Better late than never. With President Obama having run and won reelection in part on a boast of having ended the war in Iraq and being in the process of ending the one in Afghanistan, his administration is now sending out signals that it might contemplate greater intervention in the war that has been raging in Syria. A front-page New York Times article reports that various steps are under consideration, from providing Patriot-3 batteries to Turkey to providing arms directly to the rebels and even sending intelligence officers into Syria to coordinate with the opposition. Such steps are long overdue, but now that they are on the table, the administration deserves Republican support for a bipartisan effort to try to bring the killing to an end and to hasten Bashar Assad’s downfall.
Assad’s regime has already lost control of much of the north, including the territory between Aleppo and the Turkish border. It has also lost at least temporary control of various air bases right up to the outskirts of Damascus itself. It will not take much more for the rebels to establish liberated territory which they can administer, and where they can set up bases to train rebel fighters for an eventual push onto Damascus. The major obstacle standing in the way right now is Assad’s air force. Even when Assad loses control of territory, he can strike back effectively by sending out his aircraft to bomb and strafe.
James Monroe had the Monroe Doctrine; Harry Truman had the Truman Doctrine; George W. Bush had the Bush Doctrine; and now, the L.A. Times reports, Barack Obama will have the Costanza Doctrine.
Or at least that’s the best way to understand it. In a season five episode of “Seinfeld,” George Costanza’s character decides his life has been marked by an almost uninterrupted parade of bad decisions, and he must now do the opposite to break the pattern. The L.A. Times tries delicately to couch the Obama administration’s second-term foreign policy agenda in terms of moderation and pragmatism, but voters may, if the report is correct, witness an agenda quite different in tone and substance from what Obama told them he would do if reelected:
There is something that I don’t get about opponents of greater American action in Syria, such as the freelance reporter Benjamin Hall, who was recently in Aleppo. He points out, as other observers have, that the rebels are disorganized and that various factions are often at odds with one another. They don’t have a central, unified leadership. Moreover, the rebel ranks include ”Salafi jihadists” who “talk of slaying the minority Alawites, and [who] call for both the immediate support of America, and its immediate demise. These extremist groups are getting weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar already; they are not groups that the West would choose to arm. Compared with them, it is not clear that Mr. Assad is the bigger foe.” Therefore, Hall recommends not arming the rebels–although he is open to the imposition of a no-fly zone.
Here’s where I don’t follow the logic: Granted, everything he is saying is true–but that is what is happening now, while the U.S. is not arming the rebels and is not imposing a no-fly zone or helping to set up buffer zones for refugees. What makes Hall think that, given the current situation, there is any option of allowing Assad to remain in power and re-impose control? That seems extremely unlikely. What seems more likely, if we continue on the current path, is that the war will continue taking a deadly toll, jihadists will continue to play an ever-bigger role, and chaos will continue to spread across Syria.
How big of a disaster is the Obama administration’s approach to Syria? So big that even reporter David Sanger, who can hardly be accused of being unfriendly to the administration (he has been the recipient of some of its most self-serving leaks), is essentially editorializing disapprovingly on the front page of the New York Times about where this is heading. He writes:
Most of the arms shipped at the behest of Saudi Arabia and Qatar to supply Syrian rebel groups fighting the government of Bashar al-Assad are going to hard-line Islamic jihadists, and not the more secular opposition groups that the West wants to bolster, according to American officials and Middle Eastern diplomats.
That conclusion, of which President Obama and other senior officials are aware from classified assessments of the Syrian conflict that has now claimed more than 25,000 lives, casts into doubt whether the White House’s strategy of minimal and indirect intervention in the Syrian conflict is accomplishing its intended purpose of helping a democratic-minded opposition topple an oppressive government, or is instead sowing the seeds of future insurgencies hostile to the United States.
The second paragraph may be phrased as a question but there is little doubt what Sanger thinks. Pretty much the same thing that most informed observers think. As Jackson Diehl writes in the Washington Post (in an opinion piece that is labeled as such): “His catastrophic mishandling of the revolution in Syria” may well turn out to be “the signal foreign policy disaster for Barack Obama.”
The costs of American inaction in Syria continue to pile up. Not only is a Syria-Turkey war growing more likely, but so is the likelihood of further radicalization among the rebels. That, at any rate, is a warning that is coming from rebel commanders themselves and they should know. The latest evidence is this New York Times article, which paraphrases one rebel leader as follows:
The Syrian people are being radicalized by a combination of a grinding conflict and their belief that they have been abandoned by a watching world.
Retired General Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, has just published an excellent op-ed in The Independent newspaper in the UK. He writes: “A gradual military intervention along the lines of the Libyan model of a Western aerial campaign seems the most effective response to the Syrian crisis.” He then goes on to demolish, one by one, all the arguments against such an intervention, showing that Syria need not become Iraq Redux and that the challenge of Syrian military power can be met handily by the air forces of the West.
His article is all the more interesting given that, until the start of the anti-Assad uprising last year, the consensus in Israeli security circles seemed to be that the West should deal with Assad on the “better the devil you know” principle. When the war against him broke out many Israelis privately took the view that it was in their interest for the fighting to continue indefinitely because a weakened and embattled Assad would not cause much trouble for Israel. Similar arguments were and are popular among Realpolitikers in the West. Even today, many in the West argue for inaction on the grounds that we don’t really know who the Syrian rebels are and that Assad’s ouster could give an opening to radical Islamists to take over.
President Obama was talking tough on Monday when he said that he would consider using force in Syria if Bashar Assad uses chemical weapons against his own people. That’s a good marker to lay down, but the way the president phrased the threat he implicitly gave the Assad regime permission to commit any atrocities short of using chemical weapons safe in the knowledge that the U.S. will do nothing to stop the slaughter.
The hollowness of Obama’s policy has been further exposed in this Washington Post article which quotes Syrian opposition officials complaining that they have not gotten the influx of communications gear promised to them by the president. The provision of computers, laptops, radios, etc., has been the administration’s response to demands that the U.S. provide weapons and other supplies to help overthrow Assad. Turns out our help has been mainly rhetorical so far. The Post reveals: “U.S. officials and Syrian nationals involved in the program said that it is slated to expand in the coming months but that fewer than two dozen laptop computers and satellite modem kits had been distributed so far.”
The Syrian civil war is not only continuing to claim a ghastly toll within Syria, with a continuing regime assault on Aleppo–it is also now sucking Lebanon into the muck too. Shiite clans within Lebanon are kidnapping Syrian rebel fighters who are said to be holding their clansmen prisoners. In retaliation Lebanese Sunnis are threatening to kidnap Lebanese Shiites. Thus Syria’s instability is upsetting the delicate balance of power within Lebanon, raising concerns that, two decades after the end of its bloody civil war, which claimed 100,000 lives, there could be a recurrence of fighting within Lebanon.
This is yet another indictment of the understandable but misguided hands-off policy the U.S. and its allies are following in Syria, where we appear to be content to stand by and let the fighting take its course–much as previous administrations did in the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The terrible consequences of our inaction can be measured not only in regional destabilization but also in a growing vacuum of power within Syria which extremists are trying to fill. Former journalist Bartle Bull, who recently visited Syria, offers this revealing exchange with a rebel commander:
Mohamed said he would happily accept help from Washington. “We need everything.” He is not interested in help from Al Qaeda. Still, America’s refusal to get serious about military aid provides the extremists with their only opening. “I can take Al Qaeda’s money,” another irate commander told me. “Is that what you want me to do?”
It would be a tragedy if this and other rebel commanders were in fact driven into Al Qaeda’s camp by neglect in the West. It does not have to be this way. As Bull writes: “Providing the rebels with as few as 500 Stinger missiles and 1,000 tank-busting R.P.G.-7’s could potentially cut the conflict’s length in half. And grounding Mr. Assad’s air force, keeping his tanks off the roads, and neutralizing his command-and-control would be likely to bring him down within a couple of months.”
I would hesitate to provide sophisticated surface-to-air missiles to the rebels, given the danger that they could wind up in the wrong hands. But we should provide better anti-tank weapons and, in lieu of Stingers, the U.S. and its allies should simply declare a no-fly zone to ground Assad’s air force. As Bull notes, this, along with some targeted air strikes of the kind that NATO mounted in Libya, could hasten Assad’s ouster and speed attempts to reimpose a semblance of authority in Syria. Allowing the conflict to take its course, by contrast, virtually guarantees that it will foment dangerous extremism inside Syria and out.
For more than a year, optimists have been predicting the end of the Assad regime in Syria. Those forecasts have been proven wrong, as the Syrian dictator has not lost his willingness to kill as many people as possible in order to hold on. Nor has he been deprived of the crucial foreign support from Iran, Hezbollah and most importantly, Russia. But today’s news that his prime minister has defected may finally be the signal that the tipping point has been reached in the conflict that has taken the lives of thousands of Syrians. While Bashar al-Assad’s forces still seem full of fight, they have noticeably faltered in their efforts to finish off the opposition or even to keep them out of Damascus and other major cities. No one could credibly accuse someone who had served in this brutal government of having much of a conscience about all the massacres committed in order to preserve Assad’s grip on power, but it may be that Prime Minister Riyad Farid Hijab has read the writing on the wall and understands it is better not to go down with a sinking ship.
Nevertheless, this latest sign that finally President Obama’s forecast about Assad’s demise is coming true is no reason for the administration to celebrate. Obama helped prolong the agony of Syria and the life of Assad’s government by not acting more forcefully to depose him earlier in the struggle. But now that the country is in a state of chaos with Islamists appearing to dominate the opposition forces, the United States is faced with a far more dangerous situation. During the weekend, the New York Times reported that both the State Department and the Pentagon were planning for the post-Assad era in Syria. That’s good, but the problem is it may be too late for the United States to have much influence on the outcome if, as now seems possible, Assad is actually defeated.
Bashar al-Assad increasingly appears on the ropes, unable to contain the violence his brutal regime unleashed. The government’s violence has not been indiscriminate but has sectarian cleansing overtones, as Sunni Arabs are forced from towns and villages which the minority though dominant Alawites hope to make their own.
Behind its rhetoric, the Obama administration hopes the Syria problem will simply resolve itself. If there was any move behind-the-scenes to stop the worst atrocities, this ended the moment a bomb went off in Syria’s national security headquarters. Deep down, the Obama team hopes a coup or an assassin’s bullet will head off the need for any action.
Assad’s fall, however, will mark the end of one chapter and the start of another that could be far bloodier in the region.
What could come next?
The new Johns Hopkins SAIS dean, Vali Nasr, is right to worry, in this New York Times op-ed, about the dangers lurking in a post-Assad Syria, which could turn out to experience a civil war like Lebanon or Iraq did–only with scant hope of outside forces (the Syrian army in Lebanon, the U.S. Army in Iraq) intervening to end the carnage. But he is advocating the height of unrealism when he argues that to prevent the worst, “the United States and its allies must enlist the cooperation of Mr. Assad’s allies — Russia and, especially, Iran — to find a power-sharing arrangement for a post-Assad Syria that all sides can support, however difficult that may be to achieve.”
Iran is the No. 1 backer of the Assad regime. As a Shi’ite state it is closely linked with Assad’s Alawite clan, an offshoot of Shia Islam. But Alawites are only 12 percent or so of the Syrian population. There is scant chance the overwhelmingly Sunni population will stand for the Alawites and their Iranian backers maintaining a significant share of power in a post-Assad state. Nor is this in America’s interest–the biggest upside of the fall of Assad, from our perspective, is that it will deny Iran a foothold in the Levant and hopefully lead to a decrease in support for Hezbollah. The chances of Russia–another backer of the ancient regime–maintaining a significant role in a post-Assad Syria are even more remote.
The situation in Syria seems to get worse by the day. Now the Assad regime is threatening to use chemical weapons against any foreign force intervening in Syria and is actually using fighter aircraft and helicopter gunships to bomb Syria’s second-largest city Aleppo. Bashar al-Assad is clearly growing desperate–his ground forces are not enough to suppress the uprising which has now spread to Damascus and Aleppo, and so he is having to resort to his air force to help.
This creates a fresh vulnerability. Early on in the conflict calls for a no-fly zone were rejected because this would have done little to impair Assad’s operations. Now, with the regime increasingly calling out the air force, a no-fly zone could make a difference tactically. It would also make a huge difference symbolically by showing that the world will not put up with the regime’s murderous misconduct and is prepared to act to stop it. That might well encourage more defections from the ranks of the Syrian armed forces.
The events of recent weeks in Syria have finally made some of the optimistic predictions about the fall of the Assad regime coming out of the Obama administration a bit more believable. The terrorist attack that decapitated the defense establishment as well as the defections of prominent supporters of President Bashar al-Assad has contributed to the idea that his government must soon collapse. The conventional wisdom of the day is that it is only a matter of time until he will be forced out, ase his bloody efforts to eradicate domestic opponents has failed to destroy a movement that began as peaceful protests in the spring of 2011 and has now evolved into an armed and potent insurgency.
But the problem with this faith in his imminent departure is that we’ve been hearing this talk for more than a year and yet the murderous ophthalmologist is still on his throne, albeit with a far shakier hold on it. Even though things look bad for Assad, Americans who assume that he can’t go on killing people in this manner and retain legitimacy don’t understand him or the political culture that created his regime. The variables in Syria are many, but the iron rule of history about despotism remains that tyrants lose power when they lose their taste for shedding blood. Assad’s willingness to commit atrocities seems intact. Just as important, the descent of the country into chaos with fighting in the streets of the capital and thousands of refugees fleeing the country is also putting President Obama’s “lead from behind” strategy into question. Those who assume Assad is doomed believe that by staying out of the maelstrom, the United States will succeed in avoiding responsibility for the Syrian mess. But if Assad has far more staying power than Washington thinks, the result will be even messier than President Obama imagines, and he will bear much of the blame.
My former Pentagon colleague David Schenker points me to this excellent photo essay compiled by Martin Kramer, who provides great commentary as well. Sometimes pictures are worth a thousand words.
Now, many American officials convinced themselves that Bashar al-Assad wasn’t such a bad guy; rather, he was the eminently reasonable Western-educated doctor. They argued ferociously in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the State Department that the problem in U.S.-Syrian relations was simply a lack of dialogue, and that the United States was too shy about doing business with Bashar.
No question, the bombing that killed three top members of the Assad regime has accelerated that regime’s downfall. Now, with reports of fighting in Damascus and of the president’s family being evacuated from the capital, the whole governing clique might be gone far faster than anyone would have predicted even a few days ago.
That might be seen as vindication of the Obama administration’s go-slow approach which has consisted of providing some communications and intelligence support to the rebels—but no arms—all the while hoping against hope that Russia might allow the UN Security Council to endorse a more vigorous intervention. That strategy was dealt another blow yesterday when Russia and China vetoed a resolution piling more sanctions on Syria. But does any of that matter if the Assad regime is doomed to fall soon anyway? I believe it does, because, without greater U.S. involvement now, our ability to shape the post-Assad country will be severely limited and the odds of sheer chaos or an extremist takeover go up.
Reuel Marc Gerecht has a typically perspicacious op-ed in the Wall Street Journal today advocating a stepped-up CIA campaign to oust Bashar al-Assad. He notes: “A coordinated, CIA-led effort to pour anti-tank, anti-aircraft, and anti-personnel weaponry through gaping holes in the regime’s border security wouldn’t be hard.”
Not only would this help to end the bloodshed (estimates are that close to 20,000 people have already been killed), as Gerecht argues, but it would also, as I have previously argued, give the U.S. the ability to shape a post-Assad regime. There is great danger not only in the continuing consequences of all-out civil war in Syria, which could give al-Qaeda and other extremists room to operate, but also great danger in a splintered, chaotic post-Assad environment where the most organized groups could be composed of Sunni fundamentalists backed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar. An active American role now, whether overt or covert, could give us great influence with the rebels and help to avert some of the worst dangers if and when Assad is eventually topped. That is what happened in Libya, and the result is that a secular coalition has won its recent election.
The downfall of dictators is often their stupidity, arrogance, and unbridled aggression. Saddam Hussein might have stayed in power if he had simply admitted not having weapons of mass destruction. Muammar Qaddafi could have survived if he had not made blood-curdling statements about massacring everyone in Benghazi. And Bashar al-Assad would have a greater chance of survival had not his aircraft defenses shot down a Turkish Air Force F-4 yesterday.
It is still unclear exactly what happened, but the result will surely be to increase Turkey’s role—already substantial—in helping the Syrian opposition.
At today’s meeting in Mexico between President Obama and his Russian counterpart, the U.S. leader sought to persuade Vladimir Putin that America had no desire to come between Moscow and its loyal client state Syria. Counting on his personal charm and instinctive belief that a demonstration of his good will toward those who are hostile to the United States will solve most problems, Obama thought he could convince Putin to back off on his support for the murderous Assad regime and join the West in pushing for an end to the slaughter in Syria. But the grim look on the faces of both Obama and Putin after they endured two hours of each other’s company indicates just how badly the American failed.
Obama’s attempt to sweet talk the former KGB agent went about as well as some of his previous efforts to apologize his way into foreign popularity. It’s not just that Putin doesn’t trust Obama — though he obviously doesn’t — but that after three and a half years in power and one failed “reset” later, the U.S. president still doesn’t understand the basic dynamic of Russian attitudes toward the United States. The meeting, the first between the two men, was clearly a dialogue of the deaf. The net result is another humiliation for Obama who not only has failed to do anything about the massacres in Syria but also will now be seen to have tried and failed to get Assad’s patron to abandon him. For his part, Putin has looked Obama in the eye and saw a man determined to kowtow to Moscow, a sign of weakness that Putin could not mistake and will not fail to exploit in the future.
Last year’s Western decision to intervene in Libya prompted some debate, but the scale of the conflict and its fairly swift conclusion limited the debate to some extent. But the growing tally of atrocities and the thousands of casualties in Syria have necessarily amplified the arguments being conducted as both the United States and its European allies continue to stand aside from the fighting there. As the weeks go by and new outrages are reported, it is increasingly clear to even the optimists in the Obama administration that the Assad regime will not go unless they contribute materially–giving him the push. Consequently, the debate among informed observers about the wisdom of intervention is growing in intensity.
Among the loudest of voices opposing intervention is scholar Daniel Pipes, who writes in National Review to urge the West to stay out of the Syrian morass. While acknowledging the arguments that allowing civil strife there to continue might be dangerous, he argues that such a war might actually be in America’s interest so long as the U.S. doesn’t get dragged in. Walter Russell Mead is more equivocal about intervention than Pipes. But Mead writes in his blog at The American Interest that the humanitarian argument to be made on behalf of intervention is weaker than we think. Both make strong arguments, especially Mead, who acknowledges that there are no good answers here. He’s right about that, but the alternative of a long war there or an Assad victory is not an acceptable outcome.
A foreign policy that stands for nothing but easing tensions is yielding some very tense results. As Max notes, Russia is reportedly sending attack helicopters to Syria for Bashar al-Assad to better mow down Syrians. Hillary Clinton responded by describing the development. The shipment “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically,” she said, and registered “concern.”
There are indeed multiple reasons to be concerned—even if you’ve decided that population slaughter is no longer any of America’s business. Vladimir Putin has used the Obama administration’s reset policy as an opportunity to elevate himself and humiliate America before the world. He is positively giddy about his good fortune. When the U.S. approached him to help ease Assad out of power he responded by arming Assad instead. He had three perfectly good reasons for doing this. First, Assad is his client (as this shipment demonstrates). Second, he and Assad are autocrats up against local manifestations of a global anti-autocratic revolt. Squelching such revolt in one place makes it easier to dampen it in the next. Three, going bold in Syria where the United States fears to tread gives him a much-needed boost at home. This is especially true among members of the powerful Russian Orthodox Church who fear an anti-Christian explosion in a post-Assad Syria. Needless to say, Syria is Iran’s closest ally. With additional boosts from Russia and no counter move from the U.S., there’s no reason to think Assad can’t put down the rebellion and survive as the mullahs’ link to the Mediterranean.