The Region: Syria: The empire strikes back

US strategy, and that of the West and international organizations, has been based on two ideas that have proven to be wishful thinking.

May 5, 2013 21:25
4 minute read.
Syria's Assad speaks in Damascus, January 6, 2013

Syrian President Assad speaks in Damascus 370. (photo credit: Sana Sana/Reuters)

Given the recent military gains of the Syrian regime, obituaries of dictator Bashar Assad have proven exaggerated, and that puts the Obama administration in a bind.

US strategy, and that of the West and international organizations, has been based on two ideas that have proven to be wishful thinking: • Assad and the opposition would cut a deal and so everything could be settled nicely and diplomatically.

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This was absurd.

• The rebels would defeat Assad without direct Western intervention. So far, while the rebels have made gains, the regime is now on the counteroffensive.

It could take two years for a rebel victory, and even then it isn’t assured. One reason for the regime’s gains is that it has more reliable allies.

Who would you rather have behind you, Russia, Iran, Iraq and Hezbollah or the US, EU, UN and Arab League? Silly question, isn’t it? But the second civil war – the one within the rebel side – looks just as bad. Who would you rather have behind you: the US, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey – as the Islamists have had until the Americans (quite recently) started waking up – or, as the moderate rebels have had... nobody.

Now comes a dramatic development. The opposition’s claim that the regime used sarin, a deadly nerve gas. Israeli intelligence confirmed the claim but the Obama administration at first denied it. A couple of days later, however, the US government changed its view.

Incidentally, this led to a humorous development that requires some background. In the 1930s, the Communist parties loudly and militantly demanded a united front against fascism, i.e., Nazi Germany.

Then, like a thunderbolt, came news of the Nazi-Soviet Pact, in which the two publicly vowed non-aggression and privately agreed to carve up Eastern Europe. Within hours, the Communist parties switched to highlighting the idea that Western warmongers wanted to stir up an unnecessary conflict with the Nazis.

In miniature, this is what happened with The New York Times. When the Obama administration said there was no evidence of nerve gas use, the newspaper played up the government’s statement that if there ever was such evidence Obama should keep his word about intervening in Syria. But once Obama reversed his stance, the newspaper quickly fell into line with the new position.

To explain, Obama had previously stated that use of nerve gas would trigger escalated intervention.

Once the government was forced to admit that nerve gas had been used, however, he said that the international community would have to reach the same conclusion before he would do anything.

So here’s the situation: Obama has painted himself into a corner regarding a two-year-long civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed. He understandably doesn’t want to intervene and now a new element is added. For finally his government came to the realization that the forces it has been backing are radical Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafist groups. The moderates were neglected, even rudely shoved aside. And now it is too late – though official policy pretends otherwise – to boost the moderate rebels.

Of course, the Obama administration can do little things; send more non-lethal aid, urge the Qataris and Saudis to send more guns, and try to funnel the guns to moderate forces, or even seek to set up a moderate-ruled area in southern Syria. But military intervention or even a no-fly zone? Nope.

It isn’t necessarily that the Obama administration is wrong in wanting to avoid deeper involvement.

On the contrary, it is correct, though a bit more can be done. Yet now it is forced to choose between the following two options: • Get involved in a civil war in order to place a radical anti-American government in power. Surely it remembers how things didn’t work out so well for its predecessor in Iraq, not to mention that the US is running out of money and the public doesn’t want another new war.

• Stand by and watch the Iranian-led bloc chalk up a victory, US international credibility take another blow, the administration look foolish, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people being killed.

Did I mention that the US government “suddenly” discovered it has helped put advanced weapons into the hands of al-Qaida and other Salafist groups? (Obama isn’t bothered by arming the Muslim Brotherhood.) On top of all this, there has been a major riot among Syrian refugees in southern Turkey. Both Turkey and Jordan have been overwhelmed by refugees. A Jordanian recently joked that there are so many refugees the majority of the population in Jordan might soon be Syrian.

This is the mess faced by the Obama administration.

It could have been avoided if the president had understood four years ago that he should have supported moderate, not Islamist forces. That point, by the way, goes for both sides: he first backed the radical regime in Syria, America’s enemy, and then only when the revolt made that impossible did he switch to the rebels, empowering the Islamists at every step of the way.

But then, he didn’t want to do what his predecessors would have done. Curiously, Obama believes that Islamist rule is good because it will moderate radicals, deter terrorists from attacking America and make enemies into friends.

No matter which side wins – the Syrian regime as part of the Iranian bloc of Shia Islamists or the rebels as part of the Muslim Brotherhood bloc of Sunni Islamists – Obama will get his way.

The author is the director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center. His new book,
Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, is being published by Yale University Press.

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