It all seems so odd when viewed with a perspective beyond today or even yesterday’s headline: President Obama committed to some sort of limited military response because of the chemical warfare attack killing at least 1,000 Syrians, when over 100,000 have died in a war he could have ended in much easier circumstances a year and a half ago but failed to do so.
The honor of the American President is what is at stake, not entering and ending a war that has caused the death and displacement of so many.Abdallah Schleifer
The ingredients for a humanitarian intervention were all there. Bashar al-Assad’s security forces had repeatedly fired at unarmed demonstrators who had taken up arms with defecting soldiers. There was only a modest presence of radical Islamists involved in the insurgency at that moment. Foreign Salifi-jihadis were not yet streaming into Syria and no one was thinking much about al-Qaeda. But Obama deferred out of concern that the weaponry the rebels wanted from America to fight off tanks and aircraft might “fall into the wrong hands.”
There was already a sectarian dimension to the struggle, but only in the statistical sense that those serving in command of the elite units of the Syrian army were from al-Assad’s Alawite community and the center of the rebellion shifted quickly to the poor rural Sunni areas which felt deprived if not oppressed by the regime. Sectarian massacres initiated by a brutal Alawite militia, were still relatively rare. All of this has changed, predictably for the worse: a case of self-fulfilling prophecy.
Then why now? It would appear that this sudden stiffening of Obama’s spine, is purely for personal credibility. Obama warned more than a year ago that using chemical weapons was a red line. In a widely disputed version al-Assad decided to cross that red line. (Disputed because just-leaked German Intelligence intercepts of Syrian communication appear to indicate, as did the American intercepts leaked two weeks ago, that the Syrian Army launched the attack, but without al-Assad’s knowledge or consent). The honor of the American President is what is at stake, not entering and ending a war that has caused the death and displacement of so many.
There are three options. The Obama option is the least viable: “A very concentrated limited effort…not an extended air campaign. It is not…Libya,” according to one of Obama’s spokesmen. The almost self-indulgent nature of this option is so embarrassingly apparent that spokesmen in Washington now suggest there is strategic wisdom to such a limited intervention. Obama wants to weaken al-Assad enough so he will opt for the negotiating table, but not so much to dramatically alter the military conflict and lead to a victory by a rebel force that has increasingly become a haven for Salifi-jihadis and al-Qaeda affiliates.
But why would he? Even the most modest negotiated end of the civil war: reconciling elements of the Baath party and the rebels would involve the departure of al-Assad (and his well-placed, extended family, commanding elite units of the armed forces) from power.
The Syrian army, with help from Hezbollah, seized the military initiative and recovered significant territory from the rebels in the weeks leading up to the chemical warfare episode. And if the intervention is, as promised, such a limited and concentrated operation, there is no reason why the Syrian army would not be able to resume its successful offensive after a limited intervention.
What to do
Here are the two far more concise options:
The first option is a Libya-style intervention with the obvious intent to help the rebels defeat the regime. This would include a no-fly zone that will require knocking out the Syrian Air Force, airfields, anti-aircraft weaponry and taking out the devastating artillery responsible for the death of most of the Syrian civilians. At the same time, American-funded arming and empowerment (presumably with money as well as arms) of secular-minded or moderate Islamist forces within the Free Syrian Army that will, with sudden access to funds, arms and trainers turn the tide. In theory, this could work. And conceivably, Obama’s own “option one” could morph into this logical option.
In practice, given the repeated failure of American interventions largely due to ineptitude, (even when apparently successful like Afghanistan at the time of Russian occupation, the campaign that drove Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but not out of power and most recently in Libya) it is doubtful that American forces have the capacity to do this with both discernment and decisiveness.
This option could mean a heavily supported rebel force would triumph but it is also quite possibly a Salafi-jihadi or even al-Qaeda dominated rebel force would benefit. This is not the rebel force America and most of the world would want to see setting up to rule in Damascus.
So the only other viable option (option three) is no intervention at all; the al- Assad regime holds on and eventually triumphs over the rebels, as it appeared to be doing on the eve of the puzzling chemical warfare attack.
Last week I was again in Amman to cover the gathering of all of the Christian patriarchs, or their deputies and bishops of the Levant. This was a gathering courageously called by Jordan’s King Abdallah II to hear horrendous accounts from these prelates, much of it off the record, of what is happening to Arab Christians in the region where Islamist forces have taken up arms.
These accounts of a vicious Islamist-driven sectarianism are matched by once supportive Sunni Muslim opinion in Jordan and Egypt that is now starting to whisper: “better al-Assad than al-Qaeda.”
Abdallah Schleifer is Professor Emeritus of Journalism at the American University in Cairo, where he founded and served as first director of the Kamal Adham Center for Television Journalism. He also founded and served as Senior Editor of the journal Transnational Broadcasting Studies, now known as Arab Media & Society. Before joining the AUC faculty Schleifer served for nine years as NBC News Cairo bureau chief and Middle East producer- reporter; as Middle East correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut and as a special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman. After retiring from teaching at AUC Schleifer served for little more than a year as Al Arabiya's Washington D.C. bureau chief. He is associated with the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C. as an Adjunct Scholar. He was executive producer of the award winning documentary "Control Room" and the 100 episode Reality- TV documentary “Sleepless in Gaza...and Jerusalem.”