Obama’s ‘best bad choice’ in Syria
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.
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