US President Barack Obama’s decision to step up America’s involvement in the Syrian war has come hardly as a surprise.
The Atlantic media, especially newspapers like the Financial Times1 and The Wall Street Journal, had reported the news as if some major policy shift occurred in Washington. Some reports had even gone into details reconstructing the events that led President Obama to change his earlier decision “to stay out of Syria”2 . This was largely in line with the administration’s rhetoric that the president was against the United States getting involved the bloody civil war in which militants (mainly Sunni Islamists) are fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. But the fact is that the US has very much been involved in Syria ever since the civil war broke out. The Obama administration has so far given $650 million in non-military aid to the Syrian opposition. The New Yorker reported in May that Washington was also providing limited military support secretly to the rebels. Moreover, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “is training a small number of Syrians to train other rebels and is also passing intelligence to the rebels against Assad” 3 . What Obama decided in early June was not to interfere in the Syrian civil war, but to escalate America’s intervention. And the decision comes against the backdrop of steady gains the Syrian government made in the civil war in recent times.
On June 14, The White House announced that the US has decided to send weapons to the rebels. The Next day, Reuters news agency ran a story saying Washington was considering “a limited no-fly zone” over Syria, though a decision on this was not imminent 4 . The Obama administration also said its surface-to-air missiles and F16 fighter jets, which were taking part in a military exercise in Jordan, codenamed Eager Lion, would remain there once the drills were concluded, fuelling speculations that the no-fly zone talk was serious 5 What triggered this escalation, according to administration officials, was Syria’s “crossing of the redline”. The White House says the Assad regime has used nerve gas against its opponents, an accusation both Damascus and its allies, including Russia, deny. Not even the United Nations is ready to endorse Obama’s claim.6 Though a UN panel said it examined four reported toxic attacks in Syria, it could not determine which side was behind them. The Syrian government accuses the rebels of using chemical weapons. Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar calls the chemical weapons claim a “fairy tale” 7 .
The real reason behind Obama’s decision lies beyond the so-called redlines. The Washinton Post had reported that the decision to send more weapons to the rebels was taken weeks ago and the “chemical weapons finding” provided fresh justification to act 8 . According to the Post, Obama ordered officials in late April to begin planning what weaponry to send and how to deliver it after Syrian government forces, with the help of Hezbollah and Iranian militias, began to turn the war in Assad’s favor after rebel gains during the winter. A victory of Assad in Syria’s civil war is a victory for Iran in the region and the United States and its Sunni Arab allies could not just accept it.
The Hezbollah factor
On May 25, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, declared that the Syrian war is “our war”.9 Though there were early reports of the powerful Lebanese Shiite group sending fighters to Syria to fight along with the government troops against the rebels, it was the first time Nasrallah publicly said Hezbollah had joined the war. With the announcement, it was certain that Hezbollah could send more of its seasoned fighters to Syria. It was a shocker for the Atlantic capitals, not just because many of them deem Hezbollah as a terrorist organisation, but also because of the threat that Hezbollah could alter the balance of the Syrian civil war. The West’s response was rather quick. Three days later, the European Union lifted its embargo on supplying weapons to the rebels so that it can now legally send weapons to the anti-Assad troops 10
It has been one of the key demands of General Salim Idriss, the former Syrian general who defected last year and became the chief of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group being backed by the Gulf-Atlantic axis.
But what followed was the biggest setback for the rebels in recent times. The regime’s recapture of Qusayr, a strategically important town close to the Lebanese border, has fuelled debates that Assad is winning the civil war 11 Rebels in Qusayr were getting weapons from their benefactors in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Also, Qusayr was an important transit point for Iranian weapons and money flowing to Hezbollah. It’s located between Damascus and Homs, Syria’s third largest city, and offers the regime connectivity to Syria’s Western cost, where the Tartus and Latakiya ports are located. Russia has a naval station at Tartus, its only naval base outside the former Soviet region. Victory in Qusair seems to have bolstered the regime’s confidence and it immediately shifted the focus of fighting to Aleppo, the northern city, which has been a rebel stronghold for months. On June 4, Lebanese paper The Daily Star reported that over 4,000 Hezbollah fighters had already reached Aleppo 12
According to the US-based Institute for the Study of War, the regime has sent troops to the Minnakh Airbase, which is close to Aleppo, to break through the rebel siege 13
If it is able to break the siege, it could push south to consolidate its control of the Turkey-Aleppo highway, which is critical to opposition resupply, and then pound the rebel stronghold with the help of Hezbollah.
It was these advances made by the regime that forced General Idriss to issue a desperate plea for weapons from Western governments. In a detailed request, sent to Western capitals ahead of Obama’s cabinet meetings starting July 11, in which he discussed the Syria proposals, the rebel commander sought “anti-tank missiles, anti-aircraft weapons and hundreds of thousands of ammunition rounds” 14 Obama did not disappoint him altogether. On June 14, the White House decided to end its pretentions that it was reluctant to join the Syrian war and announced that the president had decided to send weapons to the rebels 14 Obama’s deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes, the same guy who called the Libyan invasion a "kinetic military action", told the world the American intelligence community believed the "Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times over the last year". The same intelligence community that told the world Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein was a threat to the world peace before the American-led invasion of that nation in 2003.
Obama’s Carter moment
There was a serious belief in the 1970s that the US was in decline. The oil crisis of 1973 hit its economy and tested the limits of American power. Interest rates were almost 15 percent. Inflation was 10 percent, as was unemployment. It lost the Vietnam war. The Iranian revolution of 1979 decimated America’s “twin pillar” policy in the Middle East and the subsequent hostage crisis in Tehran humiliated it. When Soviet Union sent troops to Afghanistan in 1979, President Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski found it as an opportunity not just for making the Soviets bleed in Central Asia but also for charting a new course for the revival of the American power. President Carter agreed to the Brzezinski plan, and ordered the CIA and the special operations unit of the military to arm and train Mujahideen militants, who would wage a guerilla war against the Soviet troops. Brzezinski prepared a detailed plan for a three-way alliance. Saudi Arabia, rattled by the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, agreed to provide money and personnel to the anti-Soviet guerilla movement, while America’s long-time ally Pakistan, terrified of being trapped between a Soviet-occupied Afghanistan and India, allowed training camps to be set up on its land. The US would provide training, coordination and strategic intelligence. The plan was a short-term success as the Soviets had to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan. But in the long term, the American strategy did not only plunge Afghanistan into an irreversible crisis, but also unleashed a chain of dangerous events on which it had no control.
Today’s Syria is not the Afghanistan of late 1970s. But the broader contexts of the American involvement in these two countries have similarities. Like the 1970s, there is a deep, widespread perception that America is in decline. Its war on terror has reached nowhere. It has accepted, though indirectly, defeat in Afghanistan and is now preparing to pull troops out of the country after 12 years of deadly occupation. Its invasion of Iraq has killed tens of thousands of people, rekindled sectarian conflicts, strengthened a wide variety of Islamists. The Shiite rulers in Iraq are now in good ties with Iran, America’s rival in West Asia. Its plans to scuttle the Iranian influence did not succeed. Despite the Atlantic efforts to inflict economic damages on the Islamic Republic and isolate it in the world, Iran now has control over a “corridor of influence, stretching from Tehran through Bagdad, Damascus and Beirut to Maroun al-Ras, a hilltop town on Lebanon’s southern border that offers a commanding view of northern Israel” 16. If Carter saw an opportunity in the Afghanistan of 1979 to contain the rising influence of Soviet Union, Obama sees an opportunity in today’s Syria to effect a strategic setback to Iran, as well as Russia. If America could form a three-way alliance against Soviet Union and Afghan communists then, an informal umbrella coalition, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and the Atlantic capitals, is already at work against Assad and his allies. The stage is set. The goals are fixed. The smokescreens are ready. What Obama has to do is to take the lead.
The ‘weapons for peace programme’
President Carter was defeated in 1980 elections. But his Afghan plan survived. Ronald Regan intensified American involvement in anti-Soviet Jihad, so as Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. Still, it took 10 years of bloodshed and destruction to force the Soviet Union to retreat from Afghanistan in 1989. Even after the Red Army’s retreat, contrary to initial strategic forecasting, Mohammad Najibullah’s communist government in Kabul held firm, sustained by a flow of food and ammunition from Moscow 17 The defeat of the Mujahideen fighters in Jalalabad was hailed as a strategic victory for the regime, which flipped the balance in the balance in the battlefield. It was after the fall of the Soviet Union in late 1991, the Najibullah government started losing the momentum. With their supplies running out, soldiers defected en masse. On April 17, 1992, Najibullah sought refuge in the United Nations compound in Kabul and then the country imploded The Syrian situation is more complicated. The Assad regime appears weaker now, but is far from being overthrown. At least four major factors make it difficult to bring about a quick transition in today’s Syriax 18 Firstly, the rebels have failed to gather enough political capital to lead a non-violent mass upsurge against the regime as in Tunisia and Egypt. The regime, notwithstanding its brutalities, still has the support of a substantial chunk of the population. Secondly, barring some isolated defection cases, the Syrian army largely remains loyal to President Assad. Thirdly, Syria’s opposition is still a fragmented lot. Lastly, despite the vigorous attempts of the umbrella coalition to isolate President Assad, he still has strong support of both Iran and Russia, and Hezbollah fighters are on the ground, ready to take on any challenge.
It’s to this Syria, Obama is sending more weapons. Though White House hasn’t announced the details of Obama’s “weapons for peace” plan, it’s highly likely that lethal weapons will be sent to the rebels through General Idriss, whom The Washington Post called “America’s man in Syria” 19 General Idriss and his team have long been lobbying for a no-fly zone (euphemism for aerial bombing) for Syria. But Obama is unlikely to take a quick decision on the proposal as he still doesn’t appear to have a credible plan to get out of Syria “once the job is done”. Also, the US would not get the UN mandate for any such plan as long as Vladimir Putin remains the Russian president. And if Washington goes on its own (the George Bush way), it risks being entangled in another prolonged conflict in West Asia. Russia has already supplied S-300 missiles to Syria and could send more weapons in the wake of an American intervention. Besides, the allies of the United States in this conflict are extremely sectarian Sunni monarchies with very little interest in democracy. So, any conflagration in the crisis will have its regional implications as well.
So the plan is to let Syria bleed for years and deny (or delay?) Iran a strategic victory. Lethal weapons could be followed up by setting up training camps in Jordan to recruit rebels to the Free Syrian Army. Even if the Assad regime recaptured all major towns and cities, the civil war could prolong, provided the rebels are getting outside support. It will destroy Syria and leave its people in endless suffering. But that’s what geopolitical wars do to battlefield nations. If Obama is really concerned about the humanitarian situation in Syria, as what he claimed at the G8 summit in Northern Ireland in June, he should have launched a diplomatic invasion, restrained his Arab allies from fostering the civil war and coordinated with the Russians to find a ceasefire. But who’s interested in peace in today’s Syria?
Dr Stanly Johny can be contacted at [email protected]
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