Obama’s ‘best bad choice’ in Syria

June 14, 2013

Damaged buildings and debris in Deir al-Zor, June 13, 2013.Picture taken June 13, 2013. REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi

UPDATE: The final passage of this piece criticizes the “Shia fundamentalists who are holding Iran’s staged elections.” Early results from Tehran suggest that reformist candidate Hassan Rohani has achieved a stunning victory. Iran’s green movement, which was crushed in 2009, is apparently alive and well.  The country’s conservative clerics are apparently unwilling to steal another election and risk another round of protests. The results reinforce the point at the end of the piece: we focus too much on the region’s fundamentalists and too little on its moderates.

Syria, of course,  is not Iran. A peaceful protest movement has devolved into a sectarian civil war. Gen. Selim Idris, the Free Syrian Army commander who is receiving American small arms, is a moderate who taught at the Syrian Army’s Academy of Military Engineering for twenty years.  Arming Idris now may be too little, too late. But as I argued in this February 2012 piece, the US should have supported moderate members of the Syrian opposition far sooner.

Posted on Saturday, June 15, 2013 at 9:20am.

For the last two years, there has been bitter debate in Washington over what the United States should do in Syria. Beneath the surface, though, there has been broad agreement on what should not happen: President Bashar al-Assad crushing the rebels, remaining in power and handing Tehran a strategic victory that boosts its influence across the region.

President Barack Obama’s decision to send small arms and ammunition to Syria’s rebels is a basic first step toward slowing Assad’s advance and Tehran’s rise. Fears of another Iraq are understandable. So is criticism that gradual assistance is too little too late. But along with the humanitarian argument for assistance there is a growing strategic justification for the United States to act.

As the conflict destabilizes surrounding countries, sending limited military assistance to the rebels is the best of several bad choices in Syria.

Over the last several months, vast military assistance from Iran and Hezbollah has accelerated the killing and shifted the military balance in Assad’s favor. The outright defeat of the rebels would inflame Shiite-Sunni tensions across the Middle East, tilt the regional balance of power toward Tehran and weaken America’s Arab allies.

“If Iran wins this conflict and the Syrian regime survives, Iran’s interventionist policy will become wider,” Mustafa Alani, director of security and terrorism studies at the Dubai-based Gulf Research Council, told the Washington Post. “Its credibility will be enhanced.”

In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s all-out support for Assad is fueling growing rage among Sunnis. In Iraq, Shiite-Sunni tensions are soaring as well. Saudi Arabia’s leading religious authority recently urged Sunnis to fight in Syria. So did Al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Frustrated longtime American allies in the region privately describe the administration’s response to the conflict as feckless. Jordan and Saudi Arabia recently cut the United States out of a new rebel training program, the New York Times reported. The United Arab Emirates refused to host a meeting of regional defense officials to discuss how to help Syria’s rebels. They said that without strong American leadership the gathering would descend into bickering.

Obama’s decision to arm the Syrian opposition changes that dynamic. But the White House should move cautiously. It should  resist calls to deploy U.S. ground troops or create safe havens and no-fly zones. Instead, it should first see if General Selim Idris, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army, can deliver on his promise to build more effective rebel units and decrease the role of jihadist fighters.

American military aid should be limited, escalated gradually and used as a lever to increase the chances of a diplomatic settlement. If Idris makes headway, his forces should also receive sophisticated anti-tank weapons. Anti-aircraft missiles, however, should remain off the table. The risk of jihadists obtaining them is too high.

If Idris fails to make headway, Washington should decrease its support. Syria’s rebels – not American troops — must change the military balance on the ground. If the opposition remains divided and dominated by jihadists, the United States should accept that it cannot succeed without an effective partner on the ground.

For understandable reasons, any American involvement in Syria is hugely unpopular in the United States. The overwhelming sentiment is  “stay out,” in the wake of Iraq and Afghanistan. But let’s be honest. Fears of a terrorist attack in the United States, as well as Washington’s close alliance with Israel, enmesh us deeply in the region.

In an effort to block sophisticated weapons from falling into the hands of jihadists, Washington has restricted the type of arms provided to the opposition by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, according to rebel leaders. They said that the United States blocked the delivery of anti-tank weapons from Saudi Arabia after videos appeared in March showing militants using them.

The United States’ should maintain its alliance with Israel. But we are kidding ourselves if we think $3 billion in annual aid to Israel, combined with sweeping diplomatic support makes us “neutral” in the Middle East. From ending Iran’s nuclear program, to countering Hezbollah, to billions in annual U.S. aid to Egypt as mandated by the Camp David agreement, the United States is – and should be – deeply engaged in securing Israel.

It may be too late to stop the centrifugal forces in Syria. Supplying small arms and ammunition to the opposition may make no difference. Sectarianism may consume the region.  The powerful dynamics unleashed by the Arab Spring are still playing out.

But viewing every situation as another Iraq is not productive. The United States’ options go beyond doing nothing in Syria or launching an American-led ground invasion. Arming one side in a conflict can help produce a diplomatic settlement. In Bosnia, sweeping gains on the ground by Croatian forces armed by the CIA brought the Serbs to the bargaining table, not simply NATO air strikes.

Crudely speaking, three forces are in play across the Middle East. Sunni jihadists, who are bent on forcibly implementing hardline Islamic law; Shia fundamentalists, who are holding Iran’s staged elections, and a broad, inchoate group of moderates who embrace modernity, individual rights and basic democracy.

We focus too much on the fundamentalists and too little on the moderates. As I’ve written before, the United States should view these moderates as allies, listen to them and aid them where possible.

Responding to the pleas of moderate Syrian commanders for weaponry is one small step in that direction. Now, the rebels must unify. Yes, they are outgunned. But their fractiousness has weakened them as well.

Ideals aside, if Washington stands by as Assad, Hezbollah and Iran crush the rebels, it will embolden Tehran. Arming the rebels may be too little, too late. But for strategic, not simply humanitarian reasons, Obama should attempt it.


PHOTO (Insert): Animal carcasses lie on the ground, killed by what residents said was a chemical weapon attack on Tuesday, in Khan al-Assal area near the northern city of Aleppo, March 23, 2013. REUTERS/George Ourfalian


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David Rhodes is an Isreali Lobbyist bent on gettiing the US involved in wars to benefit Isreal. Mr. Rhodes, send your own children to die for Isreal. I for one am sick of it.

And honestly, who would you rather have, an enemy that is rational (the Shiites), or friends that will bite the hand that feeds them (the wahhabi’s).

The US is the worlds biggest sponser of state terrorism, from Apartheid Isreal to Wahhabi and truely fundamentalist Saudi Arabia. Instead of creating another Afghanistan, lets be real and realize that Isreal and Al-Qaeda are the real enemies that need to be neutralized.

Posted by KyleDexter | Report as abusive

Let’s be honest shall we? The U.S. military industrial complex needs another war in the waiting while the latest investment (Afghanistan)winds down. Got to keep the shareholders happy you know!

Posted by changeling | Report as abusive

I don’t know why anyone would think supplying arms would either be effective or the right thing to do. All that will happen is that it will cause more death and destruction. They should be targeting Assad individually. See http://rationalexaminer.com for how these issues should be sorted in a more ethical and strategic manner.

Posted by Rod007 | Report as abusive

America has effectively been pushed out of the Middle East & North Africa and have no policy of how to get back!….since the bombing in Beirut in 1983 they have been pushed back one step at a time and now are only in the little city states in Persian Gulf and in Saudi Arabia, Oman and Jordan and are rightly worried that Saudi Arabia might blow up (and it no doubt would!),…rest of these countries they have vacated and Iran is a major cause of this retreat, so defeating Iran is a key issue but they don’t know how to do this and if so what next? …..Even Turkey is getting more religious and that is generally sad and despite these protests the religious guys will win and dominate….The situation is so bad that Qatar (same population as Berlin!) is put forward as a front for many US initiatives.

US has no popular support among the people of the Middle East mainly due to uncontrolled and uncritical support of Israel.

In short I don’t wish to loose hope but am not terribly optimistic of US presence or ability to take a sensible position….The West has been giving arms to the rebels anyway otherwise they would not have been able to pull down aircraft and do much else. Americans tried to impose a prime minister on Syrian opposition so your remedy has been tried and failed as it was rejected by the ones who do the real fighting, namely those religious groups who do not like the US.

We shall see if the West shows any sense in trying to play along with this softer side of the Iranian society…historically they have not and don’t care for anything but IMMEDIATE interests as in the long term no one is in office! There is no US policy of note as to how to come to terms with the new “independent” Iran and your counterpart in the FT, Gideon Rachman rightly points out that: The west’s dominance of the Middle East is ending.

Posted by McTavish | Report as abusive

The true fight in this picture is Israel’s battle to disarm all other governments in the region. The Obushma Administration has been generally effective, toward that end.

However, Syria and Iran are the most critical powers to defeat. Israel’s traditional proxy force (USA) is out of steam; Israel may have to take care of its own problems, for a change.

Now, Obama is exposed as an incompetent leader; and impotent, as well. With Obama negotiating with the Taliban, for peace in Afghanistan, America is quickly losing face with the entire world.

Obama has enough domestic problems top keep him busy for the rest of his term. With the mid-term elections approaching, Obama is under a nasty political spotlight. Syria needs to be handed back to the Israelis.

Posted by SKYDRIFTER | Report as abusive