By Paul Mutter
The New York Times reports that despite US reluctance to arm Islamist actors in Syria, that’s happening as the US does little to vet the actions of its partners Qatar and Saudi Arabia. Though the amount of aid flowing to the badly-equipped rebels is still relatively small as other on-the-ground reports have reiterated, the Times suggests that unless the US takes a more direct route, the situation will come to favor the Islamists:
“The opposition groups that are receiving the most of the lethal aid are exactly the ones we don’t want to have it,” said one American official familiar with the outlines of those findings, commenting on an operation that in American eyes has increasingly gone awry.
The United States is not sending arms directly to the Syrian opposition. Instead, it is providing intelligence and other support for shipments of secondhand light weapons like rifles and grenades into Syria, mainly orchestrated from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The reports indicate that the shipments organized from Qatar, in particular, are largely going to hard-line Islamists.
Jackson Diehl, the Washington Post‘s editorial pages hawkish deputy editor, expanded on the argument that Obama’s skittishness is leading the US to disaster in Syria. Diehl has been a forceful advocate of non-engagement with Assad since before the Syrian uprising began, and has called for more assertive US policy to help remove Assad from power:
…. Obama rejected suggestions by several senators that he lead an intervention. Instead he committed a second major error, by adopting a policy of seeking to broker a Syrian solution through the United Nations. “The best thing we can do,” he said last March, “is to unify the international community.”
As countless observers correctly predicted, the subsequent U.N. mission of Kofi Annan was doomed from the beginning. When the White House could no longer deny that reality, it turned to an equally fantastical gambit: Vladimir Putin, it argued, could be persuaded to abandon his support of Assad and force him to step down. The nadir of this diplomacy may have been reached on June 30, when Clinton cheerfully predicted that the Kremlin had “decided to get on one horse, and it’s the horse that would back a transition plan” removing Assad.
Needless to say, Putin did no such thing. The war went on; thousands more died. For the past three months, Obama’s policy has become a negative: He is simply opposed to any use of U.S. power. Fixed on his campaign slogan that “the tide of war is receding” in the Middle East, Obama claims that intervention would only make the conflict worse — and then watches as it spreads to NATO ally Turkey and draws in hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters.
Al Qaeda’s presence in Syria has often been cited both for and against the case for direct Western intervention. But the number of foreign fighters in Syria is not known. According to Max Rodenbeck, “by no current estimate does the number of foreign fighters in Syria — young men who mostly see themselves as part of a Spanish Civil War–style international brigade rather than as terrorist ninjas — surpass a thousand, out of at least 50,000 armed men on the rebel side.” The Times itself adds that some militias appear to be falsely burnishing “Salafist” credentials in order to woo donors.
Though non-governmental rebel advocates like the Syrian Support Group have downplayed the question of where the militias fall ideologically, the Wall Street Journal, TIME and Real Clear Politics report that rivalries among Islamist factions for arms procurement are undermining their nominal joint effort against the Syrian Army. The Times has reported before that even the rebels’ Gulf backers are starting to consider the possibility of “blowback.”
The Times adds that even though Obama’s course is being criticized by interventionists, GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney has not offered the sort of direct military aid some in the Beltway would prefer:
But Mr. Romney stopped short of saying that he would have the United States provide those arms directly, and his aides said he would instead rely on Arab allies to do it. That would leave him, like Mr. Obama, with little direct control over the distribution of the arms.
Diehl also blames Obama for “reversing Bush’s policy of distancing the United States from strongmen like Assad and Hosni Mubarak.”