U.S. policy shift in Syria: Will the empire ever strike back?

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The world is a place created to be deficient. Everything constantly needs to be protected and improved with great effort. A garden must be tended to, or it becomes choked with weeds. Streets must be swept clean every day. Do you have an aquarium? Change the water, or you will lose the fish. Fences have to be mended, or they break. Relationships have to be maintained, or they die. According to the second law of thermodynamics, everything we leave to its own will gradually decay. But it is also of great importance to calculate the steps that need to be taken. Sometimes, a stone cast into a lake will trouble the waters. Arming the rebels? Think twice. Because it’s a love me or leave me situation when it comes to Syria. If the opposition isn't going to be given what they really need, it is not favorable to meddle in their situation at all. I would recommend to the U.S. and their allies some Yoda wisdom. “Do or do not do. There is no try.”

When Obama arrived in Washington DC, a man with no military background found himself the Commander-In-Chief of two wars. To surge or not to surge, that was the question. In his desire for further diplomacy, Obama has found a willing accomplice in current Secretary of State John Kerry, at least in his public comments. Even Secretary Kerry has grown frustrated, arguing vigorously in a high-level situation room meeting this past Wednesday for air strikes directly against Syrian regime military targets. It is clear President Obama has been trying to exercise prudence in this matter. He stands in considerable contrast to his predecessor, George W. Bush, who rarely found a war he did not wish to join, if not begin. President Obama’s preferred pace of action is similar to the way an elderly person drives in the slow lane on the expressway. President Bush was a man who would speed down the highway going 150km per hour before looking back and realizing he forgot his car.

The past week’s declaration by President Obama that the Syrian regime has managed to trip over the president’s dotted red line comes as a surprise to some. Assad denied the wrap. Friends of the Syrian regime Hezbollah, Iran, and most notably Russia, declared the evidence to be unconvincing at best. However their statements of denial do not come completely without credibility.

Remember the report from the British Daily Mail from December, 2012, which announced the discovery of a U.S.-endorsed, Qatari-sponsored, plot to place a chemical weapon in Syria, disguised as one similar to those the Assad regime would possess, and blame the subsequent use of this weapon on the Syrian regime. The report arose from a dubious source, a leaked email and of course should be viewed with extreme skepticism. This seemingly outlandish notion might have passed from memory entirely were it not for a statement from a member of the United Nations Commission of Inquiry on Syria, Carla Del Ponte. Ms. Del Ponte claimed in a May 5, 2013 television interview, “Our investigators have been in neighboring countries interviewing victims, doctors and field hospitals and, according to their report of last week which I have seen, there are strong, concrete suspicions but not yet incontrovertible proof of the use of sarin gas, from the way the victims were treated. This was use on the part of the opposition, the rebels, not by the government authorities.” A hacked email is one thing. A statement by a U.N. investigator on the matter, Ms. Del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor on two international criminal law tribunals, is something else entirely. Though this account casts significant doubt on whether or not chemical weapons were used by the Assad regime.

Then came a statement from the vice president of the U.S., Joe Biden. In an interview with a U.S. magazine published on May 9, 2013, he stated, “we don’t have a chain of ownership. We don’t know for certain whether they were used by some of the opposition, including the radicals who have aligned themselves with al-Qaeda. It’s probable, but we don’t know for certain, that they were used by the regime.” In a span of just one month, the U.S. government, in agreement of the assessments of their allies in Britain, France, and Turkey, have gone from a position of apparent uncertainty over the use of chemical weapons in Syria, to a position of complete certainty of knowing who used these weapons, how, and when. This is quite a rapid change in message, even by the standards of regular Washington spin.

I don’t intend to compare one historical event to another, which is entirely unrelated. This U.S. government is different than that of a decade ago. It is however worth mentioning the sources of this sudden verification and certainty concerning the use of chemical weapons in Syria are the U.S. intelligence services. These are the same agencies who sold the world on “certainty” by providing former Secretary of State Colin Powell with the evidence he took to the U.N. Security Council on February 5, 2003 concerning weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. This information was compiled from evidence obtained by sources of dubious repute inside the country in question, reviewed and accredited by the U.S. and British intelligence services, and presented to the world as certain truth in an effort to lead the U.S. and its allies into a war in the Middle East to remove a tyrant. Forgive me for thinking this story is starting to sound familiar. Therefore it comes as no surprise the dossier of U.S. evidence presented to the United Nations this past Friday was found wanting by many, notably the Russians.

For the President Obama, it must now seem extremely ironic to find themselves supplying weapons to those fighting alongside an al-Qaeda affiliate

Ceylan Ozbudak

So it is what it is. President Obama convinced himself that U.S. intervention is now warranted in Syria. However, the main backers of the opposition in terms of military hardware thus far are Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Reports from rebel commanders say Qatar has primarily been supplying the rebels operating in the North of Syria, while Saudi Arabia has primarily backed those fighting in the South. It is estimated Qatar has spent in excess of $3 billion so far in the conflict, with the Saudi sum seemingly not far behind. There is much speculation on why these Gulf nations find the conflict of such eminent importance. Certainly each of these nations, and others in the region including Turkey, Jordan, and Israel who have all supplied aid of various types, each have their own reasons for participating. For some, it might be sectarian or religious affinity. Certainly humanitarian concerns are a primary for many, if not all of these nations. Qatar and Turkey have a unique interest concerning a major natural gas pipeline which was to be built between the two countries, spanning a portion of Syria, that was rejected by the Assad regime in favor of a deal with Iran. Peter Dale Scott elaborates on this aspect of the conflict, in a June, 2003 article for the Asia-Pacific Journal.

For the President Obama, it must now seem extremely ironic to find themselves supplying weapons to those fighting alongside an al-Qaeda affiliate. The world is filled with nothing, if not cruel irony. Yoda once said, “when you look at the dark side, careful you must be. For the dark side looks back.” Haunting words for sure, and words the President might have found resonating in his mind this past week. How quickly the people you are striking down with drones one week can become your allies the next.

One very large question still remains. Can the support of the U.S. even make a difference at this stage? To answer this question, it’s important to understand the specific circumstances the opposition forces find themselves in at the moment. After the loss of the strategic city of Qusayr recently, the opposition finds themselves on the back foot. The influx of Iranian and Hezbollah forces proved decisive in this battle and now the Syrian regime and its allies are moving with a surge of confidence. They have begun to push back against opposition forces in the suburbs of Damascus, begun a significant assault on Homs, and have begun what appears to be a massive and potentially decisive strike against the vital rebel stronghold of Aleppo, near the border with Turkey in the north of the country. Syrian regime forces will surely make an attempt to cut off Aleppo from the supply lines to the north, where supplies flow down from Turkey. Without the ability to resupply themselves, the opposition fighters would at some point be defeated. The opposition forces in Homs are now in even worse shape, with many supply routes already severed and little help in sight. Many military analysts believe Assad's forces should bypass Homs for the moment and focus every available resource toward Aleppo and try to effectively end the war as quickly as possible. With the airlift of 2,000 Hezbollah fighters from the south sent to join the regime combatants near Aleppo, it appears the Syrian regime is intending to take this course of action. It has been reported a Syrian regime general has managed to raise a local militia from the cities of Nubl and Zahra, allegedly several thousand strong. Instead of making a direct assault on Aleppo, which would be foolish strategically, regime forces currently positioned south of the city, including the newly arrived Hezbollah reinforcements and backed by armored divisions and artillery pieces, are likely to try to move northwest and link up with this group of local conscripts, and head further north around Aleppo, in an attempt to sever the supply route from Turkey on the far north side of the city. Heavy fighting has already taken place near Aleppo in recent days, suggesting these very important battles are already underway. The opposition forces are dug in and have so far been able to repel the attacks. For the U.S. and their allies, supplying the opposition positions, especially in Aleppo, and keeping those supply lines open will be of vital importance.

For the newly pledged resources from the Western powers to make any difference, they will have to give the opposition capabilities they do not already possess. President Obama will of course agree to supply their forces with things such as rifles and ammunition. These are seen to have very little chance of increasing the likelihood of a future malicious attack if they fall into the wrong hands, as of course extremist groups already possess weapons such as these. An extremist group without rifles would be little more than a marching band. Saudi Arabia has expressed repeated interest in supplying opposition forces with Mistral-class surface-to-air missiles with the capability to bring down the helicopters and warplanes of the Assad regime. The Saudis would be likely to purchase these from France where they are manufactured, and then have them transported into Syria.

Opposition fighters have been seen in possession of SA-16 anti-aircraft missiles looted from Syrian regime bases, but these supplies are likely exhausted at this point. The last major shipment of heavy arms of this nature into the northern opposition forces has been said to be some of the weapons purchased by Qatar, these from the former Yugoslavia. However, after some of the heavy and more advanced weapons were seen in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra members, Washington demanded these supplies cease. According to the rebels, they have not been resupplied with these weapons for some months now. The Mistral-class missile systems are superior to those the opposition might be in possession of at the moment, but Western allies are fearful they could fall into the hands of terrorist groups who might seek to use them to shoot down commercial airliners, among other types of terror plots, at a later date. Instead it appears Washington has given the go-ahead on the supply of the SA-8 mobile air defense system, to be provided by the Saudis. This system would typically feature 6, 9M33 (or a variant of the same) missiles mounted to a 17.5 ton mobile assault vehicle, including mounted radar systems. Obviously, a system this large poses much less danger of being used later in a terrorist attack situation, as a 17.5 ton vehicle isn't exactly something you can hide in your suitcase or sneak around in. This is likely why it was favored over a MANPAD type of missile system, which would have much more feasible use in a malicious attack, if it were to fall into the wrong hands. It is reported over 300 missiles for this system will soon be delivered.

Opposition forces have also pleaded for anti-tank missiles and reports suggest the Saudis have been given the green light to supply these as well, reportedly Russian-made Konkurs, an older type of wire-guided anti-tank missile system, which can be ground or vehicle mounted. These missiles are believed to already be in use in the fighting around Aleppo going on now.

This additional assistance, therefore, can certainly make a real difference for the opposition forces. Anti-tank missiles will likely be able to slow or halt the forward progress of the hundreds of Soviet-made tanks the Syrian regime possesses. And certainly the SA-8 has proven to be an effective air defense system against the type of aircraft the Syrian regime uses. But the Assad regime still possesses superior weaponry, armor, artillery pieces, and aircraft, as well as greater numbers of fighters. It is simply too much to ask lightly armed opposition fighters with no armored units or air power to depend on to defeat a force of that nature, especially as it has been supplied with recent reinforcements from Hezbollah and Iran. Defending an entrenched position in and around urban areas with a nearby supply line is one thing, but to be able to move out of these entrenched positions within Aleppo and Homs and march to Damascus and win the war requires other capabilities entirely. If President Obama is serious about helping the opposition win this fight, it’s obvious the use of air power is a required element in this effort.

If President Obama isn’t willing to commit to the kind of mission necessary to resolve the conflict, it’s reasonable to ask why he has chosen to embroil himself in this conflict in the first place

Ceylan Ozbudak

Although a no-fly zone, whether in some section of Syria, or throughout the entire nation, has been championed by many to be a magic cure for what ails the opposition forces, recent history suggests otherwise. The regime of Saddam Hussein was able to commit a wide variety of atrocities in Iraq even though the US and its allies had imposed a no-fly zone over nearly 2/3 of the nation for several years. And although a no-fly zone was imposed over Libya during the revolt against the Qaddafi regime, it did little to turn the tide of battle in the favor of rebels there. It was only when direct strikes were made about the military components of that regime did the tide turn. Although a no-fly zone in Syria would certainly give the opposition fighters a chance to regroup and resupply, it would in no way help them to push past what is right now a superior fighting force possessed by the Syrian regime and its cohorts, overcome superior artillery and armored units, and force Bashar al-Assad and his regime from power in Damascus. This scenario is only possible if direct strikes are made against the military assets of the regime by the American-aligned allies, as was the case in Libya, and as Secretary of State Kerry was advocating for last week.

If President Obama isn’t willing to commit to the kind of mission necessary to resolve the conflict, it’s reasonable to ask why he has chosen to embroil himself in this conflict in the first place. According to a recent NBC/WSJ poll, only 15% of Americans favor military action in Syria. Fortunately for President Obama, he is in his last term, so he has the luxury of going against public opinion on issues he believes to be of great importance. Even Roosevelt defied the U.S. public opinion and went to war against Hitler. It was the right thing to do.

Along with Secretary of State Kerry and Russian government officials, the President has stated his ultimate goal is for a diplomatic solution to the standoff. It is reasonable to believe a diplomatic deal can rarely be made when a conflict becomes as unbalanced as this one is now. The winning side sees no need for negotiation, as they believe they will achieve the result they wish for on the battlefield. The losing side believes any deal struck now will be negative, so they often choose to keep fighting. Thus, the most productive negotiations usually result from a situation where two sides are on an equal footing and sit down to work out a compromise. Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Kerry have repeatedly endorsed the idea of a Geneva II convention to settle the matter there. However, no date has been set for this convention and at the moment, it seems neither side involved in the conflict is interested in attending. It appears likely the Loch Ness Monster will be spotted before the diplomats are able to convene their imagined convention.

As each day passes, more and more allies line up against Assad, or as in the recent case of Egypt, run away from him. Hamas has also encouraged Hezbollah to withdraw their forces and maintain their focus on battling Israel. Also, with Iran now singing a song of reconciliation with the West after their latest election, how long can Assad expect them to leave troops in his nation to antagonize the Western powers they hope to now reach accord with? It appears erosion will eventually wear down the Syrian regime. So then, what is the likely scenario for the “Day After Assad” and those days to come soon thereafter?

Finding the balance

Syria will find its political balance sooner or later after Assad since the people of Syria are only hoping to get this fight over with. Then we get to the phase of rebuilding the Middle East, not only Syria, which will give America the credibility she lost there in the last decade. It’s no secret that the ghosts of Iraq and Afghanistan are still diminishing the credibility of the U.S. in the region right now. New talks with the Taliban are said to begin this week. But all the actions the U.S. was previously reluctant to take made the U.S. an unreliable ally. Again, it’s no secret that the U.S. intends to turn her face to the Far East and pull back from her involvement in Middle Eastern matters. That is partly because the US tried to transform the region according to their understanding of liberal democracy and its Jeffersonian understanding to the Muslim countries. This region devoured empires before the U.S. and it defied the U.S. too. Like the 13 page letter the Pakistani General Pervez Kayani gave to President Obama in 2010 during a visit to the White House said, “stop your grandiose plans and let’s get practical, sit down, and discuss how you will leave and what is the end state we can both live with?” So on its way out, if the U.S. wants to leave at least a fairly decent legacy in the Middle East, it has to contribute to the people of the Middle East in a way that reflects the region’s desires. So far, President Obama got his higher marks from the American public on his foreign policy. This was often because he never made strategic decisions against the American public opinion. But the downside to this strategy is that to the allies of the U.S., these maneuvers turned out to have a negative impact. The people of the Middle East deserve their stability, their own free trade, a free travel environment like the European Union employs, but based on their warm morality, which comes from the morality of normative Islam. Therefore, if President Obama helps the people of Middle East build their own unity, he will score a tremendous amount of points with the people here. He will make sure these countries will be able to establish their own monetary funds and won’t be dependent on Western help during their transition to democracy.

When humans are being mercilessly slaughtered, those who can act, must. When the cause for intervention is just, can the mightiest military in the history of mankind have any more noble or useful purpose than the defense of humanity itself? All human life is as valuable as an American life. I can think of no better rationale for intervention than to save those who are unable to save themselves, from a brutality they did not invite, from an evil they did not appoint, and from an ending they do not deserve. Just because we may not accomplish everything, doesn’t mean we should not try to accomplish something. Although I would prefer for regional nations to be able to handle their own affairs and solve their own problems in a way specific to their cultures, the might and experience of America makes it an indispensable nation in resolving global conflicts.

This decision required the American president to summon the courage of his convictions and apply it to the problems of his day. There is indeed a time to walk, but there also a time to run. Syrian people have shown great courage and ample amounts of bold action. I look forward in to see if the U.S. and their allies in the international community can act with equal conviction and help the people of Syria find a path to the liberty they seek.


Ceylan Ozbudak is a Turkish political analyst, television presenter, and executive director of Building Bridges, an Istanbul-based NGO. She can be followed on Twitter via @ceylanozbudak

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