At the beginning of the Syrian civil war, many of Bashar Assad’s longtime allies were wary of openly supporting a discredited dictator who was slaughtering his own people. Hamas, which had long maintained a headquarters in Damascus, quietly sulked out of town. Hezbollah, which is tied by an umbilical cord of supplies to Damascus, kept its distance too. But with the Assad regime showing signs of hanging on after more than two years of combat, Hezbollah, and its patrons in Iran, have been more open in their support for the regime. Hundreds of Hezbollah fighters are now fighting alongside Syrian troops in the critical battle for the town of Qusayr near the major city of Homs. Dozens of “martyrs” are coming home to Lebanon in body bags.
By thus raising the stakes in Syria, Hezbollah is leaving itself open to serious blowback. Its credibility in Lebanon has always depended on its posture as an anti-Israel force; its prestige soared when it chased the IDF out of southern Lebanon in 2000 and when it stood up to Israeli attacks in 2006. But now in Syria, Hezbollah fighters are battling not the “accursed” Jews but fellow Muslims who are determined to rid their country of an unelected and unpopular leader.
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.
Last week John Kerry went to Moscow to persuade the Russians to play nice with the rest of the international community on Syria. While he would have liked to have them join in the effort to force the Assad regime out of office, his hope was to at least get the authoritarian regime of Vladimir Putin to not further strengthen their Syrian client. The only bone Putin was prepared to throw Kerry was backing a proposal to hold a peace conference on Syria next month. But within a few days, the Russian contempt for the Obama administration and its new secretary of state was made all too clear with the news that they were shipping advanced missiles to Damascus that would be perfectly suited to threaten any Western ships or bases in the region that might resupply the Syrian rebels or enforce a no-fly zone in the country. In other words, the Russians demonstrated that when it comes to Syria, they have more in common with Iran and Hezbollah than the United States.
This ought to have been understood to be a sobering development for the administration that calls into question not just Kerry’s competence but a strategy that envisions leveraging a reset of relations with Russia into progress on Syria as well as dealing with the Iranian nuclear threat. But as the New York Times reports, Kerry is undaunted by the evidence of his failure and is instead concentrating on making friends with Russian Foreign Affairs Minister Sergei Lavrov. The result is, as the Times says, a “change in tone” in the relations between the two countries even if it has not actually advanced American interests.
While there is a case to be made for diplomats keeping the lines of communication open, what recent events have shown is that Kerry is not so much keeping the Russians informed of American positions as he has signaled to them that the U.S. is ready to bow to Moscow’s will. The news that, as the Times makes clear, the Russians are well pleased with Kerry ought to set off alarms in Washington.
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).
No one is seriously proposing sending large numbers of U.S. ground forces to Syria (military options are generally limited to the use of airpower and the provision of arms and training to the rebels), but it’s still dismaying to hear General Ray Odierno, the army chief of staff, warn that we will soon lose the ability to send troops even if the president wanted to. Odierno just told reporters, as quoted by Foreign Policy:
“Readiness is OK right now, but it’s degrading significantly because our training is reducing. So, the next three, four months, we probably have the capability to do it,” he said, of a Syrian incursion. “Next year, it becomes a little bit more risky.”
“If you ask me today, we have forces that can go. I think it will change over time because the longer we go cancelling training and reducing our training, the readiness levels go down.”
The Obama administration’s ostentatious display of indecision over the threat of chemical weapons use in Syria will only be exacerbated by the report of Sarin gas use by the opponents of the Assad regime. But as Emanuele Ottolenghi noted earlier today, the notion that the dictator has lost control of all of Syria’s weapons of mass destruction should make it all the more imperative that the president’s Hamlet act about treating the “red line” he set for the country end as soon as possible. But the Israeli attacks on Hezbollah and possible chemical targets in Syria have again made it clear that for all the scurrilous talk from conspiracy theorists and anti-Semites who promote the Walt-Mearsheimer “Israel Lobby” theory about the pro-Israel tail wagging the American dog, it is once again Israel that is doing America’s dirty work in the Middle East.
It is true, as Alon Pinkas writes in today’s Haaretz, that the Israeli strikes on Syrian targets are likely not directly related to the question of the use of chemical weapons. Israel’s interests in the Syrian conflict are immediate and tactical rather than strategic, meaning that it is far more concerned with the transfer of Iranian weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon than the ultimate fate of the regime. However, far from dragging the United States into the conflict, as Israel-haters were alleging after Israeli sources confirmed the use of chemical weapons, it is the armed forces of the Jewish state that are playing a vital role in keeping a lid on the conflict. While Israel has no desire to become embroiled in a Syrian civil war between factions that likely share only their hate for the Jews, its ability to interdict the regime’s efforts to transfer its weapons to a fellow ally of Iran is giving Obama time to continue to make up his mind.
While the debate continues on the administration’s apparent slip of tongue that is causing some much confusion about President Obama’s Syria policy or rather, lack thereof, the UN has now weighed in on the sarin attacks. And the response, while still tentative and requiring further confirmation, is bound to muddy the waters even further.
Carla Del Ponte, a member of the UN Independent Commission of Enquiry on Syria, has pointed an accusing finger at the opposition for the use of sarin gas. In an interview she gave to Swiss-Italian TV yesterday, Ms. Del Ponte indicated that evidence suggests the much-reported-on sarin gas attacks were launched by Syrian rebel forces, not by the regime.
On May 2, Lawrence Wilkerson, a close confidant of Colin Powell who served as chief-of-staff during Powell’s tenure as secretary of state, raised eyebrows when he told Current TV that reports of Syrian chemical weapons use might have been Israeli “false flag operations.” His pronouncement—which was part speculation and part sourced to his friends in the intelligence community—was quickly picked up and rebroadcast as fact by such outlets as Iran’s Press TV and Hezbollah’s Al-Manar.
As the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) points out, this is hardly the first time Wilkerson has made bizarre accusations, but CAMERA does not go far enough. Wilkerson acted as a definitive source for any number of stories throughout the Bush administration until now. As Powell’s chief-of-staff, journalists accepted his pabulum uncritically, never asking whether Wilkerson was at meetings for which he purported to offer first-hand accounts. The fact is that chiefs-of-staff do not go to meetings; they manage offices. Many of those whom Wilkerson pretends to have had conversations with say they never met him.
Well, now we know why he needs a teleprompter.
The New York Times reports this morning, in its lead story (with a two-column head, yet) that, “Confronted with evidence that chemical weapons have been used in Syria, President Obama finds himself in a geopolitical box, his credibility at stake with frustratingly few good options.” Late last summer, as the Times explains:
In a frenetic series of meetings, the White House devised a 48-hour plan to deter President Bashar al-Assad of Syria by using intermediaries like Russia and Iran to send a message that one official summarized as, “Are you crazy?” But when Mr. Obama emerged to issue the public version of the warning, he went further than many aides realized he would.
Moving or using large quantities of chemical weapons would cross a “red line” and “change my calculus,” the president declared in response to a question at a news conference, to the surprise of some of the advisers who had attended the weekend meetings and wondered where the “red line” came from. With such an evocative phrase, the president had defined his policy in a way some advisers wish they could take back.
If you listen to the Pentagon and the White House, there is no viable military option in Syria—even American air strikes supposedly would be too dangerous because of Bashar Assad’s anti-aircraft defenses. The Israeli Air Force doesn’t seem to have gotten the memo, however.
For at least the second time since January, Israel attacked a target in Syria, hitting a warehouse in Damascus on Friday that apparently stored advanced Fateh-110 missiles shipped from Iran and intended for Hezbollah. In late January, Israel similarly struck SA-17 anti-aircraft weapons intended for Hezbollah. There are so-far unconfirmed reports of yet another Israeli air strike in Damascus on Sunday morning.
Israel is doing what it must to defend itself—to prevent Hezbollah from taking advantage of the current conflict to further enhance its already formidable arsenal of weapons aimed at Israel. Its neighbors know that Israel is a serious country that acts when threatened. Not so with the U.S. that has announced a “red line” over the use of chemical weapons in Syria but refuses to act even when that line has been crossed. Instead, administration officials are leaking word that the “red line” phrase was an off-the-cuff mistake by the president.
The Washington Post has a story up today gently knocking Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for being less than enthusiastic about the resurgence of the Arab Peace Initiative. The Arab plan is slightly improved from its past iterations, but to understand why Netanyahu is so cautious about embracing the plan as an outline for negotiations, the Post story should be read in tandem with Jeffrey Goldberg’s incisive and spot-on portrait of the Qatari government in his latest Bloomberg column.
The setting for the column is a Brookings Institution event to honor Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani. Brookings is, along with Hamas and other sordid outfits in whose company Brookings does not belong, funded by the Qatari government. Goldberg makes plain his discomfort with this. As I wrote in January, Qatar has been playing every side of the Middle East’s various conflicts, most often as a nuisance to American objectives. Goldberg’s whole column is worth reading, but this particular gem sticks out with regard to the Arab peace plan:
Ryan Crocker is quite simply the best diplomat of his generation, and not a person given to hyperbole, so when he writes that recent events in Iraq “are reminiscent of those that led to virtual civil war in 2006 and resulted in the need for a surge in U.S. troop levels, a new strategy and very heavy fighting”–then attention must be paid.
He is alarmed, and rightly so, by the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Iraq and its affiliate in Syria, the al-Nusrah Front. He notes: “These developments threaten not only to unravel the gains made since 2007, but also to energize the forces of violent extremism in the heart of the Arab world, already burning in Syria.”
In essence, he is sketching out the dire consequences of President Obama’s failure to keep U.S. troops in Iraq past 2011, although he is too diplomatic to come out and say so.
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.