The Syrian civil war long ago became more than just an established regime pitted against an armed rebellion seeking its overthrow.
Syria is an arena for competing foreign powers to fight for regional influence, and the Obama administration’s dangerous escalation of US involvement in this sectarian powder keg holds the potential to trigger an even worse calamity.
Perpetually bitter over US triumph in the Cold War, Russia is using its valuable military and diplomatic relationship with Damascus to block a US-led military intervention against the Syrian regime. Moscow has vowed to push back on what they view as US imperialism by vetoing any proposal in the UN Security Council that could precipitate such an intervention and by continuing to send weapons to the Bashar al-Assad regime.
Iran also continues to back the Assad regime with resources and manpower, sending money, weapons and reportedly thousands of troops – reports that Iran has since denied. Not only has Assad been a reliable ally of Iran, but Syria has also served as a conduit for Iranian support of Lebanese Shia group Hezbollah, a policy that affords Iran considerable approval in a Middle East filled with US-backed dictatorships acquiescent to Israel’s brutal occupation of Palestinian lands.
Supporting the rebels
Before the botched US war in Iraq, Syria was Iran’s only steadfast Shia ally to balance the power of oil-rich Sunni states in the Gulf. The competition for regional dominance between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shia Iran has presented itself in the form of a cold-blooded proxy war in Syria.
From very early on, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, with help from the US, Jordan and Turkey, reportedly funded and armed Syria’s Sunni rebels in their quest to topple the Assad regime. This lethal support increased even as the make-up of Syria’s rebel opposition became progressively foreign and extreme, with Sunni insurgents from Iraq crossing the border into Syria to fight.
Indeed, some of the disparate factions of rebel fighters being supported indirectly by the US are thought to be the very same fighters the US fought as insurgents in Iraq. Al-Qaeda in Iraq crossed the border into Syria and formed Jabhat al-Nusra, a group the Obama administration placed on the State Department’s list of officially recognised “terrorist organisations” in December 2012.
Jabhat al-Nusra is the best-organised, fiercest fighting group in Syria. And despite Obama administration claims that they intend to get arms only into the hands of “moderates”, the “jihadists” have undoubtedly been bolstered, and have probably already received arms, through US backing.
Last week, White House Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes announced a decision to directly arm the Syrian rebels after determining that forces loyal to Assad used sarin gas in small amounts on several occasions, resulting in the deaths of approximately 100-150 people, thus crossing the president’s ill-conceived “red line“.
But this is a truly baffling justification for escalating US involvement in a brutal civil war in which the US has no vital interest. Conventional bombs and artillery have killed about 90,000 people in Syria since the spring of 2011. To go to war based on the unique deaths of a mere fraction of the total is irrational in the extreme.
There is good reason to believe the alleged use of chemical weapons has nothing to do with the Obama administration’s decision to arm the rebels, despite official claims to the contrary. Such allegations initially came to light in January, and the administration explicitly denied their validity.
“We found no credible evidence to corroborate or to confirm that chemical weapons were used,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at the time.
Then in May, the waters were further muddied when Carla Del Ponte, a UN investigator looking into allegations of chemical weapons use in the Syrian conflict, said there were indications that the rebels, not the regime, used sarin.
Worsening the situation
In fact, the chain of custody of these chemical weapons “still hasn’t been nailed down”, Foreign Policy reported “an American intelligence source” as saying last week. But Obama has seen this as a pretext for increased intervention in any case.
Even if the pretext of chemical weapons use were totally credible, the Obama administration’s response here is extraneous. Increasing small arms to a select few rebel militia will not make the Assad regime any less disposed to use chemical weapons than it already was, and actually could push the dictator to be more violent – since it gives further credence to regime claims that the rebellion is a malicious foreign plot to overthrow the government.
In arming the rebels, the US risks worsening an already disastrous situation, and not just for Syria. The last time US and Saudi interests aligned such that they decided to cooperate in supporting insurgent armed groups was in Afghanistan in the 1980s. The Saudis exported their Islamist holy warriors and the US landed a strategic defeat against the invading Soviets.
That war is now held up as the classic case of blowback and unintended consequences. The US’ former freedom fighters in Afghanistan soon morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and turned their sights on the US.
Milton Bearden, a 30-year CIA veteran who oversaw the $3bn covert programme to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets told Foreign Policy that the Obama administration should beware. “If you [arm the rebels], don’t try to convince yourself that you’re in control,” he said.
The Obama administration has specified that the rebels will only be receiving small arms, stopping short of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft weaponry needed to level the playing field. Obama knows this will not tip the balance in favour of the rebels. It will merely prolong the stalemate.
This strategy is not so much against Assad as it is against his allies. Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at Tufts University, wrote that the goal all along has been “to ensnare Iran and Hezbollah into a protracted, resource-draining civil war, with as minimal costs as possible”.
“The war,” wrote Thanassis Cambanis in the Boston Globe in April, is “becoming a sinkhole for America’s enemies. Iran and Hezbollah, the region’s most persistent irritants to the United States and Israel, have tied up considerable resources and manpower propping up Assad’s regime and establishing new militias. Russia remains a key guarantor of the government, costing Russia support throughout the rest of the Arab world.”
Complicated proxy war
This is valuable to American strategists at a time when US power is seen as waning. Leaving aside the cruelty involved in using the Syrian people as cannon fodder for the sake of geopolitical games, this expanding interventionism into Syria puts the US on a slippery slope to all-out war.
|Obama and Putin discuss Syria conflict|
No sooner had the Obama administration announced its escalation than hawks in Congress complained it was not enough, urging the president to impose a no-fly zone to neutralise Assad’s air force. As was seen in Libya with the Gaddafi regime, this is the equivalent of bombing the Syrian regime out of existence.
Doing this would probably worsen the humanitarian situation on the ground, but it would also run the risk of clashing with Iran, which is using Iraqi and Syrian airspace to deliver aid to Assad. Getting into even a marginal conflict with Iran would quickly end in catastrophe, as Tehran would be compelled to foil the ongoing US presence in Afghanistan and possibly destabilise the Gulf region. And forget making any progress on nuclear negotiations.
A US war in Syria could also spark violence from Hezbollah, a dangerous possibility both for Israel and the US.
Ironically, some of the most eloquent arguments against a US war in Syria come from the Obama administration itself. “The use of force, especially in circumstances where ethnic and religious factors dominate, is unlikely to produce predictable outcomes,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Martin Dempsey said in a Senate hearing in April, adding that “unintended consequences are the rule with military interventions of this sort”.
In the same hearing, Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel said: “Military intervention at this point could hinder humanitarian relief operations. It could embroil the United States in a significant, lengthy, and uncertain military commitment.”
The risks inherent in the Obama administration’s decision to send arms into Syria belie the sensible aversion to military intervention it has exhibited thus far. The chaotic twist of violent sectarianism and a complicated proxy war should be enough to stay out of a civil war that no one, especially the US, can win.
John Glaser is editor of Antiwar.com. His articles have been published in The American Conservative magazine, The Huffington Post, The Daily Caller, and Truthout, among other outlets.
Follow him on Twitter: @jwcglaser