Syria: Grim Realities and Short Memories

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by Wayne White

The remorseless death toll and Assad regime gains in Syria have generated intense criticism in Washington of US policy toward the country. Other observers have also taken up this meme, often claiming the regime would have fallen long ago had the US and West intervened militarily or even just armed the Syrian rebels. Robust US/NATO military action may well have overthrown the regime, but too many recent critics have forgotten the political obstacles (and flawed assumptions) that undermined such choices during the war’s first 18 months. And now, despite widespread appeals, a substantial improvement in humanitarian aid and a political solution are also elusive, at least in the near-term.

Humanitarian crisis

The situation in Syria is appalling and “extremely challenging,” said UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on March 26, almost one month after a UN Security Council resolution called for swift and unlimited humanitarian access to Syrians in need. But the regime demands “convoluted” ministerial approvals for aid deliveries, most of which are not honored by low-level officials on the scene. Among the many millions of desperate Syrians still inside the country, rebels are to blame for besieging some, but the government is blockading over triple that number.

The large northern city of Aleppo seems to be bearing the brunt of the regime’s indiscriminate wrath against civilians. Human Rights Watch reported on March 24 that satellite imagery suggested no fewer than 340 massive government “barrel bombs” were dropped on rebel-held areas of Aleppo between early November 2013 and late February.

A March 26 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing involving senior State Department officials accordingly featured blistering bi-partisan criticism of US policy toward Syria. The administration’s failure to do more to address the crisis was characterized as “delusional” by senior committee Republican Senator Bob Corker, accusing the White House of having “sat by and watched genocide taking place.”

However, consider the Congressional reaction to the prospect of robust US military involvement in NATO’s Libyan no-fly zone and interdiction campaign back in 2011. That intensely negative reaction set the tone for what the administration thought possible regarding Syria during the most critical early phase in the opposition effort against the regime.

Libyan precedent

On June 3, 2011 a House of Representatives resolution offered by Speaker John Boehner called upon the administration to withdraw US forces from all NATO operations over and around Libya — a far less demanding and financially taxing task than taking on Syria’s formidable military. Ten days later, another House resolution prohibited the use of any funds for Libyan operations. Both resolutions passed with over 130 Republican and 110 Democratic votes. Later that month, a Senate resolution sponsored by Senator Bob Corker required formal congressional approval for any further US participation in the Libya mission.

This was not surprising at the time, with highly politicized budgetary issues at the forefront of the American domestic debate. Additionally, the US was withdrawing from Iraq, and the notion of major new military commitments was highly unpopular within both parties on Capitol Hill as well as the electorate. There was also resistance among the Pentagon’s military brass for a new undertaking involving a prolonged military effort. So, for well over 2 years in official Washington those favoring bold US involvement in Syria, like Senator John McCain, remained fairly isolated voices.

Advantage regime

Meanwhile, a series of regime reverses from 2011 to early 2012 convinced many observers that Assad was losing his struggle to survive. A decent body of opinion back then judged the rebels capable of bringing down the regime themselves in the not too distant future.

Yet, the fundamental drivers determining why the rebels have not prevailed or attracted large-scale US and Western arms shipments revolve around the rebels themselves.

First and foremost has been a problem I underscored in October 2012: “major Syrian army units have not chosen to defect en masse.” Clearly, not only Syria’s terrified Alawite and Christian minorities, but also a substantial minority of Syria’s Sunni Arab community have remained loyal to the regime. This has given Damascus a sufficient base from which to rebound militarily as well as to regain the initiative. In fact, Bashar al-Assad recently felt confident enough to make a few public appearances to kick-off his bid for re-election this summer.

Another serious drawback has been a lack of opposition unity in the exile leadership, rebel combatant groups in the field, or between the two. The exile leadership has been in constant turmoil, and the rebels inside Syria are comprised of hundreds of localized units frequently not cooperating — or aligned — with each other. In recent months, heavy fighting between secular and more moderate Islamist rebels on the one hand and extremist combatants on the other has sapped rebel strength — a gift to the regime.

Most crippling with respect to lethal Western assistance, however, was the rapid rise of al-Qaeda linked or inspired extremist rebel groups beginning in December 2011. These elements in the first half of 2012 quickly rose to prominence as the most formidable anti-regime combatants. Their dangerous militancy and atrocities against regime prisoners (as well as Syrian civilians) severely jolted the West. The fear of arms falling into their hands steered US and Western suppliers away from providing the rebels with the arms needed to stand up to the well-equipped Syrian military.

According to one report, while in Riyadh late last week President Barack Obama agreed to consider providing — or authorizing the Saudis to provide — surface-to-air missiles to moderate rebels. The White House has mulled over arming such rebels since mid-2012, but backed off repeatedly (because of the presence of rebel extremists).

Another blow to the Syrian opposition stems from a rift developing within the Arab League (previously united behind the rebels). A bitter feud between Qatar on the one hand and mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other has been highly disruptive. Consumed by their own feuding and stung by rebel defeats and disunity, the most active pro-rebel Arab governments have finally fallen out completely over which rebels to arm. In fact, for the first time since the Syrian rebellion, several Arab countries backing Syria capitalized on all this to block the Syrian opposition’s seating at the conclave as representing Syria.

All the while, one damaging constant has been in play:  Moscow has been serving its own narrow interests by providing a lifeline of arms, munitions, and military spares to the Syrian regime. Russia only joined the effort to remove Syria’s chemical weapons (CW) arsenal to head off US military action and buy time so the international community would ultimately be dependent on a coherent Syrian government to turn the weapons over.

Another compelling concern driving Russian President Vladimir Putin’s desire to cooperate was to eliminate the possibility of CW being seized by rebel jihadists. There are some Chechen fighters among Syrian extremist combatants; one commanded the militant force that seized a Syrian airfield last year. The thought of Chechen jihadis smuggling Syrian CW into Russian territory is a Kremlin nightmare.

Similarly, Iran has remained steadfast in its support for its Syrian ally. Not only does Tehran continue to send munitions, Revolutionary Guard trainers and advisors, but it also helped arrange for thousands of Hezbollah militiamen to join the Assad regime’s struggle against the rebels, bolstering Syrian army infantry units decimated by combat attrition.

Meanwhile, prospects for peace in the last round of Geneva talks were nil, with the regime flushed with battlefield success, an exile opposition not fully representative of rebel fighters inside Syria, and rebel strength sapped by intense in-fighting.

Aid as a weapon

There was, nonetheless, some hope at the beginning of the December 2013 Geneva conclave related to one goal: a breakthrough on humanitarian assistance. The Assad regime knows, however, that in a fight to the finish (as this war has become), humanitarian supplies — especially food and medicine — are vital assets best denied to one’s opponents. So, as in 20th Century “world wars” replete with blockades and submarine interdiction to isolate, starve and otherwise weaken enemies, Damascus is blocking humanitarian aid to break the will and staying power of the rebels and the populations sustaining them.

As a result, much like a political settlement to end the carnage, getting humanitarian aid to the most vulnerable of the conflict’s victims inside the country will remain a daunting challenge. In the face of these grim realities, it likewise will continue to be exceedingly difficult for Washington or Western European capitals to fashion Syria policies with much hope of success.

Photo: President Barack Obama meets with Members of Congress to discuss Syria, in the Cabinet Room of the White House, Sept. 3, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

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Wayne White

Wayne White is a former Deputy Director of the State Department's Middle East/South Asia Intelligence Office (INR/NESA). Earlier in the Foreign Service and later in the INR he served in Niger, Israel, Egypt, the Sinai and Iraq as an intelligence briefer to senior officials of many Middle East countries and as the State Department's representative to NATO Middle East Working Groups in Brussels. Now a Scholar with the Middle East Institute, Mr. White has written numerous articles, been cited in scores of publications, and made numerous TV and radio appearances.

2 Comments

  1. This was an ill advised intrusion from the very beginning, but the powers to be thought that they would triumph. Coming off the Libya adventure, which certainly isn’t what one would can point to with pride, unless the objective was just to kill Qaddafi and turn the country into a mess, like Iraq & Afghanistan, now Syria? Egypt, another story, in fact, much of the M.E. has turned out to be just one “Cluster-” after another, thanks to the extreme Neocon/Rightwing pundits in and about the U.S. Government. Why is NATO involved in the M.E.? More to the point, who is financing NATO’s adventures? The E.U. has its own problems, yet are being pushed by the U.S. I wonder, will history show that the first two decades of the 21st Century were run by the “Warmongers” who destroyed civilization?

  2. You did not mention Israeli involvement in the war against Syria – why not?

    You did not mention Turkic involvement in the war against Syria – why not?

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