Syria: Pressure for US Military Action Rising Ominously

by Wayne White

A sampling of the May 5 American Sunday talk shows demonstrated graphically the intense pressure mounting on the White House to move forward with potentially risky military options aimed at hastening the end of the crisis in Syria.

Embedded in much of the criticism of (or impatience with) current US policy since last month’s accusations of Syrian chemical weapons (CW) use has been a misreading of the “red line” established by President Obama last August, flawed connectivity between the objective of Israel’s most recent air strikes vs. US concerns, and minimizing the unpredictability of the future course of the complex maelstrom in Syria.

One figure stands out among those pushing for robust US military action: Senator John McCain. On a talk show yesterday, Sen. McCain declared that the President’s CW red line on Syria “was apparently written in disappearing ink” (one of the harshest comments related to the red line to date). McCain and many others of varied political views essentially have been pushing the president to take strong action in response to two or, at most, three (as yet not fully confirmed) instances of CW use by the regime.

In fact, the President’s red line of August 2012 was defined as follows: “when we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized, that would change my calculus.” [emphasis mine]

By that definition, it would appear the administration’s critics, not the White House, have been attempting to reshape the original red line from a rather high bar to a considerably lower one.

Other canards circulating since Israel’s weekend airstrikes in the Damascus area have been assertions that they should increase pressure on Washington to act and to discredit comments by US Joint Chiefs Chairman General Martin Dempsey and other experts that Syria’s robust air defenses pose a far more serious challenge than did Libya’s.

Sen. McCain appeared dismissive of Gen. Dempsey’s remarks, commenting: “The Israelis seem to be able to penetrate” them “fairly easily.” Yet, there is quite a difference between a few isolated air strikes not very far into Syria and the establishment of a comprehensive no-fly zone or a far more ambitious prolonged campaign of rolling air strikes deep inside Syrian airspace.

Those interested in this debate also should bear in mind that Israel’s narrow military objective to date of blocking Lebanon’s Hezbollah from receiving long-range Fateh-110 missiles being shipped through Syria by Iran is quite different than US and NATO concerns relating to Syria’s sprawling CW arsenal and the issue of how best to assist the Syrian rebels to hasten the fall of the Assad regime.

While even a few isolated, small-scale instances of regime CW use would be ample reason for international concern, it could be that President Bashar al-Assad and other Syrian leaders currently are not under the same amount of pressure to resort to such extreme measures as they might have been a short while ago.

For reasons not quite understood, government forces have shown some renewed vigor in taking on the rebels with the regime’s formidable array of conventional weapons. It is this disturbing development on the broader Syrian battlefield that should be the principal driver behind any consideration of better arming the rebels. Doing so, however (something I also tended to favor over a year ago), has been complicated greatly since early last year by the increased role of al-Qaeda-affiliated Muslim extremists in the fight against the Assad regime.

To make matters worse, last month the direct affiliation between many of them and al-Qaeda was made public. A May 3 Reuters article states: “Israelis believe one in ten of the rebels is a jihadi.”

Nonetheless, one thing is certain: even if their numbers are that small, extremist rebels are providing a disproportionately large number of the opposition’s most effective combat units. It also could be true that their numbers are quite a bit higher than a mere tenth of rebel combatants.

Moreover, selectively arming only “vetted” rebel groups (those less extreme) is unlikely to be as easy or as useful as those pressing for such a course seem to be claiming. First off, there is the likelihood that some groups would succeed in persuading outside powers they are more moderate than they really are. Then there is what I have termed the Catch-22 aspect that would result even if such a selective arms distribution could be achieved: many groups moderate enough to qualify for arms are not nearly as important in altering the balance of power inside Syria more in favor of the rebels than are the extremists.

Finally, there are the unintended consequences of military intervention in Syria. If the result of Muammar al-Qadhafi’s fall in Libya has been continuing instability and violence driven home to Americans by the tragic events in Benghazi last September, post-Assad Syria could prove an even nastier place. Muslim extremists (al-Qaeda itself no less) would be among the key players.

Making matters worse, seething sectarian divides — with the very real danger of Sunni vengeance resulting in further bloodletting and possibly the flight from Syria of several million Alawite and Christian refugees — threatens to stain the aftermath quite darkly.

Still, that has not stopped Sen. McCain (who so fervently backed US intervention in Libya, but now rails on about the deadly events in Benghazi despite the uncertain challenge posed by post-Qadhafi chaos), from advocating US military involvement in the even messier situation in Syria.

It is no wonder, all other reasons aside, that the Obama administration might want to think long and hard about military intervention: many pushing so hard now for the US to wade boldly into such troubled waters probably would turn on the White House in a heartbeat should ill come of any aspect of American engagement in Syria (as it likely would in one form or another). Thus are the inevitable consequences of such a risky business — the unexpected.

Photo: In Aleppo, Karm al Jabal, Mar 4, 2013. Credit: Basma/cc by 2.0

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.