most recently on Oct. 27. No weapons were found, but one of the two planes that landed in Iraq for inspection was on its way back to Iran after delivering its cargo in Syria.
Adding to the United States’ frustrations, Iran appears to have been tipped off by Iraqi officials as to when inspections would be conducted, American officials say, citing classified reports by American intelligence analysts.
One can only wonder how the situation would have been different if the Obama administration had made a serious effort to continue an American military presence in Iraq post-2011. If a Status of Forces Agreement had been negotiated, Iraqi airspace would now be patrolled by the U.S. Air Force–and the Iranian Quds Force would lose a main route for arming its Syrian allies. Bashar Assad might well have fallen already if that were the case, and thousands of Syrian lives might have been saved.