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.
Recent developments in Syria and Iraq make clear that President Obama’s foreign policy in the Middle East–a policy of disengagement disguised as “leading from behind”–is in a shambles.
In Iraq, fighting intensifies between the Shiite-dominated armed forces and Sunni tribesmen. The trouble started on Tuesday when security forces attacked Sunni protesters near Kirkuk, killing at least 50 people and wounding more than 100. Sunnis retaliated with attacks on the security forces, who in turn escalated their own attacks on Sunnis, to include using helicopter gunships against Sunni fighters in Sulaiman Bek, a village north of Baghdad. Many Sunnis are now beginning to link their revolt to that of Syrian Sunnis, to suggest that both are fighting Shiite dictators. This may be an exaggeration, but that is the perception Prime Minister Maliki has fostered, unrestrained by American pressure, with his vindictive and foolish attempts to prosecute leading Sunnis.
The Assad regime has been sounding more confident lately, as it has become apparent that many of those fighting to oust the dictator are Islamists. As the New York Times noted in a front page feature today, Western concerns about turning Syria over to radical Muslims with strong connections to terrorism has emboldened Assad’s loyalists to begin pitching the idea that his murderous government is not only the lesser of two evils but a potential ally.
They’re dreaming if they think even Secretary of State John Kerry is foolish enough to buy into such thinking. The Obama administration has committed itself to opposing Assad and it’s not likely anything will deter them from working for his ouster. Nor should it, since for all of the justified worries about the rebels Assad remains an ally of Iran and Hezbollah. Nevertheless, the effort to separate the West from the opposition dovetails with the thinking of some Americans, like scholar Daniel Pipes, who think it probably is in America’s interests to keep the two sides in Syria fighting until exhaustion.
But the announcement today that the United States believes Damascus has used chemical warfare against the opposition ought to put an end to any idea that Assad could gain Western indifference, let alone support. The White House admission confirms the information that has been filtering out of Israel that pointed to the use of these extremely dangerous weapons by a Syrian government that has already slaughtered 70,000 people in the course of their war of survival. The question now is not whether the U.S. will be neutral about the regime’s survival but just how far it will go in order to secure his demise.
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.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees is threatening to end relief operations for Syrian refugees, who currently number 1.3 million and counting, if it doesn’t receive the necessary funds soon. The agency says it has received only a third of the $1 billion it needs through June, and only $400 million of the $1.5 billion donors pledged earlier this year. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has warned explicitly that absent more funds, UNHCR will have to stop distributing food to refugees in Lebanon next month. And Jordan, which has the largest population of Syrian refugees, is threatening to close its borders to new entrants unless more aid is forthcoming urgently.
Meanwhile, another UN agency enjoys comfortable funding of about $1 billion a year to help a very different group of refugees–refugees who generally live in permanent homes rather than flimsy tents in makeshift camps; who have never faced the trauma of flight and dislocation, having lived all their lives in the place where they were born; who often have jobs that provide an income on top of their refugee benefits; and who enjoy regular access to schooling, healthcare and all the other benefits of non-refugee life. In short, these “refugees” are infinitely better off than their Syrian brethren–yet their generous funding continues undisturbed even as Syrian refugees are facing the imminent loss of such basics as food and fresh water. I am talking, of course, about UNRWA.
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.”
In the early days of the revolt against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, it was a little easier to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys. The regime’s massacres of demonstrators and dissidents calling for an end to tyranny made it clear the world’s sympathy should be with the government’s opponents. But the assumption on the part of President Obama and his European allies that the ruthless Assad clan and its Alawite followers would meekly fold up its tents and leave the same way authoritarians in Egypt and Tunisia did was wildly over-optimistic. Since the U.S. rightly knew that Syria was a much tougher nut to crack than the Gaddafi regime in Libya, which they decided to take out as a humanitarian mission, the hope was that Assad would fall in due time, allowing a transition to a less murderous ruler in Damascus.
Unfortunately, Obama’s decision to wait and see was a colossal mistake. Assad and his backers had nowhere to go and showed they were prepared to kill as many people as possible to hang on. Tens of thousands of dead civilians later, something just as troubling has happened as the armed opposition to the regime is now dominated by jihadist forces, some of which are linked to al-Qaeda. Which means the debate about intervention in Syria has become a rather murky subject. But that hasn’t stopped the discussion that was enlivened this week by a couple of suggestions that pretty much covered the spectrum from a stance of dogged do-gooding altruism to dark cynicism.
Senators Marco Rubio and Bob Casey put the former position forward in a Politico op-ed. They want the U.S. to selectively back the least unattractive parts of the Syrian opposition while doing its best to oust the dictator. The latter was the work of scholar Daniel Pipes who wrote in the Washington Times to suggest that it was time to for the United States to think strategically and, astonishingly, back Assad’s bid to stay in power. Which of them is right? I’m not entirely comfortable with either position but if I really had to choose, Rubio and Casey’s proposal seems like the better option.
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.”
President Obama breathed new life into the credibility of the UN Human Rights Council when he reversed the Bush administration’s boycott of the body. He similarly spearheaded a drive to restore U.S. funding to UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization.
The idea that either the Council or UNESCO has credibility or deserves U.S. support has increasingly become risible. The Council has certainly embarrassed itself over the past several years, with members like Cuba, Saudi Arabia, China and Russia taking seats. Perhaps greater things could be expected from UNESCO, however. Alas, the sickness which runs through the United Nations is widespread. At a meeting in Paris earlier this week, UNESCO allowed Syria to preside as a judge over its human rights committee. This is the same Syrian government that has both masterminded the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilians and allegedly deployed chemical weapons against civilians. Nothing better symbolizes the judgment and moral bankruptcy of the United Nations than such a session.
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.
Salih Muslim is the leader of the Democratic Union Party (PYD), the Syrian affiliate of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The U.S. government has long considered the PKK a terrorist group, a designation which Secretary of State John Kerry reinforced in his recent swing through Turkey. He has applied for a visa to enter the United States to take part in consultations with officials in Washington, but the State Department has so far been unresponsive.
Denying the PYD leader a visa makes no sense for five reasons:
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.
The Wall Street Journal reports that the Joint Staff have analyzed for the White House some options for more direct military intervention in Syria, including using Patriot batteries based in Turkey and firing other offshore missiles at Syrian aircraft on the ground, to enforce at least a limited no-fly zone. Predictably, there is little desire for intervention at either the White House or Pentagon and so these options have been dismissed as unfeasible–as have, apparently, more robust options for sending American and allied aircraft to simply enforce a no-fly zone as previously happened in Libya, Iraq, and the Balkans.
A useful counterpoint to this pessimism may be found in this Washington Post op-ed by Scott Cooper, a veteran Marine aviator who actually enforced no-fly zones in Iraq and the Balkans. He writes:
Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of addressing the World Affairs Council of Houston on the question of Turkey. My basic theme was that there has been a transformation in Turkey, and so it is important that U.S. officials recognize that when discussing Turkey as a model. In the question-and-answer session which followed, a young diplomat from the Turkish consulate who was unhappy with both the choice of speaker and the speech pushed back on one part of my talk, in which I suggested that the United States was unhappy with Turkey’s support for the Nusra Front in Syria.
I’ve discussed previously at COMMENTARY both the Nusra Front and its designation as a terrorist group by the U.S. government, as well as Turkey’s willingness to arm the radical Islamist group in the belief that an al-Qaeda affiliate controlling territory in Syria is better for Turkey’s national security than the secular but Kurdish nationalist Democratic Union Party (PYD) doing likewise. When challenged in parliament about Turkish support for Nusra Front, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Turkey’s increasingly shrill foreign minister, castigated negative descriptions of the Nusra Front as the work of “neo-cons and pro-Israelis in America,” his code-word for Jews.
Remember the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Pact–a crowning achievement of the Coolidge administration–which purported to ban the use of war to settle international disputes? Clearly the United Nations doesn’t, because its General Assembly has just approved a treaty just as well-intentioned–and as toothless.
The Arms Trade Treaty is designed to stop the sale of conventional arms to human-rights abusers. It would certainly be nice if, say, Iran and Russia were prohibited from shipping arms to Bashar Assad–to take just one example of many from the immoral, or more accurately, amoral international arms market. But it is hard to see what the Arms Trade Treaty will do to accomplish this end, since, as the New York Times notes, “implementation is years away and there is no specific enforcement mechanism.”
The Wall Street Journal had a long article this weekend on the Obama administration’s decision-making process with regard to Syria. You can read the whole thing here if you have a WSJ.com subscription. My takeaway is that the administration’s deliberations do not inspire much confidence. As Journal reporter Adam Entous notes, the “process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.”
Former CIA Director David Petraeus emerges as the strongest proponent within the administration of arming moderate Syrian rebels. He had the support of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton but she “and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative… as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.” As this passage shows, the president has been the biggest obstacle to a more active role to end the slaughter in Syria. His “Syria strategy is emblematic,” the article notes, “of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman.”
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.