Obama’s failure to develop a coherent strategy left the field open for Putin.
Aleppo is a symbol of American weakness
Men inspect the damage after an airstrike on the rebel-held Qaterji neighborhood of Aleppo, Syria. (Abdalrhman Ismail/Reuters)
By Richard Cohen Opinion writer September 26
In April of 1937, the war planes of Nazi Germany and fascist Italy chose a market day to bomb a Basque town, one of the first times a civilian population was deliberately targeted. Pablo Picasso, a native of Spain, quickly reacted by depicting the horror in his famous mural named for the town, “Guernica.” It was finished by June. If he were alive today, he might want to paint one called “Aleppo.” It should be mounted outside the White House.
Aleppo is not some quaint market town. It is — or was — Syria’s major city, an ancient trading center, a cosmopolitan stop for many a camel caravan. It is now being leveled by incessant bombings, the occasional use of chemical weapons, barrel bombs and, recently, bunker-busters that entomb the wounded. Even ambulances and rescue workers have been targeted. Aleppo, like Guernica before it, is where the world is learning a lesson it seems always to forget.
President Obama tells every interviewer that he’s anguished over Syria, but that is scant compensation to the victims, and it has not moved the Russians or the Syrian government to halt their bombing. Secretary of State John F. Kerry, like some hapless suitor offering wilted flowers, has been appealing to Vladimir Putin’s wholly imaginary better angels. Putin takes the flowers and then bombs some more. Unlike Obama, he knows what he wants. He wants to win.
This is not Kerry’s failure. It is Obama’s. He takes overweening pride in being the anti-George W. Bush. Obama is the president who did not get us into any nonessential wars of the Iraq variety. The consequences for Syria have been dire — perhaps 500,000 dead, 7 million internal refugees, with millions more surging toward Europe like a tsunami of the desperate.
European politics has been upended — Germany’s Angela Merkel is in trouble, Britain has bolted from the European Union, and Hungary and Poland are embracing their shameful pasts — but there is yet another casualty of this war, the once-universal perception that the United States would never abide the slaughter of innocents on this scale. Yet, we have. Obama has proclaimed doing nothing as doing something — lives saved, a quagmire avoided. But doing nothing is not nothing. It is a policy of its own, in this case allowing the creation of a true axis of evil: a gleeful, high-kicking chorus line of Russia, Iran and Bashar al-Assad’s Syria. They stomp on everything in their path.
Aleppo then is like Guernica, a place of carnage. It’s also a symbol of American weakness. The same Putin who mucks around in Syria has filched U.S. emails and barged into the U.S. election. He has kept Crimea and a hunk of Ukraine and may decide tomorrow that the Baltics, once Soviet, need liberating from liberation. He long ago sized up Obama: all brain, no muscle.
All over the world, U.S. power is dismissed. The Philippine president, a volcanic vulgarian, called the president a “son of a whore” and, instead of doing an update of sending in the fleet, Obama canceled a meeting. China constructs synthetic islands in the Pacific Ocean, claiming shipping lanes that no one should own, and every once in a while a U.S. warship cruises close — but not too close. We pretend to have made a point. The Chinese wave and continue building. The North Koreans are developing a nuclear missile to reach Rodeo Drive, and God only knows what the Iranians are up to deep in their tunnels.
Does all this stem from Uncle Sam’s bended knee in Syria? Who knows? But U.S. reluctance to act has almost certainly given others resolve. There was never any need for the United States to put boots on the ground — that has been Obama’s straw man, a totally fatuous excuse for inaction. A no-fly zone over Syria, just like the one George H.W. Bush imposed on Iraq to stop Saddam Hussein’s slaughter of the Kurds, would have saved countless lives. An Assad without an air force and his killer copters might now be Dr. Assad, the London eye doctor he once was. The Russians would have likely stayed out of Syria, and the Iranians and their chums, Hezbollah, would still be minding their own business instead of propping up this revolting regime.
The “Guernica” mural once seen is not forgotten — the anguished faces, the twisted bodies, the hideous deformities of violent death. Now we have the photo of the Syrian boy in an ambulance, iridescent red, powdered with the dust of gone buildings, staring vacantly at a world where, for him, there are no adults. Once again, little is being done. Once again, worse will follow.
Kenneth Pollack and Barbara Walter describe the administration’s basic approach, which sees all existing fighting forces as inadequate in some way. “The United States is building a new Syrian opposition army. That army is meant to be apolitical, nonsectarian, and highly integrated,” they write in the Washington Quarterly. “When it is ready, it will . . . conquer (liberate) and hold territory against both the Assad regime and the various Sunni jihadist groups. . . . The result would be an inclusive new government with extensive protections for all minority groups.” It would be one thing to have believed that this was possible 15 years ago. But after the experiences in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Yemen, this is fantasy, not foreign policy.
…If Obama’s goal is a peaceful, stable, multi-sectarian democracy, then it requires a vast U.S. commitment on the scale of the Iraq war. If not, Washington has to accept reality and make some hard decisions. The two big ones are whether to stop opposing Assad and whether to accept that Syria is going to be partitioned.
Obama’s Syrian Nightmare
SEPT. 10, 2015
Syria will be the biggest blot on the Obama presidency, a debacle of staggering proportions. For more than four years now, the war has festered. A country has been destroyed, four million Syrians are refugees, Islamic State has moved into the vacuum and President Bashar al-Assad still drops barrel bombs whose shrapnel and chlorine rip women and children to shreds.
For a long time, those who fled waited in the neighborhood. They wanted to go home. They filled camps in Turkey and Jordan and Lebanon. When it became clear even to them that “home” no longer existed, nothing could stop them in their desperate flight toward the perceived security of Europe. The refugee crisis is the chronicle of a disaster foretold.
The refugees do not care what “Christian” Europe thinks. They are beyond caring about Europe’s hang-ups or illusions. They want their children to live. In their homeland, more than 200,000 people have been killed. Statistics numb, but less so when you know the dead. This evisceration of a state is a consequence of many things, among them Western inaction.
Every weekday, get thought-provoking commentary from Op-Ed columnists, The Times editorial board and contributing writers from around the world.
American interventionism can have terrible consequences, as the Iraq war has demonstrated. But American non-interventionism can be equally devastating, as Syria illustrates. Not doing something is no less of a decision than doing it. The pendulum swings endlessly between interventionism and retrenchment because the United States is hard-wired to the notion that it can make the world a better place. Looking inward for long is a non-option for a nation that is also a universal idea. Every major conflict poses the question of how far America should get involved.
President Obama has tried to claw back American overreach after the wars without victory in Afghanistan and Iraq. He has responded to a mood of national weariness with foreign adventure (although Americans have not been very happy with Obama’s pivot to prudence). He has tried better to align American power with what is, in his perception, America’s limited ability to make a difference on its own at a time of growing interdependence. One definition of the Obama doctrine came from the president last year when he declared: “It avoids errors. You hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.” Or, more succinctly, “Don’t do stupid stuff.”
But that’s not enough, as Syria demonstrates. President Obama has important foreign policy achievements, including breakthrough agreements with Iran and Cuba that took courage and persistence. (How those breakthroughs will play out remains to be seen, but they constitute a victory over sterile confrontation.) Elsewhere, however, he has undersold American power. In Syria and Libya he has washed his hands of conflicts that the United States could not turn its back on. Such negligence comes back to bite America, as its experience in Afghanistan since the 1980s has shown. Nobody loves a vacuum like a jihadi. And nobody likes American wobbliness like Vladimir Putin.
In 2011, Obama said, “The time has come for President Assad to step aside.” At that time, as events have shown, the president had no policy in place to achieve that objective and no will to forge such a policy. His words were of a grave irresponsibility.
In 2013, with France poised to join the United States in military strikes on Syria, Obama walked away at the last minute from upholding his “red line” on the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons. In so doing, he reinforced Assad, reinforced Putin, declined to change the course of the Syrian war, and diminished America’s word in the world — setbacks of far greater significance than ridding Syria of chemical weapons. This was a mistake.
At multiple stages, if Obama could have mustered the will, the belief in American power, there were options. The Syrian aircraft dropping those barrel bombs could have been taken out. A safe area for refugees might have been created. Arming the rebels early and massively might have changed the course of the war. Counterfactuals, of course, don’t carry much weight. We will never know. We only know the facts of the Syrian nightmare now seeping, in various forms, into the West. Syria, broken, will be the rift that keeps on giving.
In Libya, Obama bombed and abandoned. In Afghanistan, Obama surged and retreated. In Syria, Obama talked and wavered. He has been comfortable with the pinpoint use of force — the killing of Osama bin Laden for example — but uncomfortable with American military power.
Syria is the question the Obama doctrine must answer if it is not to be deemed modest to the point of meaninglessness.
From the start, President Obama’s Syria policy has foundered because of a gap between words and deeds. And he’s done it again. Having declared that the aim of U.S. policy is to “degrade and ultimately destroy” the Islamic State, Obama now finds himself pressured to escalate military action in Syria. This is a path destined for failure. In fact, the administration should abandon its lofty rhetoric and make clear that it is focused on a strategy against the Islamic State that is actually achievable: containment.
Escalation in Syria cannot meet American objectives and is almost certain to produce chaos and unintended consequences. The central reality is that Washington has no serious local partners on the ground. It is important to understand that the Free Syrian Army doesn’t actually exist. A Congressional Research Service report points out that the name does not refer to any “organized command and control structure with national reach.” The director of national intelligence has testified that the opposition to the Bashar al-Assad regime is composed of 1,500 separate militias. We call a bunch of these militias — which are anti-Assad and also anti-Islamist (we hope) — the Free Syrian Army.
Scholar Joshua Landis — whose blog Syria Comment is an essential source — estimates that the Assad regime controls about half of Syrian territory, though much more of the population. The Islamic State controls about one-third of the country, and the other militias control a little less than 20 percent. But the largest and most effective of these non-Islamic State groups are al-Qaeda-affiliated and also deadly enemies of the United States. The non-jihadi groups collectively control less than 5 percent of Syria. Landis writes that, according to opposition leaders, Washington is supporting about 75 of these groups.
A U.S. strategy of escalating airstrikes in Syria — even if coupled with ground forces — would wish that the weakest and most disorganized forces in the country somehow become the strongest, first defeating the Islamic State, then the Assad regime, all while fighting off Jabhat al-Nusra and Khorasan. The chance that all this will happen is remote. Far more likely, heavy bombings in Syria will produce chaos and instability on the ground, further destroying Syria and promoting the free-for-all in which jihadi groups thrive.
Critics are sure this policy would have been easy three years ago, when the opposition to Assad was more secular and democratic. This is a fantasy. It’s true that the demonstrations against the Assad regime in the initial months seemed to be carried out by more secular and liberal people. This was also true in Libya and Egypt. But over time, more organized, passionate and religious forces triumphed. This is a familiar pattern in revolutions — including the French, Russian and Iranian. They are begun by liberals and taken over by radicals.
For any strategy to work in Syria, it needs both a military and a political component. The military element is weak. The political one is nonexistent.
The crucial, underlying reason for the violence in Iraq and Syria is a Sunni revolt against governments in Baghdad and Damascus that they view as hostile, apostate regimes. That revolt, in turn, has been fueled by Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, each supporting its own favorite Sunni groups, which has only added to the complexity. On the other side, Iran has supported the Shiite and Alawite regimes, ensuring that this sectarian struggle is also regional.
The political solution, presumably, is some kind of power-sharing arrangement in those two capitals. But this is not something that the United States can engineer in Syria. It tried in Iraq, but despite 170,000 troops, tens of billions of dollars and David Petraeus’s skillful leadership, the deals Petraeus brokered started unraveling within months of his departure, well before American troops had left. This is not a part of the world where power-sharing and pluralism have worked — with the exception of Lebanon, and that happened after a bloody 15-year civil war in which one out of every 20 people in the country was slaughtered.
The only strategy against the Islamic State that has any chance of working is containment — bolstering the neighbors (who are threatened far more than the United States) that are willing to fight militarily and politically. They include, most importantly, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and the Gulf states. The greatest challenge is to get the Iraqi government to make serious concessions to Sunnis so that they are recruited into the fight, something that has not happened so far. All of this should be coupled with counterterrorism, which means strikes at key Islamic State targets, as well as measures to track foreign fighters, stop their movements, intercept their funds, and protect the neighbors and the West from a jihadi infiltration spilling over.
The Obama administration is pursuing many elements of this strategy. It should be forthright about its objectives and abandon its grander rhetoric, which is setting itself up for escalation and failure.
Obama’s failure to act on Syria
By Richard Cohen, Published: February 17
The Obama doctrine in Syria does not seem to be working. The country has fallen apart. Matters have gone from bad to worse. The secretary of state suggests that things are so bad Barack Obama has asked for “options.” Three years into the war and the president wants a plan.
In all probability, Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian dictator, is not cowed by Obama threatening options. He continues to bomb his own people — barrel bombs, cluster bombs — and starve recalcitrant cities and regions into submission. The death toll has been hideous and Obama would like to do something about it, but he cannot until the options are drawn up, which they have not been. So the people must starve until, possibly, a caravan of options arrives.
“He has asked all of us to think about various options that may or may not exist,” John Kerry said while in Beijing.
One can only imagine the profound effect this has had in Damascus, where Assad’s inner circle must be spending sleepless nights wondering about options that “may not exist.” Is this like the tooth fairy or maybe a new type of ray gun? Whatever it is, all over the Middle East, the toughest men imaginable — guys in sunglasses and Brioni suits — must be giggling. Options that “may not exist” has the sound of Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in the “Wizard of Oz”: “Put ’em up. Put ’ em up.”
For Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations mediator for Syria, this may come too late. He has failed to end the civil war if only because Assad won’t. (Assad even seized the assets of the opposition’s negotiators while they were in Geneva and declared some of those negotiators to be terrorists.) Brahimi thought, as few leaders do, of actual Syrians. “I am very, very sorry, and I apologize to the Syrian people,” he movingly said.
Brahimi had done his best, but without the threat of force or sanctions or something to make Assad hurt, there was no way that the Syrian dictator would make peace. He is winning the ugly war in the ugliest fashion, and the Obama administration, among others, has stopped predicting that he will be gone in a fortnight, or whatever they say in Chicago.
Assad has already survived Obama’s dreaded red line, the very mention of which forced him to lie about removing his chemical weapons as soon as possible. And then Obama, having used the incredible might of the United States to force Assad into a prevarication, turned to Congress for authorization. This must have induced feverish vertigo in Assad. Congress ? That tornado of babbling Babbitry — surely this was a trap of some kind. Why was the United States allowing mass murder to continue — more than 140,000 estimated deaths at last count, up from 120,000 in the fall? Why such impotence as Assad bulldozes whole neighborhoods, tortures with impunity and summarily executes the innocent as well as the guilty? Why, indeed?
Lebanon totters. Jordan drowns in refugees. Iraq has descended into ethnic chaos and its border with Syria is a mere rest stop for Islamic radicals. A thug in Damascus does pretty much as he wants, providing a stellar example to bad guys the world over: Do whatever it takes. Nobody cares.
Six million people have been displaced. Three million have fled to neighboring countries. Polio has broken out in refugee camps (see a recent account in the New York Review of Books). The world does little to stop the fighting. The United States does next to nothing. Children die for lack of food or medicine. There is more than enough shame here to go around.
Next month will mark the third anniversary of the Syrian civil war. A timely U.S. intervention that could have — no guarantees here — ended things early was ruled out by the president. Not even incremental steps to aid the moderate opposition (some cash or the grounding of helicopters that make war on civilians) have been taken. The left and the right embrace each other in the fervor of isolationism, confusing a humanitarian intervention with efforts by 19th-century Yanquis to make Central America safe for the United Fruit Co. America has not turned inward; it has turned downward — its head in the ground.
Washington’s dawdling has become the hallmark of Obama’s foreign policy. He can make all the speeches he wants, but his confusion and indecision is what other leaders notice and what history will remember. Now, so very late, he has asked for options. Here’s one: Do something!
Russia’s plan for Syria’s chemical weapons is likely to fail
It’s a clever piece of opportunism, but Moscow’s approach is out of touch with reality
President Putin has seized his opportunity to make the most of the West’s hesitation Photo: AP
By Con Coughlin
8:19PM BST 10 Sep 2013
At last, leaders of the world’s major powers have found some common ground about how to deal with Syria’s bloody civil war. After two years of fruitless and often acrimonious exchanges at the United Nations, the five permanent Security Council members now appear to be in agreement that the best course of action is to place Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons under international supervision.
It says something about the dramatic shift taking place in the global balance of power that this groundbreaking proposal should have emanated from Moscow, rather than Washington, London or Paris. Since the end of the Cold War, the UN agenda has been dominated by the major Western powers, with Russia and China obliged to play a secondary role.
But that was before President Obama formulated the novel approach of responding to international crises by leading from behind, whereby America’s role became that of an interested onlooker. So it should come as no surprise that, with Mr Obama floundering over his threat to launch military action against Syria, it should fall to Moscow to devise a neat diplomatic solution that suits the pro- and anti-Assad lobbies alike.
For when it comes to weapons of mass destruction, no one will defend their use on the battlefields of the 21st century. Even Iran, which has issues of its own regarding illegal arms programmes, is backing the disarmament of its most important ally.
There will be many who argue that, given Russia’s obstructive approach to the many previous attempts to find common ground at the UN, it was high time the Russians came up with a positive proposition, even if it was a piece of diplomatic opportunism inspired by an off-the-cuff remark made by John Kerry, the US Secretary of State, at a press briefing in London.
When Mr Kerry mockingly suggested that the easiest way for the Assad regime to avoid American air strikes would be to surrender Syria’s extensive stockpiles of chemical weapons to international control, he had little inkling that a few hours later his remark would have been turned into a major policy initiative by his Russian rivals.
No doubt the main intention of Sergei Lavrov, Mr Kerry’s opposite number in Moscow, when he announced the plan, was to embarrass the White House just at the moment that Mr Obama was preparing to use all his political capital in Washington to persuade Congress to back his plan to attack the Assad regime.
But if the Russian proposal should be seen as nothing more than an exercise designed to unsettle Mr Obama, that does not mean it is entirely without merit. On the contrary, if any argument is likely to convince sceptical public opinion on both sides of the Atlantic of the need for military intervention, it is the threat posed to our own security by chemical arsenals held by a rogue state such as Syria.
One of the reasons the West has struggled during the past two years to come to grips with the Syrian conflict is that it has failed to identify, let alone articulate, its primary strategic objectives, whether it is setting out its vision for post-Assad Syria or assessing the impact regime change in Damascus would have on staunch allies of the dictator’s clan, such as Iran.
Ridding an unstable country such as Syria of its stockpile of chemicals is another argument that could and should have been used by politicians in London and Washington to persuade citizens to support intervention. For all the controversies that have raged over the past decade on issues like Iraq and Iran’s nuclear programme, a broad consensus remains that extremist terrorist organisations such as al-Qaeda must be prevented from acquiring WMD at all costs.
Islamist fanatics make no secret of their desire to acquire weapons that are capable of inflicting carnage in the West, and it is known that radical groups fighting in Syria such as the al-Nusra Front have made attempts to acquire the estimated 500-1,000 tons of chemical weapons the Assad regime has stored at secret facilities around the country.
The prospect that lethal agents, such as those used in the devastating attack on Damascus last month, killing hundreds of civilians, might fall into the hands of al-Qaeda and its affiliates is a compelling argument in favour of supporting the Russian initiative, irrespective of Moscow’s motives for putting it forward.
The only drawback with this otherwise responsible approach to limiting the effects of the Syrian crisis on the rest of the region is that, as with so many UN schemes, it is completely out of touch with reality. For a start, not even the Russians, with their favoured-nation status in Damascus, will be able to guarantee the safety of any teams of UN inspectors sent to dismantle the weapons stockpiles.
Nor do we have any assurances that Assad will not indulge in the same delaying tactics that the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein used in the Nineties to prevent inspection teams from making a full assessment of his WMD capabilities. Saddam’s intransigence led to the controversial military invasion that secured his overthrow, but little else. Given Assad’s confrontational approach to the West during the past two years, there is no reason to believe this Ba’athist dictatorship will act any differently. In which case, Mr Obama will not find it any easier to avoid the clamour for the White House to take decisive action.
How Russia saw a chance with its Syria plan
Mikhail Klimentyev/AP – A 2006 photo shows Russian President Vladimir Putin with Syria’s Bashar Assad. Politicians and analysts in Russia say the country has genuine reasons to step in at this moment and try to broker a deal that would forestall Western intervention.
Several previous international missions during the Syrian conflict have been notable failures, partly because the Assad government refused to grant access to sensitive sites and partly because spiraling violence put the foreign teams at risk.
During the Syrian crisis, the Obama administration has generally waged a war of words and then used those words casually and clumsily. President Obama declared that Assad “must go” when his departure seemed inevitable — without a strategy, or even the intention, to achieve this goal when it became difficult. He drew a chemical-weapons “red line” that became a well-trodden thoroughfare. The Obama administration revealed details of an imminent military operation, which was promptly repudiated by the parliament of our closest ally, then abruptly postponed. The administration seemed to indicate that United Nations support for a military strike was needed — before declaring it unnecessary. It seemed to indicate that a congressional endorsement was superfluous — just before staking everything on securing it.
Although Mr. Obama has asserted that he has the authority to order the strike on Syria even if Congress says no, White House aides consider that almost unthinkable. As a practical matter, it would leave him more isolated than ever and seemingly in defiance of the public’s will at home. As a political matter, it would almost surely set off an effort in the House to impeach him, which even if it went nowhere could be distracting and draining.
The Obama Doctrine — look the other way
Obama, of course, has been asked about his policy. The answer he provided the New Republic recently is troubling: “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” The statement is disingenuous, suggesting that the inability to do everything excuses the unwillingness to do anything. It also prompts the question of why he militarily intervened in Libya, the Congo civil war notwithstanding.
Dithering While Damascus Burns
…In both practical and moral terms, no one’s interests will be served by a chaotic collapse of the Syrian state, the empowerment of violent extremist groups with ties to Al Qaeda and the sectarian reprisals that could follow Mr. Assad’s fall. America must therefore prepare to make new investments and commitments to avoid an even deeper catastrophe.
American leadership, including providing arms and training to moderate rebels, are likely to be the only things that can tip the balance, help end the bloodshed and halt brewing threats to us and our allies.
Yet the Obama administration has been indecisive, neither fully “in” nor “out,” as radicals and militants are rapidly becoming a more influential force inside Syria. Furthermore, if allegations of Syria’s use of chemical weapons — a “red line” that Mr. Obama has said Syria must not cross — prove true, it will force the White House and Congress to decide about expanding our involvement there.
A war the Pentagon doesn’t want
By Robert H. Scales, Published: September 5
Robert H. Scales, a retired Army major general, is a former commandant of the U.S. Army War College.
The tapes tell the tale. Go back and look at images of our nation’s most senior soldier, Gen. Martin Dempsey, and his body language during Tuesday’s Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearings on Syria. It’s pretty obvious that Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, doesn’t want this war. As Secretary of State John Kerry’s thundering voice and arm-waving redounded in rage against Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities, Dempsey was largely (and respectfully) silent.
Dempsey’s unspoken words reflect the opinions of most serving military leaders. By no means do I profess to speak on behalf of all of our men and women in uniform. But I can justifiably share the sentiments of those inside the Pentagon and elsewhere who write the plans and develop strategies for fighting our wars. After personal exchanges with dozens of active and retired soldiers in recent days, I feel confident that what follows represents the overwhelming opinion of serving professionals who have been intimate witnesses to the unfolding events that will lead the United States into its next war.
They are embarrassed to be associated with the amateurism of the Obama administration’s attempts to craft a plan that makes strategic sense. None of the White House staff has any experience in war or understands it. So far, at least, this path to war violates every principle of war, including the element of surprise, achieving mass and having a clearly defined and obtainable objective.
They are repelled by the hypocrisy of a media blitz that warns against the return of Hitlerism but privately acknowledges that the motive for risking American lives is our “responsibility to protect” the world’s innocents. Prospective U.S. action in Syria is not about threats to American security. The U.S. military’s civilian masters privately are proud that they are motivated by guilt over slaughters in Rwanda, Sudan and Kosovo and not by any systemic threat to our country.
They are outraged by the fact that what may happen is an act of war and a willingness to risk American lives to make up for a slip of the tongue about “red lines.” These acts would be for retribution and to restore the reputation of a president. Our serving professionals make the point that killing more Syrians won’t deter Iranian resolve to confront us. The Iranians have already gotten the message.
Our people lament our loneliness. Our senior soldiers take pride in their past commitments to fight alongside allies and within coalitions that shared our strategic goals. This war, however, will be ours alone.
They are tired of wannabe soldiers who remain enamored of the lure of bloodless machine warfare. “Look,” one told me, “if you want to end this decisively, send in the troops and let them defeat the Syrian army. If the nation doesn’t think Syria is worth serious commitment, then leave them alone.” But they also warn that Syria is not Libya or Serbia. Perhaps the United States has become too used to fighting third-rate armies. As the Israelis learned in 1973, the Syrians are tough and mean-spirited killers with nothing to lose.
Our military members understand and take seriously their oath to defend the constitutional authority of their civilian masters. They understand that the United States is the only liberal democracy that has never been ruled by its military. But today’s soldiers know war and resent civilian policymakers who want the military to fight a war that neither they nor their loved ones will experience firsthand.
Civilian control of the armed services doesn’t mean that civilians shouldn’t listen to those who have seen war. Our most respected soldier president, Dwight Eisenhower, possessed the gravitas and courage to say no to war eight times during his presidency. He ended the Korean War and refused to aid the French in Indochina; he said no to his former wartime friends Britain and France when they demanded U.S. participation in the capture of the Suez Canal. And he resisted liberal democrats who wanted to aid the newly formed nation of South Vietnam. We all know what happened after his successor ignored Eisenhower’s advice. My generation got to go to war.
Over the past few days, the opinions of officers confiding in me have changed to some degree. Resignation seems to be creeping into their sense of outrage. One officer told me: “To hell with them. If this guy wants this war, then let him have it. Looks like no one will get hurt anyway.”
Soon the military will salute respectfully and loose the hell of hundreds of cruise missiles in an effort that will, inevitably, kill a few of those we wish to protect. They will do it with all the professionalism and skill we expect from the world’s most proficient military. I wish Kerry would take a moment to look at the images from this week’s hearings before we go to war again.
Michael O’Hanlon: No military consensus on Syria
For Obama, Syria requires more than words
By Walter Pincus
Preparation. Preparation. Preparation.
If there is one common complaint about President Obama and the White House staff in their dealing with the Syrian crisis, it is the lack of preparation.
International coalitions can’t be pulled together at the last minute. Getting foreign leaders to speak out on a common cause is hard. Persuading them to verbally back a military action is even harder. And to supply supporting forces? Well, Obama knows just how tough it all is.
The same challenges exist for winning American support for any post-Iraq/Afghanistan foreign military involvement. Double that for Congress, where a partisan nucleus exists that will oppose Obama regardless.
The full-court press in all those arenas should have begun right after the president drew his red line on Aug. 20, 2012.
He said, “We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.”
He went further: “We have communicated . . . with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us.”
As a former senior diplomat told me Monday, back then was when the full-court press should have begun. That’s when a coalition should have been formed to be ready if and when President Bashar al-Assad crossed the line.
In March, the first claims of small uses of chemical weapons arose, and the Assad government said opposition forces were responsible and called in the United Nations to investigate. The United States was caught flatfooted and on its own had to determine who had carried out the attacks.
A month later, pushed to respond, on April 25 the White House disclosed — in letters to two senators from Miguel E. Rodriguez, White House director of legislative affairs — that the administration had been “closely monitoring the potential use of chemical weapons within Syria” and that the intelligence community had assessed “with varying degrees of confidence that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons on a small scale in Syria.”
It was not until June 13 that the administration confirmed with a high degree of confidence that it was Syria that had employed chemical weapons in several locations, including Damascus, with up to 150 deaths.
What was done? In his letter, Rodriguez wrote that the United States was going to dramatically increase “humanitarian assistance and our support for the opposition to bring about the political transition that the Syrian people deserve.”
What about the red line?
“The United States and the international community have a number of potential responses available, and no option is off the table.”
One option of course was to go to the United Nations, where there was a guarantee of a Russian veto.
Did the White House begin coalition-building after the June 13 announcement that Assad had crossed the line? And what was done about that reference to the possible use of military force — “no option is off the table” — outside consulting with the Pentagon? Were foreign leaders briefed and commitments obtained for any further steps?
“The Obama administration will remain in close consultation with you [the two senators] and the Congress on these matters,” Rodriguez wrote.
It was a surprise to Capitol Hill when on Aug. 31 the president said he would order a limited military response to Assad’s chemical-weapons use Aug. 21 and also would seek congressional support for the operation.
Up to now, Obama’s dealing with Syria reminds me of the “My Fair Lady” song:
“Words! Words! Words! I’m so sick of words!
I get words all day through;
First from him, now from you!
Is that all you blighters can do?”
Eliza Doolitle was talking about love; I’m talking about war. Both are serious business.
I’m not sure the White House has learned its lesson either.
Denis McDonough, White House chief of staff, on Sunday repeatedly said, “Everybody believes that Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons against his own people.” He was talking about members of Congress who have seen or heard the intelligence.
Two Republicans on Sunday talk shows left some doubt about that. Rep. Howard P. “Buck” McKeon (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, appearing on CNN said, “I’ve seen what they’ve shown us, and they have evidence showing the regime has probably the responsibility for the attacks. They haven’t linked it directly to Assad, in my estimation.”
Rep. Justin Amash (R-Mich.), a vocal opponent of a Syrian attack, told CBS’s “Face the Nation,” “I think nobody rebuts the evidence we’ve been presented at the briefings, but I would also say that the evidence is not as strong as the public statements that the president and his administration have been making.”
One result is reflected in a new CNN/ORC International survey released Monday. It shows 54 percent of Americans polled believe it only “likely but not certain” that the Syrian government used chemical weapons, while 28 percent are certain. Such doubt helps lead 55 percent of those polled to say they oppose a U.S. military attack on Syrian military targets, even if Congress supports it.
Obama still has a ways to go to convince war-weary Americans and potential allies that Assad executed the horrendous attack and that he will do it again if nothing is done.
Videos and satellite images in Tuesday’s speech would help. Obama then must produce a plan that links the military operation to a diplomatic settlement — or at least leads in that direction. With the Russian offer, that may already have begun. Otherwise it will be just words.
“IT is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations.”….[Vali] Nasr delivers a devastating portrait of a first-term foreign policy that shunned the tough choices of real diplomacy, often descended into pettiness, and was controlled “by a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers.”
Obama is right on Syria
In short, there are substantial risks for the United States if it intervenes in Syria but also grave dangers in its present policy.
U.S. policy on Syria still lacks coherence
By Editorial Board, Published: May 1
THE MUDDLE that is President Obama’s policy on Syria has grown still muddier. On Tuesday the president backed away from a “red line” he had drawn on the use of chemical weapons by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, setting the threshold for proof of a violation in such a way as to virtually exclude the possibility that one could ever be confirmed. Yet that same day his aides leaked to The Post and other news organizations the news that the president might soon reverse his long-standing opposition to providing Syrian rebels with arms. And the administration readied yet another effort to persuade Russia to abandon its support of the Assad regime in favor of a negotiated political transition.
Can any coherence be found in this? A charitable interpretation might be that Mr. Obama wishes to avoid immediate U.S. intervention but wants to pressure Moscow into changing its position by letting it be known that the alternative is greater U.S. support for the rebels. If so, Mr. Obama is being too clever. His weak and legalistic words about the need to verify a “chain of custody” on any chemical-weapons use and his declaration that even a hard confirmation would lead only to a “rethink [of] the range of options” simply invite further chemical attacks.
As Free Syrian Army commander Salim Idriss — the man the administration is counting on to unify the moderate opposition — put it in a letter to the president: “Assad is not taking your carefully phrased condemnations as warnings, but as loopholes, which justify his continued use of chemical weapons on a small, strategic scale.”
As for Russia, ruler Vladimir Putin has offered no public hint that he has any inclination to reverse his support for Mr. Assad. It’s not just that the Kremlin has interests to protect in Syria; Mr. Putin’s priority is to prevent what he views as another U.S.-sponsored regime change. Even were he to decide to cooperate with Mr. Obama, it’s doubtful that Mr. Putin could induce the Assad clique and its principal backer, Iran, to give up what the dictator himself has called a fight to the death.
A slim chance for a political settlement may still exist but only if the United States and its allies take measures that decisively, and relatively quickly, shift the momentum of the war. Only when the Assad army is defeated and the regime crumbles will a deal be possible. Supplying arms to the rebels, as Mr. Obama is said to be considering, would be a step in that direction but probably not a big enough one. Without stronger U.S. measures, the most likely outcome is the fragmentation of Syria into warring fiefdoms, with some turf controlled by Iran and some by al-Qaeda.
What’s needed is what the opposition has repeatedly requested: a no-fly zone in parts of Syria, or other measures — such as attacks with missiles and stealth bombers — to ground the Syrian air force. Yes, such measures would have to be taken without a United Nations resolution, and they would upset Mr. Putin. But if Mr. Obama continues to pursue a policy of awaiting U.N. consensus and deferring to Russia, the result will be more crossings of his red line — and grave damage to U.S. Interests.
A bleeding Free Syrian Army fighter is comforted by his comrades as he lies on the ground in Khan al-Assal area, near Aleppo, on April 20, 2013. (Abdalghne Karoof/Reuters)
Photo: Demonstrators hold a caricature and Syrian opposition flags during a protest against Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad in Kafranbel, near Idlib, April 26, 2013. REUTERS/Raed Al-Fares/Shaam News Network/Handout
Should the president’s inaction result in the acquistion of WMD by Islamic elements, there will be hell to pay.
Iran and Hezbollah ‘have built 50,000-strong force to help Syrian regime’
Israeli military intelligence chief says Iran hopes to prolong life of Assad regime and maintain influence after his fall
Six ways Assad has turned the tide in Syria
An undated photo provided by the Syrian state news agency shows heavy artillery firing at a military exercise. (AP Photo/SANA)
(1) Sectarian reshuffling within the armed forces.
(2) Folding in militias.
(3) Training from Hezbollah in urban
(4) Cutting off rebels from supply routes.
(5) Focus all energy on key “nodes.
(6) Impenetrable strongholds.
Islamic law comes to rebel-held Syria
Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma on Syria Policy
Edlib News Network Enn, via Associated Press
An image provided by citizen journalists shows Nusra Front rebels at an air base in Idlib.
By BEN HUBBARD
Published: April 27, 2013
CAIRO — In Syria’s largest city, Aleppo, rebels aligned with Al Qaeda control the power plant, run the bakeries and head a court that applies Islamic law. Elsewhere, they have seized government oil fields, put employees back to work and now profit from the crude they produce.
Across Syria, rebel-held areas are dotted with Islamic courts staffed by lawyers and clerics, and by fighting brigades led by extremists. Even the Supreme Military Council, the umbrella rebel organization whose formation the West had hoped would sideline radical groups, is stocked with commanders who want to infuse Islamic law into a future Syrian government.
Nowhere in rebel-controlled Syria is there a secular fighting force to speak of.
This is the landscape President Obama confronts as he considers how to respond to growing evidence that Syrian officials have used chemical weapons, crossing a “red line” he had set. More than two years of violence have radicalized the armed opposition fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad, leaving few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward.
Among the most extreme groups is the notorious Al Nusra Front, the Qaeda-aligned force declared a terrorist organization by the United States, but other groups share aspects of its Islamist ideology in varying degrees.
“Some of the more extremist opposition is very scary from an American perspective, and that presents us with all sorts of problems,” said Ari Ratner, a fellow at the Truman National Security Project and former Middle East adviser in the Obama State Department. “We have no illusions about the prospect of engaging with the Assad regime — it must still go — but we are also very reticent to support the more hard-line rebels.”
Syrian officials recognize that the United States is worried that it has few natural allies in the armed opposition and have tried to exploit that with a public campaign to convince, or frighten, Washington into staying out of the fight. At every turn they promote the notion that the alternative to Mr. Assad is an extremist Islamic state.
The Islamist character of the opposition reflects the main constituency of the rebellion, which has been led since its start by Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority, mostly in conservative, marginalized areas. The descent into brutal civil war has hardened sectarian differences, and the failure of more mainstream rebel groups to secure regular arms supplies has allowed Islamists to fill the void and win supporters.
The religious agenda of the combatants sets them apart from many civilian activists, protesters and aid workers who had hoped the uprising would create a civil, democratic Syria.
When the armed rebellion began, defectors from the government’s staunchly secular army formed the vanguard. The rebel movement has since grown to include fighters with a wide range of views, including Qaeda-aligned jihadis seeking to establish an Islamic emirate, political Islamists inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and others who want an Islamic-influenced legal code like that found in many Arab states.
“My sense is that there are no seculars,” said Elizabeth O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War, who has made numerous trips to Syria in recent months to interview rebel commanders.
Of most concern to the United States is the Nusra Front, whose leader recently confirmed that the group cooperated with Al Qaeda in Iraq and pledged fealty to Al Qaeda’s top leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime deputy. Nusra has claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings and is the group of choice for the foreign jihadis pouring into Syria.
Another prominent group, Ahrar al-Sham, shares much of Nusra’s extremist ideology but is made up mostly of Syrians.
The two groups are most active in the north and east and are widely respected by other rebels for their fighting abilities and their ample arsenal, much of it given by sympathetic donors in the gulf. And both helped lead campaigns to seize military bases, dams on the Euphrates River and the provincial capital of Raqqa Province in March, the only regional capital entirely held by rebel forces.
Nusra’s hand is felt most strongly in Aleppo, where the group has set up camp in a former children’s hospital and has worked with other rebel groups to establish a Shariah Commission in the eye hospital next door to govern the city’s rebel-held neighborhoods. The commission runs a police force and an Islamic court that hands down sentences that have included lashings, though not amputations or executions as some Shariah courts in other countries have done.
Nusra fighters also control the power plant and distribute flour to keep the city’s bakeries running.
While many residents initially feared them, some have come to respect them for providing basic services and working to fill the city’s security vacuum. Secular activists, however, have chafed at their presence. At times, Nusra fighters have clashed with other rebels who reject their ideology.
In the oil-rich provinces of Deir al-Zour and Hasaka, Nusra fighters have seized government oil fields, putting some under the control of tribal militias and running others themselves.
“They are the strongest military force in the area,” said the commander of a rebel brigade in Hasaka reached via Skype. “We can’t deny it.”
But most of Nusra’s fighters joined the group for the weapons, not the ideology, he said, and some left after discovering the Qaeda connection.
“Most of the youth who joined them did so to topple the regime, not because they wanted to join Al Qaeda,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.
As extremists rose in the rebel ranks, the United States sought to limit their influence, first by designating Nusra a terrorist organization, and later by pushing for the formation of the Supreme Military Council, which is linked to the exile opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Although led by an army defector, Gen. Salim Idris, the council has taken in the leaders of many overtly Islamist battalions. One called the Syrian Liberation Front has been integrated nearly wholesale into the council; many of its members coordinate closely with the Syrian Islamic Front, a group that includes the extremist Ahrar al-Sham, according to a recent report by Ms. O’Bagy, of the Institute for the Study of War.
A spokesman for the council, Louay Mekdad, said that its members reflected Syrian society and that it had no ties to Nusra or other radical groups. “The character of the Syrian people is Islamic, but it is stupid to think that Syria will turn into Afghanistan,” he said. “That’s just an excuse for those who don’t want to help Syria.”
The Obama administration has said it needs more conclusive information before it acts on the Syrian government’s reported use of chemical weapons. It remains unclear whether such action would translate to increased support for the rebels.
In the past, United States officials saw the Islamist groups’ abundant resources as the main draw for recruits, said Steven Heydemann, a senior adviser at the United States Institute of Peace, which works with the State Department.
“The strategy is based on the current assessment that popular appeal of these groups is transactional, not ideological, and that opportunities exist to peel people away by providing alternative support and resources,” he said.
Mr. Heydemann acknowledged, however, that the current momentum toward radicalism could be hard to reverse.
The challenge, he said, is to end the conflict before “the opportunity to create a system of governance not based on militant Islamic law is lost.”
Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, framed the rebels’ dilemma another way: “How do you denounce the Nusra Front as extremists when they are playing such an important military role and when they look disciplined, resourceful and committed?”
From the start, the Syrian government has sought to portray the rebels as terrorists carrying out an international plot to weaken the country, and the rise of extremist groups has strengthened its case and increased support among Syrians who fear that a rebel victory could mean the end of the secular Syrian state.
Many rebels and opposition activists complain about the Western focus on Islamist groups, some even dismissing the opposition’s ideological differences.
“We all want an Islamic state and we want Shariah to be applied,” said Maawiya Hassan Agha, a rebel activist reached by Skype in the northern village of Sarmeen. He said a country’s laws should flow from its people’s beliefs and compared Syrians calling for Islamic law with the French banning Muslim women from wearing face veils.
“In France, people don’t like face veils so they passed laws against them,” he said. “It’s the same thing here. It’s our right to push for the laws we want.”
Iraqi al-Qa’ida declares takeover of leading Syrian rebel group
Terrorist group’s union with al-Nusra Front likely to embarrass insurgency’s Western supporters
PATRICK COCKBURN | TUESDAY 09 APRIL 2013
Al-Qa’ida in Iraq has said it has united with the most militant and effective Syrian rebel group, the al-Nusra Front, in a move likely to embarrass Western countries supporting Syrian insurgents seeking to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of al-Qa’ida’s umbrella organisation in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, said in a statement posted on Islamic fundamentalist websites that his group had helped create al-Nusra, had funded it and reinforced it with experienced al-Qa’ida fighters from Iraq. He said: “It’s now time to declare in front of the people of the Levant and the world that al-Nusra Front is but an extension of the Islamic State of Iraq and part of it.” The United States has labelled al-Nusra a “terrorist” group.
Al-Nusra has been at the forefront of the fighting in and around Aleppo and appears to have been behind a series of car bombings in Damascus. Some 15 people were killed by a suicide bomber who blew himself up near the Central Bank in Damascus on Monday. Its use of suicide bombers, foreign volunteers and fundamentalist rhetoric, targeting non-Sunni Syrians as heretics or disbelievers, is similar to the tactics and ideology of al-Qa’ida in Iraq.
Many opposition military and political factions have sought to downplay evidence that the uprising in Syria is dominated by jihadi and salafi movements preaching holy war. Al-Nusra is not the only such organisation and it was Ahrar al-Sham, another well-organised Islamic fundamentalist group, which led the assault on Raqqa, the first provincial capital to fall to the opposition earlier this year. Al-Nusra also played an important role in the fighting while the Western-backed Free Syrian Army was largely absent. Religious courts have been set up in Raqqa, and al-Nusra has sought to ban the sale of cigarettes as un-Islamic.
Mr Al-Baghdadi said in a 21-minute audio talk that the new united group operating in both Iraq and Syria would in future be called The Islamic State of Iraq and Sham, Sham being the name for Syria and the surrounding area. He said that al-Qa’ida in Iraq had been devoting half its budget to supporting al-Nusra, of which the overall leader will apparently be Mr Al-Baghdadi himself.
The Sunni majority areas of Iraq in Western Anbar and Nineveh provinces share a common border with eastern Syria which is increasingly falling under rebel control. The degree of co-ordination was underscored early last month when 48 Syrian soldiers who had fled into Iraq were ambushed and killed at Akashat as they were being returned to Syria. An Iraqi intelligence officer was quoted as saying that al-Qa’ida in Iraq and al-Nusra have three joint training camps in the border area where they share training, logistics, intelligence and weapons.
The US, Britain and France, along with Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have promoted and financed other factions of the opposition. But, while supposedly more moderate, these have often been denounced by Syrians in areas they control as being little more than bandits and incapable of maintaining civil government.
The administration has steered clear of the Syrian conflict, refusing to take — or support — the sort of actions that could have brought matters to a close a long time ago. Now the situation has descended into what Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy used to call “another fine mess.” It is, I concede, a lot harder to intervene now than it was about a year ago.
In Syria, some brace for the next war
By Liz Sly, Published: April 9
RAQQAH, Syria — As this remote corner of northeastern Syria fast slides out of government control, many Syrians are bracing for what they fear will be another war, between the relatively moderate fighters who first took up arms against the government and the Islamist extremists who emerged more recently with the muscle and firepower to drive the rebel advance.
The capture last month of the city of Raqqah, Syria’s first provincial capital to fall under opposition control, consolidated the gains of an assortment of mostly Islamist-inclined groups across three northeastern provinces. Forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad cling to just a tiny number of scattered bases and could be ejected anytime.
War child: A youngster roams the rubble-strewn streets of the eastern Syrian town of Deir azl-Zor where fallen drainpipes lay scattered on the road
Road to nowhere: A motorcylist and passenger drive past the burnt-out wreckage of a car in Deir al-Zor
Bombed out: Clothes are seen hanging in a closet in a damaged apartment building
Doyle McManus commentary: Syrian intervention is bad; doing nothing is worse
Military intervention in the Muslim world seems to bring the United States nothing but grief. Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya: None looks much like a success story now.
Yet the Obama administration is edging reluctantly into a civil war in Syria, aiding rebels who are fighting to overthrow the brutal regime of Bashar Assad. And it should: The longer this war goes on, the worse it will be for the United States and the Syrians. Already, more than 70,000 Syrians have died; perhaps 4 million have lost their homes. The arguments against intervention are eroding fast.
Why? Because all the alternatives are worse.
At the moment, Syria’s opposition is a mess. Last week, the U.S.-backed president of the rebels’ governing council, the Syrian National Coalition, suddenly resigned, complaining that he was being undercut by the more radical Muslim Brotherhood. One side in that squabble (the moderate, Moaz Khatib) was backed by Saudi Arabia, the other (the Muslim Brotherhood) by the rival Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. Both countries have won influence among the rebels by providing money and weapons. The United States, caught in the middle, has been trying to broker a reconciliation, but without the helpful currency of arms supplies.
U.S. restraint hasn’t succeeded in stopping the war; it has merely made it more difficult to organize the opposition. Syria’s neighbors — rival Arab states, plus Turkey — have funneled aid to their favorite rebel factions; that’s been a recipe for division, not success.
Meanwhile, on the ground, the radical Islamist al-Nusra Front, an offshoot of al-Qaida’s affiliate in Iraq, has won a reputation as the most effective fighting force on the rebel side, a record that’s helping it attract recruits. So the stakes for the United States in this conflict are high. Syria is surrounded by countries that are important to the United States: Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. A long sectarian civil war in Syria could spill over into any of them.
A war that ends with restoration of the Assad regime would be a triumph for Iran and a disaster for the United States. A war that ends with a victory for al-Nusra would be even worse.
That’s why the Obama administration is still trying to prod the regime and the rebels toward a negotiated truce that would remove Assad from power. But neither side appears ready to negotiate.
The administration has taken sides rhetorically, declaring that Assad must go and recognizing the rebels as legitimate players in any new government. It has pledged almost $385 million in humanitarian aid. It has provided communications equipment and training for opposition leaders. And according to recent reports, U.S. intelligence agencies have provided carefully chosen rebel units with military intelligence and training, and helped arrange weapons shipments from suppliers such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
One problem with that kind of quiet assistance: Most Syrians don’t know about it. Even the most public part of the program, humanitarian aid, doesn’t carry “Made in USA” labels. “Everybody (in Syria) asks, ‘Why aren’t they helping us?’ ” Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch told a House committee last week. “And that anger was directed particularly at the United States.”
The arguments against doing more in Syria are familiar. We don’t want to close off the possibility of negotiations. Military aid might prolong the war. We can’t be sure that aid won’t fall into the wrong hands. It might be a slippery slope toward putting boots on the ground. And we’r e tired, so tired, of wars in the Muslim world.
But at this point, military aid to the rebels is more likely to push the government toward negotiations, not foreclose that possibility. Military aid could shorten the war. Yes, weapons could fall into the wrong hands, but that’s an argument against providing surface-to-air missiles, not rifles and ammunition.
Most important, aid doesn’t need to turn into a slippery slope. In the 2011 intervention in Libya, Obama sent U.S. Air Force jets and Navy ships to war, but drew a line against putting boots on the ground, and that line held.
Last week, at a news conference during his visit to the Middle East, he complained about the no-win side of his job. If the United States “goes in militarily, then it’s criticized for going in militarily,” he said, “and if it doesn’t go in militarily, then people say, ‘Why aren’t you doing something militarily?’ ”
The president’s peevishness is understandable; he doesn’t need another headache, let alone another war. But indecision is not leadership. It’s not even leading from behind. We need to be doing more.
SYRIA COULD DISINTEGRATE
The death of a country
As Syria disintegrates, it threatens the entire Middle East. The outside world needs to act before it is too late
Feb 23rd 2013 | From the print edition
AFTER the first world war Syria was hacked from the carcass of the Ottoman empire. After the second, it won its independence. After the fighting that is raging today it could cease to function as a state.
As the world looks on (or away), the country jammed between Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Israel is disintegrating. Perhaps the regime of Bashar Assad, Syria’s president, will collapse in chaos; for some time it could well fight on from a fortified enclave, the biggest militia in a land of militias. Either way, Syria looks increasingly likely to fall prey to feuding warlords, Islamists and gangs—a new Somalia rotting in the heart of the Levant.
If that happens, millions of lives will be ruined. A fragmented Syria would also feed global jihad and stoke the Middle East’s violent rivalries. Mr Assad’s chemical weapons, still secure for now, would always be at risk of falling into dangerous hands. This catastrophe would make itself felt across the Middle East and beyond. And yet the outside world, including America, is doing almost nothing to help.
The road from Damascus
Part of the reason for the West’s hesitancy is that, from the start of the uprising in 2011, Mr Assad has embraced a strategy of violence. By attacking the Arab spring with tanks and gunships, he turned peaceful demonstrators into armed militias. By shelling cities he uprooted his people. By getting his Alawite brethren to massacre the Sunni majority, he has drawn in jihadists and convinced Syrians from other sects to stick with him for fear that his own fall will lead to terrible vengeance.
Syrian blood now flows freely and sectarian hatred is smouldering (see article). The fight could last years. Rebel groups have lately been capturing military bases. They control chunks of the north and east and are fighting in the big cities. But the rebels are rivals as well as allies: they are beginning to target each other, as well as the government’s troops.
Even if Mr Assad cannot control his country, he has every reason to fight on. He still enjoys the cultlike devotion of some of his Alawite sect and the grudging support of other Syrians who fear what might come next. He commands 50,000 or so loyal, well-armed troops—and tens of thousands more, albeit less trained and less loyal. He is backed by Russia, Iran and Iraq, which between them supply money, weapons, advice and manpower. Hizbullah, Lebanon’s toughest militia, is sending in its fighters, too. Mr Assad almost certainly cannot win this war; but, barring an unexpected stroke of fate, he is still a long way from losing it.
So far the fighting has claimed 70,000 or more lives; tens of thousands are missing. The regime has locked up 150,000-200,000 people. More than 2m are homeless inside Syria, struggling to find food and shelter. Almost 1m more are living in squalor over the border.
Suffering on such a scale is unconscionable. That was the lesson from the genocides and civil wars that scarred the last half of the past century. Yet President Barack Obama has suggested that saving lives alone is not a sufficient ground for military action. Having learnt in Afghanistan and Iraq how hard it is to impose peace, America is fearful of being sucked into the chaos that Mr Assad has created. Mr Obama was elected to win economic battles at home. He believes that a weary America should stay clear of yet another foreign disaster.
That conclusion, however understandable, is mistaken. As the world’s superpower, America is likely to be sucked into Syria eventually. Even if the president can resist humanitarian arguments, he will find it hard to ignore his country’s interests.
If the fight drags on, Syria will degenerate into a patchwork of warring fiefs. Almost everything America wants to achieve in the Middle East will become harder. Containing terrorism, ensuring the supply of energy and preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction: unlike, say, the 15-year civil war in Lebanon, Syria’s disintegration threatens them all.
About a fifth of the rebels—and some of the best organised—are jihadists. They pose a threat to moderate Syrians, including Sunnis, and they could use lawless territory as a base for international terror. If they menace Israel across the Golan Heights, Israel will protect itself fiercely, which is sure to inflame Arab opinion. A divided Syria could tear Lebanon apart, because the Assads will stir up their supporters there. Jordan, poor and fragile, will be destabilised by refugees and Islamists. Oil-rich, Shia-majority Iraq can barely hold itself together; as Iraqi Sunnis are drawn into the fray, divisions there will only deepen. Coping with the fallout from Syria, including Mr Assad’s arsenal of chemical weapons, could complicate the aim of preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear bomb. Mr Obama wanted to avoid Syria, but Syria will come and get him.
Doing nothing is a policy, too
Syria is more dangerous today than it was in October, when this newspaper called for a no-fly zone in order to ground Mr Assad’s air force. Mr Obama’s policy of waiting for the conflagration in Syria to burn itself out is failing. Rather than see things deteriorate still further, he should act.
His aim should be to preserve what is left of Syria. That means trying to convince the people around Mr Assad that their choice is between ruinous defeat and turfing out the Assad family as a prelude to talks with the rebels. A no-fly zone is still needed to ground Mr Assad’s air force and destroy some of his missiles. It would be a big, bold signal of America’s resolve to Mr Assad’s supporters. America should recognise a transitional government, selected from Syria’s opposition. It should arm non-jihadist rebel groups—including with limited numbers of anti-aircraft missiles. France and Britain would back this, even if other Europeans would not. Russia supports Mr Assad in part to frustrate Mr Obama. Europe and America should keep on trying to tempt it to give him up, by promising it a stake in a liberated Syria.
There are no guarantees that this policy will work. But it will at least build links with the non-jihadist rebels whom America will need as allies in the chaos if Mr Assad stays. Today those moderate Syrians feel utterly abandoned.
When doing nothing is a policy
By Richard Cohen, Published: February 25
In the movie “ Lawrence of Arabia,” the attempt to unite the Arabs comes apart in Damascus. Lawrence bangs on his desk with the butt of his gun to bring the assembly to order, but to no avail. Chaos erupts. Now something similar is happening in Syria. A mountain of dead ( 70,000 or so), not to mention an approaching regional bloodbath, suggests that once again things are coming apart. Still, life does not exactly imitate art. Lawrence of Arabia at least tried to do something. Barack of D.C. just sat on his hands.
Actually, he sat on his polling numbers. The president’s refusal to do anything material to end the Syrian civil war is a policy long suspected of having two elements — fear of blowback and fear of the nightly news. Now comes a book from a one-time administration insider who bluntly and altogether convincingly outlines the role domestic political considerations played in the White House’s approach to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The goal of policymakers was “not to make strategic decisions but to satisfy public opinion.” Syria, it seems, has been no exception.
The former insider is the resplendently credentialed Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, life member of the Council on Foreign Relations and, most pertinently, former senior adviser to the late Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. In that capacity, Nasr says he saw the almost daily humbling of Holbrooke, a volcano of a diplomat who was forever erupting ideas, plans and strategies — almost always to no avail. In his telling, the White House was some sort of high school cafeteria where Holbrooke was always being shunned and given the silent treatment. He blames “a small cabal of relatively inexperienced White House advisers whose turf was strictly politics” for this. Mean Girls, not the Wise Men, made American policy.
Nasr set down his views in a book called “The Dispensable Nation.” It will be published in April, but samizdat copies of it are already being circulated. In a sense, the book only confirms the general impression that Obama is a man without a foreign policy. He had naive aspirations — a world to be changed by the transformative power of a good speech — but no clear path to achieve anything. Nasr describes his dismay when the surge in Afghanistan was announced in tandem with a pullout date. In his head, Secretary of State John Kerry, the new implementer of Obama’s contradictory policy, must now hear a reprise of the question he once asked about his own war: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die in Vietnam?”
Nasr’s regional specialty was Afghanistan and Pakistan. But the thrust of what he says supports the view that Obama shied from intervening in Syria out of domestic political considerations. A president who was campaigning as the peace candidate — out of Iraq and, soon, Afghanistan, too — could not risk anything bold in Syria. The country fell into the margin of error. “It is not going too far to say that American foreign policy has become completely subservient to tactical domestic political considerations,” Nasr writes.
Boldness is what the situation in Syria demanded. A civil war that could have been contained has instead become a sprawling, regionwide bar fight. Arms could have been shipped to the insurgents; a no-fly zone could have been imposed. Much could have been done. Instead, Obama merely called for Bashar al-Assad to go and, for some reason he, like Rep. Eric Cantor or somebody, remains immovable.
The stakes here are enormous. Lebanon teeters, swamped with refugees. Jordan, too, is overwhelmed. The Kurds in Syria’s north may, as they have in nearby Iraq, establish an autonomous zone — and Turkey will not be pleased. The jihadists are on the move, hungry for Syria’s vast store of chemical weapons. Israel watches, nervously. What if Hezbollah gets its hands on chemical weapons? An Obama administration, afraid of blowback, may well have allowed the Middle East to blow apart.
The battle for Damascus is now engaged. The war next month enters its third year, a humanitarian crisis that has been permitted to fester under the rubric of foreign policy realism. But another realism is now apparent: Inaction has bred the manufacture of orphans — a carnage, a horror, a reprimand to inaction. Life imitates art. Damascus is where it all came apart in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Damascus is where it is coming apart in reality.
Dimitar Dilkoff/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By VALI NASR
Published: April 15, 2013
President Obama has doggedly resisted American involvement in Syria. The killing of over 70,000 people and the plight of over a million refugees have elicited sympathy from the White House but not much more. That is because Syria challenges a central aim of Obama’s foreign policy: shrinking the U.S. footprint in the Middle East and downplaying the region’s importance to global politics. Doing more on Syria would reverse the U.S. retreat from the region.
Since the beginning of Obama’s first term, the administration’s stance as events unfolded in the Middle East has been wholly reactive. This “lean back and wait” approach has squandered precious opportunity to influence the course of events in the Middle East. There has been no strategy for capitalizing on the opportunity that the Arab Spring presented, or for containing its fallout — the Syrian crisis being the worst case to date. The president rewarded Burmese generals with a six-hour visit for their willingness to embrace reform, but he has not visited a single Arab country that went through the Arab Spring.
Obama sees Syria as a tragic humanitarian crisis without obvious strategic implications for the United States. “How do I weigh tens of thousands who’ve been killed in Syria versus the tens of thousands who are currently being killed in the Congo?” he asked in a New Republic interview in January. When the president visited the region last month he chose to focus on the Arab-Israeli peace process rather than Syria. The peace process is now at the top of Secretary of State John Kerry’s agenda.
The plight of Palestinians is a perennial concern, but it is in Syria that the future of the region hangs in the balance. Choosing the peace process over Syria underscores not the administration’s interest in the Middle East but its determination to look past it.
Washington has wasted precious time in using diplomatic, economic and military levers to influence the course of events in Syria. That neglect has allowed the conflagration to rage at great human cost, radicalizing the opposition and putting at risk U.S. allies across the region.
America cannot and should not decide the fate of the Middle East, but it should be clear about its stakes there, and not shy away from efforts to at least nudge events in more favorable directions as this critical region faces momentous choices. A “lean back and wait” posture toward unfolding events is dangerous.
The paroxysm of violence in Syria is expected to kill tens of thousands more and produce as many as three million refugees by the year’s end. That is a humanitarian tragedy to be sure, but one with immediate strategic consequences. American insouciance in the face of that devastation is fomenting anti-Americanism. The waves of refugees will constitute an unstable population that will be a breeding ground for extremism and in turn destabilize the countries where they take refuge. Syria’s neighbors are not equipped to deal with a humanitarian disaster on this scale.
The longer the devastation goes on the more difficult it will be to put Syria back together, and failing to do so will leave a dangerous morass in the heart of the Middle East, a failed state at war with itself where extremism and instability will fester and all manner of terrorists and Al Qaeda affiliates will find ample space, resources and recruits to menace the region and world.
Worse yet, the conflict in Syria could spill over its borders. Syria has become ground zero in a broader conflict that pits Shiites against Sunnis and shapes the larger regional competition for power between Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Syria’s paroxysms if allowed to drag on could potentially spread far and wide and even change the map of the region. America may think it does not have any interests in Syria, but it has interests everywhere the Syrian conflict touches.
Lebanon and Iraq are each deeply divided along sectarian lines, and both countries teeter on a knife’s edge as tensions rise between their ascendant Shiite populations who fear a setback if Bashar al-Assad falls, and the minority Sunnis in their own countries who support Syria’s Sunni-led opposition. Sectarian tensions stretch from Lebanon and Iraq through the Gulf countries of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain and on to Pakistan where sectarian violence has exploded into the open.
It is time America takes the lead in organizing international assistance to refugees. America should not hide behind the Russian veto. It should pursue a concerted diplomatic strategy in support of arming the rebels and imposing a no-flight zone over Syria. That would not only hamper Assad’s ability to fight, it would allow refugees to remain within Syria’s borders, thus reducing pressure on neighboring countries.
It is time the U.S. took over from Qatar and Saudi Arabia in organizing the Syrian opposition into a credible political force — failure to do that accounts for the chaos that has paralyzed the group. There are powerful economic sanctions that the U.S. could use to cripple the Assad regime.
Finally, America should build ties with the Free Syrian Army with the goal of denying extremist groups the ability to dominate the armed resistance and gaining influence with groups that will dominate Syria’s future. It was failing to build those ties in Afghanistan that allowed the resistance groups who opposed the Soviet Union to disintegrate into the Taliban and Al Qaeda.
The Syrian crisis has become a Gordian knot that cannot be easily disentangled. As daunting as the crisis looks, there is a cost to inaction — in human suffering, regional instability and damage to America’s global standing. And as the Syrian crisis escalates, America and the world will only rediscover their stakes in the Middle East. If Obama truly wants to pivot away from the Middle East then he has to help end the bloodletting in Syria.
Vali Nasr, dean of the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, is the author of the forthcoming book “The Dispensable Nation: American Foreign Policy in Retreat.”
March 29, 2013, 11:00 p.m. ET
Inside Obama’s Syria Debate
European Pressphoto Agency
Syrian rebels in Aleppo earlier in March. After two years of fighting, some 70,000 have died in the civil war, according to the United Nations.
With the death toll mounting in the Syrian rebellion, the Obama administration has stepped up calls for strongman Bashar al-Assad to give up power.
But two years into the bloodiest chapter of the Arab Spring, the administration, under pressure from lawmakers and allies, has only taken halting steps to help provide training, equipment and intelligence to moderate rebel fighters.
That incremental shift is the product of a wrenching, behind-the-scenes debate over how best to drive Mr. Assad from power, contain Islamist factions inside the rebellion and keep the U.S. from being sucked into a new conflict just as it exits its longest war.
A reconstruction of months of conversations within the administration—based on interviews with two dozen senior officials in Washington, Europe and the Middle East—suggests that process has been slowed by internal divisions, miscalculations and bureaucratic inertia.
The Pentagon drew up military options but made clear to the White House they were unpalatable. State Department calls for intervention grew but weren’t aggressively pursued or enough to overcome White House resistance. Administration lawyers, meanwhile, raised doubts whether the U.S. even had a legal basis for using force in Syria. And America’s allies talked up the need to do something but got cold feet at crucial junctures so little was done.
Just as pressure to intervene grew last summer, White House officials were buoyed by a series of attacks where rebels appeared to be getting close to killing Mr. Assad. Several senior officials now acknowledge the U.S. misjudged how long Mr. Assad could hold on.
The cautious approach comes from the president himself, buttressed by advisers including Denis McDonough, now the White House chief of staff. Their view: Syria is awash in arms and adding more risks worsening violence without improving rebel chances of victory.
Hillary Clinton came to believe late last year that Washington could no longer watch the Syria carnage from the sidelines. But Mrs. Clinton and other advocates of arming the rebels didn’t in the end aggressively push for the initiative, put forward by then-Central Intelligence Agency Director David Petraeus, as it became clear where Mr. Obama stood, according to current and former administration officials.
Arming Syrian rebels divided the cabinet coalition that had championed the 2011 Libya campaign, pitting Mrs. Clinton against U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice who emerged as a leading voice of caution.
The most engaged U.S. effort thus far comes from the CIA, which is working with European and Arab spy services to provide intelligence, training and logistical support to select rebel groups, according to U.S., European and Arab officials. Nevertheless, CIA operatives are frustrated by what they see as the Obama administration’s reluctance to provide the rebels with the items they say they need most, including arms and cash, according to current and former officials.
The CIA declined to comment.
The U.S.’s Syria strategy is emblematic of the administration’s policy of limiting Washington’s role as global policeman. In NATO’s campaign against Libya’s Col. Moammar Gadhafi, Mr. Obama insisted European powers play a leading combat role. After French forces went into Mali to fight al Qaeda linked forces in January, Mr. Obama sent cargo and refueling planes to help Paris but no fighter jets or armed drones.
Critics within the administration and in the Syrian opposition say the administration’s reluctance to arm moderate groups has strengthened Islamist fighters who could dominate the country when the regime falls.
At a news conference last week in Jerusalem, Mr. Obama defended his approach.
“It is incorrect for you to say that we have done nothing,” he said. “We have helped to mobilize the isolation of the Assad regime internationally. We have supported and recognized the opposition. We have provided hundreds of millions of dollars in support for humanitarian aid.”
From the outset, the U.S.’s moves were marked by caution. In August 2011, after months of debate among top advisers, Mr. Obama called for Mr. Assad to “step aside.” Still, Mr. Obama by design didn’t say the U.S. would “force” Mr. Assad out, according to officials who helped formulate the statement.
In one meeting in January 2012, a senior U.S. official met in California with supporters of the Syrian opposition and said “all options are on the table”—the U.S. government’s official position.
“But as I was mouthing the words, I began to wonder if I was doing the right thing,” said the official, who has since left the administration. “It was always a struggle to keep up (rebel) morale without misleading anyone.”
In April, the Pentagon readied preliminary options for White House staff that included no-fly zones and limited aerial strikes, but they weren’t presented to the president.
In the weeks that followed, top White House officials met with planners at the Pentagon to discuss options, which included arming rebels without links to Islamist groups and providing them with tactical training. No option received much high-level support at the time. “Nobody could figure out what to do,” a senior defense official said.
America’s hands-off policy was dealt a shock on June 22 when a Turkish reconnaissance plane was shot down by Syrian air defenses.
Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan raised alarms in the U.S. by suggesting that Turkey might invoke NATO’s Article V, which says alliance members should treat an attack against one as an attack against all, potentially triggering a military response.
Neither the U.S. nor NATO was interested in rushing to Article V, a message that was conveyed to the Turks, according to NATO diplomats. Turkey instead invoked Article IV, which triggered emergency consultations but no further action. And U.S. Navy Adm. James Stavridis, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s supreme allied commander, had NATO’s defense plan for Turkey rewritten to reassure the Turks and deter Damascus from widening the conflict.
NATO was so wary of getting pulled into Syria that top alliance officials balked at even contingency planning for an intervention force to protect Syrian civilians. “For better or worse, Assad feels he can count on NATO not to intervene right now,” a senior Western official said.
Within the Obama administration, pressure for a policy change began to grow in July after diplomatic efforts by international envoy Kofi Annan collapsed, sapping hope for a nonmilitary transition. Rebels upped the ante by taking their military campaign to Aleppo, Syria’s largest city. Opposition leaders were hopeful the U.S. would intervene on their behalf, based in part on comments from top State Department and CIA officials.
Senior officials who wanted the U.S. to do more, particularly at the State Department, grew frustrated with the White House, according to current and former officials.
The administration committee charged with Syria policy was kept on a tight leash by Mr. McDonough, then the deputy national security adviser and a close confidante to Mr. Obama, participants say. They said Mr. McDonough made clear that Mr. Obama wasn’t interested in proposals that could lead the U.S. down a slippery slope to military intervention; instead, he had the committee focus mostly on post-Assad planning.
“It was clear to all participants that this was what the White House wanted, as opposed to really focusing on key questions of how do you get to the post-Assad period,” one participant said.
Administration officials said one of the reasons the committee was told to focus on post-Assad planning was because intelligence at the time created “a sense” in the White House that Mr. Assad could be killed by rebels or his own people, eliminating the need for riskier measures to support the rebel campaign.
Officials said Mr. McDonough held smaller side meetings in which officials debated whether the White House should authorize so-called “accelerants”—covert measures designed to speed Mr. Assad’s fall. Those proposals, too, met with caution at the White House, which worried it could undercut U.S. efforts to persuade Russia to halt military aid to the Syrian regime.
Likewise, high-level White House national security meetings on Syria focused on what participants called “strategic messaging,” how administration policy should be presented to the public, according to current and former officials who took part in the meetings.
Another administration official disputed that account, saying there were multiple cabinet-level meetings “with extensive and rigorous analysis presented” and that he didn’t recall strategic messaging ever being a “central topic of discussion at senior levels.”
In July, shortly after Mr. Annan’s negotiations broke down, the U.S. military’s Joint Staff began formally presenting military options to the White House. One of the no-fly zone options called for a bombing campaign followed by round-the-clock combat air patrols.
In those briefings, attendees say, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other top military officials emphasized the risks, including hitting civilians: “It would look like we were carpet bombing the Syrians,” said a former senior U.S. official who attended one of the briefings.
Defense officials say the Joint Staff presented the best options available. Top military commanders acknowledge they weren’t enthusiastic about the options because they didn’t see them as viable. “Some things are what we call wicked problems,” one senior defense official said.
Advocates of intervening faced another hurdle: administration lawyers. Lawyers at the White House and departments of Defense, State and Justice debated whether the U.S. had a “clear and credible” legal justification under U.S. or international law for intervening militarily. The clearest legal case could be made if the U.S. won a U.N. or NATO mandate for using force. Neither route seemed viable: Russia would veto any Security Council resolution, and NATO wasn’t interested in a new military mission.
Administration lawyers honed a third legal justification: collective self-defense, according to current and former officials involved in the deliberations. To work, however, Syria would have to attack one of its neighbors. Besides occasional errant Syrian artillery shells that veered into Turkey, Damascus kept a lid on cross-border tensions to avoid provoking a response.
In August, Mrs. Clinton flew to Istanbul, prepared to look at a no-fly zone, which Ankara earlier had floated to NATO as an option. But Turkish officials told their American counterparts later in August that they weren’t prepared to move forward with a no-fly zone, and the option—already opposed by the U.S. military because of concerns about Syria’s air defenses and Russia’s reaction—died there, U.S. officials say.
The idea of arming secular rebels was popular among CIA field officers who wanted better relations with fighters. It also was more palatable to administration lawyers.
The debate came to a head in an October meeting in the White House Situation Room.
Mr. Petraeus, leaning forward during his presentation, made a forceful case for arming rebels, arguing it would help the U.S. build pro-Western allies and shape future leaders of a post-Assad Syria.
Mrs. Clinton spoke in favor of the initiative but her remarks were brief. U.N. Ambassador Rice argued strongly against arming the rebels, citing doubts about the opposition. Ms. Rice through a spokeswoman declined to comment.
Other White House advisers worried that providing arms, without toppling Mr. Assad, risked making the U.S. look ineffectual. Moreover, such a move would leave the president open to attack if the arms found their way into the hands of extremists.
Shortly after the meeting, Mr. Petraeus resigned over an extramarital affair. A CIA analysis played down the impact of arming the rebels on accelerating Mr. Assad’s fall, and the proposal to arm the rebels died.
At a congressional hearing in February, Republican Sen. John McCain, who has long advocated intervening to protect Syrian civilians and arm rebels, asked then Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Dempsey if they had supported the Petraeus-Clinton proposal to arm the rebels. Both men said yes.
The answer infuriated the White House, which didn’t want to put a spotlight on internal divisions and the options privately presented to Mr. Obama.
As the administration debated what to do, the death toll in Syria soared, from 4,000 in late 2011 to nearly 70,000 now, according to U.N. estimates.
In his first news conference as the new defense secretary earlier in March, Chuck Hagel called the administration’s decision to provide only nonlethal support the “correct policy.”
“Nonlethal assistance—blankets and cellphones—do not topple a regime,” said Murhaf Jouejati, a Washington-based opponent of Mr. Assad. “Only Allah knows how Washington works.”
Those lessons should be central to any talk about Syria, but they are not.
Interestingly, those lessons were discussed last Tuesday during an Iraq retrospective at the American Enterprise Institute where McCain and retired Gen. Jack Keane, an author of the George W. Bush surge in Iraq, were among the main speakers.
Keane complained the Bush administration in Afghanistan “pulled away from that new government that we put in there very quickly. And we did not help them grow the security forces rapidly enough.”
In Iraq, he said, “We did not reorganize the army. We did not reorganize police. We did not reorganize the bureaucracy that people were used to receiving in terms of services, et cetera. And that began to help fuel the insurgency.”
When it came to Libya, Keane said, “Didn’t we do it again? . . . You know, we deposed Gaddafi, and then we pulled away in a sense that we do not help them — the number one problem in Libya today is the lack of capable and competent security forces to help stabilize the country. . . . That was a major lesson we should have learned out of Iraq, and we have not learned it.”
The dilemma for the United States, which neither Keane nor McCain dealt with directly, is that new Middle East or Central Asian governments, whether they be in Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan or post-Assad Syria, do not want large numbers of foreign troops stationed in their countries, even if just for training local security forces. They particularly don’t want U.S. Troops.
Keane told the story that when it came time in 2009 to discuss a new status of forces agreement for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after 2011, with the 2010 Iraq elections approaching, “you couldn’t get elected” if you favored keeping the Americans. “Your opponents would tear you apart for it. So what came down was . . . eventually the removal of all [U.S.] forces.”
Today, according to Keane, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki “has consolidated power, undermined his political opponents to a certain degree, taken on a huge authoritarian role . . . . And there’s nothing to check that and balance that, and the Iranians are certainly influencing him to do all of that.”
Post-Assad Syria would present at least similar if not tougher political, economic and security problems than Iraq. So shouldn’t those issues be discussed along with calls for more U.S. military involvement?
Shouldn’t U.S. political leaders have learned that as outsiders, particularly as Americans, they cannot control the direction of other countries’ governments? Look at the problems Obama and Congress are having just trying to reach agreement on how to run our own government.
BEIRUT — The detonation of a massive car bomb on Thursday near the heart of Damascus underscored a major shift that has brought sustained fighting close to the center of the capital for the first time during Syria’s two-year-old uprising.
Obama needs a Plan B for Syria
By Vance Serchuk, Published: February 21
Vance Serchuk, a former foreign policy adviser to Sen. Joseph Lieberman, is a Council on Foreign Relations international affairs fellow, based in Tokyo. This is his first monthly column for The Post.
John Kerry will depart shortly on his first overseas trip as secretary of state, a major focus of which, he has said, will be the conflict in Syria. There is no crisis more deserving of the attention of America’s top diplomat, and Kerry deserves credit for immediately throwing himself into the fray.
In previewing his trip, however, Kerry has suggested that the key to ending the bloodshed in Syria is to change Bashar al-Assad’s “calculations” — a formulation he has invoked repeatedly in recent weeks — and that the path for doing so may run through Moscow.
This raises the specter that, rather than forging a new direction on Syria policy, the Obama administration is poised to repeat mistakes of the past.
The first of these has been to vest unrealistic hopes in the Russians. If the past two years should have taught anything, it is that the Kremlin is unlikely to help the United States orchestrate Assad’s exit.
This is not because of Russian arms sales or naval facilities in Syria, nor for any lack of U.S. engagement with Moscow. Rather, the Kremlin believes it has a broader interest in thwarting another U.S.-engineered regime change — seeing such interventions, stretching from Serbia to Libya, as a threat to international stability and as a precedent that could someday be used against itself.
More important, the Russians have less confidence than Washington does in their influence over Damascus. Even if Moscow were to pressure Assad, it is far from clear that would prompt him to consider leaving when countless other diplomatic and military setbacks haven’t, including the loss of Assad’s Turkish allies and the northern third of his country to rebels.
This points to a second, deeper problem with Kerry’s formulation. The United States has long staked its strategy on the hope that persuading Assad and the worst of his cronies to go would pave the way for a negotiated settlement between a unified Syrian opposition and remnants of the regime — avoiding an Iraq-like state collapse. But this notion of a “peaceful political transition” is increasingly questionable.
Rather than regime change without state collapse, the inverse is unfolding in Syria: the emergence of a failed state in which a contracted, consolidated Assad regime fights on — more sectarian, repressive and tightly aligned with Iran and Hezbollah.
Such a regime is less likely to be willing or able to negotiate its own end — regardless of whether Assad is its leader — and more likely to keep fighting, even if this means abandoning Damascus and establishing an Alawite rump state on the Mediterranean coast, protected by chemical weapons and militias sponsored by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the conflict, al-Qaeda-linked extremists continue to gain influence by providing the help the West won’t — likewise dimming the chances of a negotiated peace.
Washington can, of course, keep hoping that Russia will flip, Assad will go and a deal will follow that saves the Syrian state — but we cannot count on it. Just as Assad and the Iranians have their Plan B, so must we.
The first element of such a strategy should be to recognize that, if any prospect remains to change the calculations of Assad and his gang, it will be because of bold leadership from Washington, not Moscow — specifically, the use of limited military force, such as airstrikes, to neutralize Assad’s airpower, protect civilians in liberated areas and underscore that the Syrian leader’s cause is hopeless.
Just as a diplomatic settlement was impossible in Bosnia until NATO airstrikes pushed Slobodan Milosevic to the negotiating table, the same may prove true for Syria.
Second, we need to accept the possibility that a negotiated settlement won’t be achievable and start working to mitigate the most sinister consequences of state collapse.
This leads to the question of U.S. support for the Syrian opposition. Proponents of arming the rebels — who, as of last fall, we now know, included Obama’s last secretary of state, defense secretary, CIA director and chairman of the Joint Chiefs — have argued that doing so could help tip the balance against Assad, empower moderates and build leverage with the opposition.
These arguments still hold. But there is another, more compelling reason now: Lethal assistance is our last, best tool to help determine whether the post-Assad vacuum is filled by a unified, military opposition that can maintain something resembling order — or a patchwork of ethnic and sectarian militias over which we have no influence.
Any hope for the former will require not just funneling weapons to guerrilla groups in the shadows but also a large-scale, transparent U.S.-sponsored effort to train, equip and mentor a new Syrian army.
Such a shift in strategy would run against the instincts of the Obama administration — its aversion to nation-building and military intervention, and its preference for letting others lead.
If John Kerry hopes to save Syria, the leader whose calculations he will need to change is not Vladimir Putin nor even Bashar al-Assad but the president of the United States.
Robert Fisk: At a checkpoint, watching for bombs, the talk turned to religion
Soldiers facing the threat of suicide bombers in Damascus tell The Independent’s Middle East correspondent of their fears for the future of Syria
ROBERT FISK TUESDAY 16 APRIL 2013
“Can you imagine the psychology of my soldiers when they stand here all day, knowing that one of these cars could be a suicide bomber?” The Syrian army colonel eyed the two long lines of cars trailing past the Assad library, each pulling to a gentle, slightly frightened halt. Most of the checkpoint men were bearded. The colonel was a Sunni Muslim – since all journalists now want to know the religion of everyone they meet in this country – and asked that I do not print his name. We were welcome to take pictures but, please, no faces. The colonel did not say so, but I know the reason. Months ago, several soldiers were assassinated after apparently being identified on a clip of Russian television news tape.
And as for the psychology of the colonel’s men? Well, they are now enduring what Iraqi forces and Nato soldiers across Afghanistan and especially Americans in Iraq have confronted; the knowledge that the next car could blow up in your face. Since the suicide bomber came to Damascus this month, the regime realises that the kamikaze is probably unstoppable. So the colonel’s soldiers approach the drivers politely but with great care. ID card. Destination. Boot open. Much of the traffic in the centre of Damascus is now channelled through three main streets – the rest are cordoned off. The result: traffic jams of epic proportions and more soldiers on patrol.
But the colonel is a phlegmatic man and, like many Syrian officers, is prepared to speak his mind. Yes, of course he supports the President but he thinks before he speaks (a rare quality in soldiers) and talks about religion as well as suicide bombers.
“You know, religion is not meant to be something you use to control people,” he says. “Religion should be something that makes people joyful and happy. All extremist organisations use religion for organising but religion is for beautiful things. I don’t like it when you use the word ‘Islamist’ for ‘extremist’. Extremists are not Muslims.” I try to explain that in English, we often use “Islamist” for “extremist”, that “Muslim” in an English context means just that: a Muslim. He frowns. I mention Osama bin Laden and he shrugs.
“You know, bin Laden’s job was not to think. His job was to obey and carry out orders and operations. Maybe he did not work for the Americans. But for the West?” We are now in conspiracy country – although as usual, I have to admit that bin Laden was fighting on our side against the Soviets – and the word Boston creeps into our conversation. He is afraid the Americans will send their troops here, blaming Syria, as they sent them to Iraq after 9/11.
I say no, the Americans have no enthusiasm for another Middle East war. The colonel disagrees. Yes, the US will send “its” soldiers but they won’t be American. They will be sent locally by Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The UN is amassing war crimes indictments against all kinds of armed groups in Syria – the government army very much among them – but the fact remains that this conversation would have been impossible – unthinkable – before the uprising. The war has given a freedom of speech even to soldiers to debate among themselves, as they do, about the war. The colonel lamented the fact that he had to tell me he was a Sunni. “We never talked like this before. We never thought in terms of religion. We were Syrians.”
I reflect on this for several minutes. If everyone was a Syrian before the revolt, then why did the uprising begin in the first place? Even the most lick-spittle supporters of the regime admit that deeper causes must be admitted for the terrible tragedy now overwhelming this country. It’s not good enough just to blame “terrorists” as all governments do when they want to demonise their enemies. But…
The government in Damascus yesterday stated that the bodies of the eight air force officers – including two generals – said to have been beheaded by rebels in Idlib province after their helicopter was apparently shot down, had been brought to the Latakia Military Hospital. All, according to a government official, had been beheaded. Several, he said, had – before or after death – had their eyes taken out. No further details were forthcoming. In Syria these days, you hear these things from both sides; and you fear they may be true. Take it or leave it.
Sorting out the Syrian opposition
By David Ignatius, Published: April 2
As the decisive battle for Damascus approaches, the array of Syrian opposition forces facing President Bashar al-Assad appears to share one common trait: Most of the major rebel groups have strong Islamic roots and backing from Muslim neighbors.
The Free Syrian Army has developed a rough “order of battle” that describes these rebel groups, their ideology and sources of funding. This report was shared last week with the State Department. It offers a window on a war that, absent some diplomatic miracle, is grinding toward a bloody and chaotic endgame.
The disorganized, Muslim-dominated opposition prompts several conclusions: First, the United States will have limited influence, even if it steps up covert involvement over the next few months. Second, the post-Assad situation may be as chaotic and dangerous as the civil war itself. The Muslim rebel groups will try to claim control of Assad’s powerful arsenal, including chemical weapons, posing new dangers.
Although the Syrian revolution is two years old, the rebel forces haven’t formed a unified command. Gen. Salim Idriss, commander of the Free Syrian Army, has tried to coordinate the fighters. But this remains a bottom-up rebellion, with towns and regions forming battalions that have merged into larger coalitions. These coalitions have tens of thousands of fighters. But they lack anything approaching the discipline of a normal army.
Even though the rebels have only loose coordination, they have become a potent force. They have seized control of most of Aleppo and northern Syria, and they are tightening their grip on Damascus, controlling many of the access routes east and south of the city, according to rebel sources. Free Syrian Army leaders believe that the battle for Damascus will reach its climax in the next two to three months.
Rebel shells have hit landmarks in central Damascus, such as the Sheraton Hotel and the neighborhood of Abou Roumaneh, where many diplomats are based. To the east, the rebels now appear to control East Goutha, which commands eastern access to the city, and are firing on the Damascus airport. To the west, they are reportedly shelling the neighborhood of Mezzeh.
The lineup of opposition military groups is confusing to outsiders, but rebel sources say there are several major factions.
The biggest umbrella group is called the Jabhat al-Tahrir al-Souriya al-Islamiya. It has about 37,000 fighters, drawn from four main subgroups based in different parts of the country. These Saudi-backed groups are not hard-core Islamists but are more militant than the political coalition headed by Sheik Moaz al-Khatib, who last week claimed Syria’s seat in the Arab League.
The second-largest rebel coalition is more extreme and is dominated by hard-core Salafist Muslims. Its official name — Jabhat al-Islamiya al-Tahrir al-Souriya — is almost identical to that of the Saudi-backed group. Rebel sources count 11 different brigades from around the country that have merged to form this second coalition. Financing comes from wealthy Saudi, Kuwaiti and other Gulf Arab individuals. Rebel sources estimate about 13,000 Salafist fighters are gathered under this second umbrella.
A third rebel group, known as Ahfad al-Rasoul, is funded by Qatar. It has perhaps 15,000 fighters.
The most dangerous group in the mix is the Jabhat al-Nusra, which is an offshoot of al-Qaeda in Iraq.
By one rebel estimate, it has grown to include perhaps 6,000 fighters. But this group, perhaps fearing that it will be targeted by Western counterterrorism forces, is said to be keeping its head down — and perhaps commingling with the Salafist umbrella group.
Idriss and his Free Syrian Army command about 50,000 more fighters, rebel sources say.
Realistically, the best hope for U.S. policy is to press the Saudi-backed coalition and its 37,000 fighters, to work under the command of Idriss and the Free Syrian Army. That would bring a measure of order and would open the way for Idriss to negotiate a military transition government that would include reconcilable elements of Assad’s army.
“Consolidating forces under Gen. Idriss would extend his recognition and credibility,” explained a Syrian rebel activist here Tuesday night. But without a strong Saudi push, this coordination is a long shot.
Rebel sources here say the opposition has developed plans to train Syrian police, purify water supplies and teach forces how to dispose of chemical weapons — all pending approval. Such plans offer the best chance for mitigating the Syrian disaster. What is the United States waiting for?
Turkey, the Unhelpful Ally
By HALIL M. KARAVELI
Published: February 27, 2013
AMERICA’S stated goal is to remove President Bashar al-Assad from power in Syria. The United States also insists that any solution to the Syrian crisis should guarantee religious and ethnic pluralism. However, this rosy vision of a moderate and secular Syria after Mr. Assad’s downfall will not be achieved if the United States continues to depend on regional allies that have little interest in such an outcome.
President Obama has relied heavily on Turkey in seeking to oust Mr. Assad and Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to visit the Turkish capital, Ankara, later this week. But Turkey is part of the problem. It is exacerbating Syria’s sectarian strife, rather than contributing to a peaceful and pluralistic solution.
While the Obama administration has encouraged a broad Syrian opposition coalition, in which the influence of Islamists would be circumscribed, Turkey has not been of any assistance whatsoever. Instead, the Turkish government has continued to throw its weight behind the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood dominated the Syrian National Council, which is headquartered in Istanbul, and has succeeded in eclipsing other groups within the new opposition coalition, effectively thwarting the American effort to empower non-Islamists.
Moreover, while sponsoring the Sunni cause in Syria, the Turkish government has made no attempt to show sympathy for the fears of the country’s Alawite, Christian and Kurdish minorities. The Alawites and the Christians have backed the government in large numbers and fear retribution if Mr. Assad is toppled.
Turkey has provided a crucial sanctuary for the Sunni rebels fighting Mr. Assad and has helped to arm and train them. Even more ominously, Turkey is turning a blind eye to the presence of jihadists on its territory, and has even used them to suppress the aspirations of Kurds in Syria. Last November, Islamist rebels from Jabhet al-Nusra, which has reputed links to Al Qaeda in Iraq, entered the Syrian town of Ras al-Ain from Turkey and attacked fighters from the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, known as the P.Y.D., which had wrested control of parts of northeastern Syria. The Nusra fighters were initially repelled, but have continued to cross into Syria from their safe haven in Turkey.
Mr. Obama has invested considerable political capital in Turkey, cultivating a close relationship with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. American and Turkish officials have held regular operational planning meetings since last summer, aimed at hastening the downfall of Mr. Assad. In a recent interview with the Turkish newspaper Milliyet, Mr. Obama thanked “the Turkish government for the leadership they have provided in the efforts to end the violence in Syria and start the political transition process.”
But this praise is undeserved. America can’t expect the Sunni Arab autocracies that have financed the Syrian uprising, like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, to help empower secular and moderate leaders in Syria. However, Turkey, a NATO ally, should be expected to promote a pluralistic, post-Assad Syria. It has not.
The Obama administration must therefore reassess the assumption that Turkey is playing a constructive role in ending the violence in Syria; it must also take a hard look at its own role in contributing to religious strife.
America’s policy of punitive sanctions and not-so-veiled military threats toward Iran has encouraged Turkey to assert itself as a Sunni power. The perception that Turkey enjoys American “cover” for a foreign policy that directly confronts Iranian interests emboldened the Turkish government to throw its weight behind the armed Sunni rebellion against Mr. Assad, Iran’s main regional ally.
Turkey quickly abandoned its stated ambition to have “zero problems with neighbors” and decided to join the United States in confronting Iran. It agreed to the deployment of parts of NATO’s antimissile shield, which is meant to neutralize a supposed Iranian missile threat.
Turkey’s shift flowed from the belief that it would gain power and stature and reap the benefits if America succeeded in rolling back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
All of this suited the United States. Washington no longer had to fear that Turkey might be “drifting eastward,” as it did during the short-lived Turkish-Iranian rapprochement a few years ago, when Turkey broke ranks with its Western partners over the Iranian nuclear issue. Turkey also appeared to be an American asset insofar as it could potentially offset the influence of more conservative Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia.
But the Syrian crisis has had a radicalizing effect on all parties, including Turkey’s more moderate Islamist government. Under more peaceful circumstances, Mr. Erdogan might be able to live up to American expectations and promote a pluralistic vision for the Middle East. That won’t happen if the region is increasingly torn apart by violent religious conflict and its leaders believe that playing the sectarian card will enhance their power.
Removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq in 2003 had the undesirable consequence of empowering Iran. A decade later, America’s effort to remove Mr. Assad is partly an attempt to remedy this geopolitical setback. But, as in Iraq, it has had unwelcome consequences. Moreover, American policy toward Iran is encouraging opportunistic Sunni assertiveness that threatens to trigger Shiite retaliation.
The United States must beware of doing the bidding of Sunni powers — especially Turkey — that are advancing sectarian agendas that run counter to America’s interest of promoting pluralism and tolerance. Left unchecked, rising sectarianism could lead to a dangerous regional war.
Halil M. Karaveli is a senior fellow at the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute and the Silk Road Studies Program, which are affiliated with the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, in Washington, and with the Institute for Security and Development Policy, in Stockholm.
A new Syria must have U.S. support
Backing up Obama’s warnings to Syria creates tough challenges on two fronts
Syrian Rebels Say They Have Seized a Military Airfield and Its Warplanes
BEIRUT, Lebanon — Syrian insurgents seized control of a northern military airfield on Tuesday and captured usable warplanes for the first time in the nearly two-year-old conflict, according to rebels and activist groups. The development, if confirmed, would represent the second strategic setback for President Bashar al-Assad’s government this week.
J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey said that they both supported sending arms to the Syrian rebels, as did Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Senate Hearing Draws Out a Rift in U.S. Policy on Syria
A Rebel Commander in Syria Holds the Reins of War
Leading the Rebel Fight for Aleppo: C.J. Chivers, a correspondent for The New York Times, profiles Abdulkader al-Saleh, a k a Hajji Marea, who leads the largest Syrian antigovernment fighting group operating in and around Aleppo.
By C. J. CHIVERS
Published: February 1, 2013
THE would-be assassin was patient, if not an accomplished shot.
His victim, the Syrian rebel commander Hajji Marea, was fighting a cold and had sent a bodyguard out to find medicine, the commander’s supporters said. As he waited, Hajji Marea stepped outside to make a phone call, when the gunman fired. The bullet missed his head, and struck his left shoulder.
Months later, Hajji Marea made a fist with his left hand, demonstrating that he had healed, even while the Syrian government’s bounty remained. “The bone was broken, but it is O.K. now,” he said, before dressing against the chill and heading back onto the city’s streets, where artillery boomed.
Such is the persona of Abdulkader al-Saleh, a k a Hajji Marea, an example of the antigovernment leadership emerging inside Syria — a phenomenon unfolding on battlefields only intermittently visited by outsiders.
Mr. Saleh leads the military wing of Al Tawhid, the largest antigovernment fighting group operating in and near Syria’s most populous city, Aleppo — a position that has made him one of the government’s most wanted men.
The uprising to unseat President Bashar al-Assad is now almost two years old. While Western governments have long worried that its self-declared leaders, many of whom operate from Turkey, cannot jell into a coherent movement with unifying leaders, the fighting across the country has been producing a crop of field commanders who stand to assume just these roles.
These men — with inside connections, street credibility and revolutionary narratives that many of the Western-recognized leadership lacks — have taken the reins of the war. They hold the weapons. They have their own international relations and financing.
Should they survive, many of them could become Syria’s postwar power brokers.
The commanders range from secular and chain-smoking former military officers who are products of the same institutions they are fighting, to bearded extremists working for an Islamic Syria based on their interpretation of religious law.
Men like Mr. Saleh present both a challenge and an opportunity for the West as it struggles to understand what is happening in Syria and to nurture networks that might provide stability and routes for Western influence should the government fall.
Mr. Saleh’s long-term intentions are not entirely clear. He says he is focused solely on winning the war, and promotes a tolerant pluralistic vision for the future. He is also openly aligned with Al Nusra Front, a growing Islamic militia that has been blacklisted by the United States, which accuses it of embracing terrorist tactics.
Officials in Washington are aware of Mr. Saleh, and other commanders of his standing. There is no evidence that they have connections with them, or a plan for how to develop relations in a Syria that is partly under their influence.
MR. SALEH, wounded in battle multiple times, survived an assassination attempt in the fall, adding to his legend in the Aleppo governorate, where he is the rebels’ primary military commander.
“Was it $200,000?” he asked a peer, during a recent interview in a command post hidden in an Aleppo basement, about the bounty for his head. He seemed uninterested by the answer.
“Our concern now is only in the military side and how to fight this regime and finish this,” he said.
The son of a shopkeeper in Marea, just north of Aleppo, Mr. Saleh took an indirect route to guerrilla leader. As a young man, he served two and a half years as an army conscript, working, he said, in a chemical weapons unit.
He later joined the Dawa religious movement as a missionary. He traveled abroad, including, one of his brothers said, to Jordan, Turkey and Bangladesh, where he taught and studied Islam and invited people to hear the call to faith.
Life in Syria lured him back. His hometown lies in an agricultural belt, ringed by dark-soiled fields. Mr. Saleh opened a shop on one of Marea’s main streets, from where he imported and sold seeds. He married and started a family, which grew to include five children. Not long after the uprising began, he joined with neighbors and relatives to organize demonstrations against what he described as the government’s repression.
When the fighting began, and rebels formed underground cells to plan ambushes, make bombs and persuade government soldiers to defect, Mr. Saleh’s standing grew. People spoke of a successful commander who was honest, organized and almost serenely calm under fire.
In many quarters his identity remained unknown. “We were secretive,” he said. “The public knew there was someone named Hajji Marea who led the demonstrations. But nobody knew who he was.”
Though he stands a little more than six feet tall, Mr. Saleh is unimposing, retaining an open face and youthful lankiness. Outsiders might not even make him for a fighter. One recent day, wearing a hoodie and moving with a loping gait, he could have passed for a graduate student.
His battlefield name, Hajji Marea, roughly translated, means “the respectable man from Marea.”
BY last summer, the fighting units near Aleppo had chased most government forces from the countryside and seized control of a border crossing to Turkey. Simultaneously, Mr. Saleh was emerging as the main leader of Al Tawhid. His anonymity ended.
He was soon seen as pragmatic and accommodating, an active commander who was able to navigate the uprising’s sometimes seemingly contradictory social worlds. A friend of the Islamists fighting beside him, he also spoke of avoiding the nihilism of sectarian war.
One of his subcommanders, Omar Abdulkader of the Grandsons of Saladin, a Kurdish fighting group, described how Mr. Saleh welcomed him and fellow fighters into Al Tawhid — though they were not Arabs.
“He has supported us since we have formed our battalion, and he bought for us some weapons and ammunition,” he said. “We’ve never heard or seen any bad acts from him — all good deeds all the time.”
He added: “Hajji Marea told us there is no difference between Muslim or Christian, Kurdish or Arab or even Alawi. We are all brothers.”
These days, when Mr. Saleh appears in public, his supporters treat him with reverential deference. In the summer, Mr. Saleh arrived at a meeting of commanders in another hidden command post. Several seasoned battalion leaders almost sat at his feet.
Analysts of the war say that for those who hope to speed the end to the violence or have influence in Syria afterward, men like Mr. Saleh present a diplomatic challenge. Should foreign governments and aid organizations try to establish connections and open a dialogue, before the window narrows?
At least one organization has tried. Although some antigovernment fighters in Aleppo have participated in abuses and battlefield excesses — including the summary execution of prisoners — the perpetrators have often not been identified and the crimes have not been directly linked to Mr. Saleh or his immediate followers, a researcher with Human Rights Watch said.
The researcher, Ole Solvang, said the rights group had urged Mr. Saleh to direct his fighters to behave lawfully. “As an influential military opposition leader, Hajji Marea has a particular responsibility to ensure that opposition fighters do not commit such abuses,” Mr. Solvang said.
For Western governments, outreach is problematic, in part because of Washington’s policies, which rebels said first were noncommittal, then shaped by fears of Islam and a tendency toward counterterrorism solutions.
One American official called Mr. Saleh “the real thing” — a commander with thousands of fighters, independent sources of financing and supply, good relations with other fighting groups and a record of tactical success.
But Mr. Saleh, who said he differentiates between the American people, who he said support the uprising, and the American government, which he said does not, did not hide his displeasure with the Obama administration.
Like many activists and rebels, he saw inconsistency and hypocrisy in Washington’s position, which Syrians often summarize as this: For the Assad government to use chemical weapons would be unacceptable; for it to kill civilians with conventional weapons is fine.
“America keeps silent,” he said. “The way we see it as Arabs: If you are silent, then you are agreeing with what is happening.”
Sitting nearby, Abdel-Aziz Salameh, Al Tawhid’s political leader, warned that time was running short for the United States. “All the world has abandoned us,” he said. “If the revolution lasts for another year, you’ll see all the Syrian people like Al Qaeda; all the people will be like Al Qaeda.
Trapped by a shower of shrapnel: Photographer finds himself perilously close to the centre of action in war-torn Damascus
Rubble: One of the fighters cautiously looks around the corner of a building as fires burn in the streets beyond
Shrapnel: Free Syrian Army fighters run for cover as a tank shell explodes on a wall during heavy fighting in the Ain Tarma neighbourhood of Damascus
The shocking moment a Free Syrian Army fighter (left) looks at his comrade as he gets shot by sniper fire during heavy fightin
The fighter drags his comrade out of the line of fire. His efforts were to no avail, the man later died
Fiery wrath: Photographer Goran Tomasevic captured the intensive fighting as the rebel group fought to overrun a government checkpoint in a Damascus neighborhood
Lull: Rebels rest in the Haresta neighbourhood of Damascus
The woman sniper of Syria: Rebel fighter nicknamed ‘Guevara’ takes revenge on Assad’s troops after her children were killed in airstrike
War-torn: The female sniper, known simply as Guevara, stalks the streets of Alleppo with her rifle
Divided Syrian opposition ponders leader’s offer of talks with Assad
Outrage within coalition over Moaz al-Khatib’s initiative underlines dilemma for rebels still lacking practical support from US and western backers
Iran and Hezbollah build militia networks in Syria in event that Assad falls, officials say
By Karen DeYoung and Joby Warrick, Published: February 10
Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese proxy, are building a network of militias inside Syria to preserve and protect their interests in the event that President Bashar al-
Assad’s government falls or is forced to retreat from Damascus, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials.
The militias are fighting alongside Syrian government forces to keep Assad in power. But officials think Iran’s long-term goal is to have reliable operatives in Syria in case the country fractures into ethnic and sectarian enclaves.
A senior Obama administration official cited Iranian claims that Tehran was backing as many as 50,000 militiamen in Syria. “It’s a big operation,” the official said. “The immediate intention seems to be to support the Syrian regime. But it’s important for Iran to have a force in Syria that is reliable and can be counted on.”
Iran’s strategy, a senior Arab official agreed, has two tracks. “One is to support Assad to the hilt, the other is to set the stage for major mischief if he collapses.”
The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters.
The fragmentation of Syria along religious and tribal lines is a growing concern for neighboring governments and the administration, as the civil war approaches its third year with little sign of a political solution or military victory for either Assad’s forces or the rebels.
Rebel forces, drawn largely from Syria’s Sunni majority, are far from united, with schisms along religious, geographic, political and economic lines. Militant Islamists, including many from other countries and with ties to al-Qaeda, are growing in power.
Kurdish nationalists have their own militias, with control over major swaths of the northeastern part of the country and in parts of Aleppo. They are far more interested in autonomy than in an alliance with either side in the conflict. Minority Christians have largely sided with Assad, fearing the outcome of an Islamist victory. Syria’s 700,000 Druze, followers of an offshoot of Shiite Islam, are increasingly leaning toward the rebels.
Despite U.S. efforts to convince members of Assad’s Alawite sect, itself a minority within Islam’s Shiite branch, that their interests lie in abandoning him, Alawite support remains fairly solid.
Each of Syria’s internal actors has external backers.
“Syria is basically disintegrating as a nation, similar to how Lebanon disintegrated in the ’70s to ethnic components, and as Iraq did,” said Paul Salem, director of the Beirut-based Middle East Center of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “It’s going to be very hard to put Syria the nation back together.”
“We’re looking at a place which is sort of a zone, an area called Syria, with different powers,” Salem said.
Iran has a history of profiting from chaos, even without control of the government ostensibly in power. Hezbollah arose out of the Lebanese civil war of the 1970s, when Iran was able to exploit the grievances of that country’s Shiite population, a pattern it also followed in Iraq during the chaos that followed the U.S. Invasion.
Tehran’s interest in preserving a Syrian base partly explains why the financially strapped Iranian government continues to lavish resources on groups such as Jaysh al-Sha’bi, an alliance of local Shiite and Alawite militias that receives weapons and cash from Iran, according to U.S. and Middle Eastern officials who have studied the organization. The groups are receiving military training from officers from Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).
While ostensibly created to bolster Syria’s battered, overstretched army, Jaysh fighters — separate from Syria’s pro-regime shabiha, or “ghost,” units, which are notorious for reprisal killings of suspected rebel sympathizers — are predominantly a sectarian fighting force overseen by Iranian and Hezbollah commanders.“Jaysh is essentially an Iran-Hezbollah joint venture,” said David Cohen, undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the Treasury Department. “Given the other constraints on Iranian resources right now, it’s obvious that this is an important proxy group for them.”
In slapping sanctions on the militia in December, the Treasury Department said Iran had provided it with “routine funding worth millions of dollars.”
A Treasury statement noted that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard commander has said that Jaysh was “modeled after Iran’s own Basij,” which it described as “a paramilitary force subordinate to the IRGC that has been heavily involved in the violent crackdowns and serious human rights abuses occurring in Iran since the June 2009 contested presidential election.”
In a divided Syria, Iran’s natural allies would include Shiites and Alawites concentrated in provinces near Syria’s border with Lebanon and in the key port city of Latakia. Under the most likely scenarios, analysts say, remnants of Assad’s government — with or without Assad — would seek to establish a coastal enclave closely tied to Tehran, dependent on the Iranians for survival while helping Iran to retain its link to Hezbollah and thereby its leverage against Israel.
Experts said that Iran is less interested in preserving Assad in power than in maintaining levers of power, including transport hubs inside Syria. As long as Tehran could maintain control of an airport or seaport, it could also maintain a Hezbollah-controlled supply route into Lebanon and continue to manipulate Lebanese politics.
Preservation of an Iranian-supported area on the coast has always been “Plan C or Plan D” for core regime supporters, Salem said. “If everything fails and they lose, they have always prepared for the fortress region . . . with everything they can cart away, even if they lose Damascus.”
“That’s not necessarily what they want,” he said. “They want to hold on to the whole thing.” But the worst-case scenario is that “the whole regime relocates to the northwest, and they still have the most powerful [armed] unit inside Syria, with a lot of the current structure.”
Newly installed Secretary of State John F. Kerry expressed during his confirmation hearing last month the administration’s concern that Syria could break apart, saying that “one of the scenarios everybody’s talking about is that people could sort of break up off into their places . . . and you could have a disintegration, and who knows where that leads?”
“These are the risks,” Kerry said. “I mean, this is what is at stake in this new world that we’re dealing with. And nobody could sit here and tell you how it all plays out.”
In a closed-door meeting of the U.N. Security Council last week, U.N. and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi cited two “big risks that are of serious concern to the international community.”
“The first is the transformation of Syria into a playground for competing regional forces, governments and non-state actors alike,” Brahimi said. “This process is largely underway.” The second risk, he said, is “full-fledged regionalization of the Syrian civil war.”
Obama’s Syrian Nightmare