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OPINION: Are There Any Good Options For The U.S. In Syria?

A Syrian soldier. Photo: U.S. DOD.

By Dr. Robert Moore, The Raleigh Telegram

RALEIGH – In the summer of 2012, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, CIA Chief David Petraeus and other officials urged President Obama to arm members of a disparate group of rebels who were fighting to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Obama declined to act.

WHAT WAS OBAMA AFRAID OF

As the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins and others have reported, the President’s reticence was based on his careful assessment that:

–Many rebels were fighting to create an Islamic republic in Syria, not to bring democracy and freedom to its citizens.

–They did not share a coherent vision – other than ousting Assad and his regime.

–The rebels lacked a dependable chain of command and their actions were not effectively coordinated. Even if they deposed Assad, they would be likely to eventually turn on each other.

–Their members ranged from various radical Islamic sects such as Al Qaeda in Iraq to defectors from Assad’s government.

–If Obama armed the rebels with the requested antitank missiles, antiaircraft weapons and other arms, some of these armaments could be ultimately turned against the U.S or its allies.

MURKIER & MURKIER

Since last summer Syria has in many ways become even more opaque. For months the rebels appeared to be winning; however, in recent weeks the government has been on the rebound.

In mid-June, President Obama reluctantly decided to send light weapons and ammunition to the rebels. His ostensible reason was that America agreed with the British and French that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons. Assad had “crossed a red line” which the President had said would lead to American action.

While CIA assets based near Turkey’s border with Syria have assisted the rebels in various clandestine ways, direct military aid will be a significant escalation. Overt American aid had previously concentrated on food and medical supplies.

What began as a Syrian civil war shows every sign of becoming a regional conflict with Shiites pitted against Sunnis. And, nations such as Russia and Iran are increasing their support for the Assad regime.

WHO ARE THE GOOD GUYS

As U.S. partisan politics sadly illustrate, we have a fixation with dumbing down issues, We compound our folly by ignoring observable facts and demonizing those with whom we disagree.

Focusing on transparent realities and encouraging a rational dialogue on complex issues is not in vogue. In the matter of, “What can we do about Syria?”, the first order of business should be to face the facts that few “good guys” are in the mix and Syria’s future is profoundly uncertain.

As citizens, we need to focus more attentively on what is known about the Syrian conflict. Once the inevitable domestic demagoguery over the Administration’s actions heats up, it might be helpful if some among us have a grip on observable facts. So let’s start with . . . . .

WHAT AND WHERE IS SYRIA

Syria borders the Mediterranean Sea between Lebanon and Turkey. It also shares a border with Iraq, Israel and Jordan. In 2012, its population was about 22.5 million, with 56% of its citizens living in urban areas.  The country is slightly larger than North Dakota and only 25% of its land is arable.

Its official language is Arabic and its largest ethnic group is Arab (90.3%); Kurds, Armenians and others make up the remaining 9.7%.

Damascus, the country’s capital and second largest city, had a 2009 population of 2.527 million and Syria’s largest urban area Aleppo had 2.985 million people. The oasis city of Damascus is one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities.

On June 13, 2013, Navi Pillay, the United Nations high commissioner for human rights reported that there had been 92,901 “documented killings” in Syria as of April 30th. However, he noted that this was a conservative figure for the country’s 25-month civil war. The death toll is expected to increase by tens of thousands by the end of the year.

ASSAD & HIS ALLIES

Bashar al-Assad and his father before him have ruled Syria for decades even though their Shiite sect (the Alawites) only constitutes about 14% of the population.

Despite persistent Western claims that Assad is barely “clinging to power,” some analysts such as Ramzy Mardini contend that he “still has strong support from many Syrians, including members of the Sunni urban class.”

Asssad’s military support encompasses a Regular Army of 70,000 active soldiers.

His militia (Shabiha) has 100,000 fighters that are supplemented by the so-called “Popular Committees.” These are militia from various minority groups loyal to the government. Assad also benefits from the growing presence of a Lebanese Shiite militia (Hezbollah).

The Shiite Revolutionary Guard from Iran is strengthening its commitment to train and assist the regime. An American intelligence official recently told Dexter Filkins, “The Iranians are all in.” They are airlifting tons of arms into Syria and doing so through Iraqi airspace with Iraq’s acquiescence.

Additionally, Syria is receiving valuable diplomatic and military support from Russia.

THE SYRIAN REBELS

Knowledgeable estimates put the number of the largest armed groups fighting the Assad regime at about 30. Most of these are part of a loosely organized coalition of perhaps 70,000 fighters led by General Salim Idris. He is a defector from Assad’s government who heads the Supreme Military Council, a rebel leadership group.

The rebels are overwhelmingly Sunnis. Not surprisingly, most are fighting to eliminate the Syrian state and establish an Islamic republic. Their focus is troubling to America and her allies who want to see the state’s basic institutions survive to help fend off anarchy after the war.

Unfortunately, the most experienced and skillful rebel fighters may be the Al Nusra Front who are aligned with Al Qaeda in Iraq. They number several thousand and are strategically dispersed all over Syria. Another hard-line Islamic rebel group is the Syrian Islamic Front. Neither of these effective fighting forces is a part of General Idris’s coalition.

The leading suppliers/facilitators of arms and financing to the rebels have been Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, UAE and Turkey. The U.S., France, Britain and various western countries have provided nonlethal aid to the rebels and financial assistance to the Syrian political opposition.

Additionally, tens of millions of dollars from private gulf state patrons are flowing to some of the hundreds of smaller individual militia groups. As Joby Warrick of The Washington Post reports, “These donors overwhelmingly back Islamic groups” which hold “ultraconservative views.”

AMERICA’S DILEMMA

For those asking, “What should America do about Syria?”, one would hope they would begin by taking into account the maddening and conflicting realities cited above. As Joby Warrick notes, “Washington is seeking to influence a patchwork of militia groups with wildly different abilities and views about how Syria should be run after the war.”

President Obama’s 2012 assessment appears roughly in accord with the Byzantine complexities of Syria today. As a senior military analyst told me, “Our military options in 2012 were bad and now they’re even worse.”

This view is also reflected in a June 14 Washington Post report by Karen DeYoung that “the Pentagon has been consistently leery of U.S. involvement.” They believe that “true military options” such as no-fly zones or using drones and missiles to degrade Assad’s air assets (which Senator John McCain urges) would “inevitably draw the United States into direct confrontation” with Syria, and perhaps its benefactors, Iran and Russia.

WHAT IS OBAMA TRYING TO ACHIEVE

The President’s decision to arm the rebels underscores that he has “no good options.” Within hours of his decision, The Wall Street Journal attacked the Commander in Chief with a scathing editorial, “Dabbling in Syria.” The Journal’s editors fear that “Obama is going to do just enough to prevent a rebel defeat but not nearly enough to help them win.”

One might ask if the editors have taken a close look at who the “winners” might be.  Or, have they read closely their own reporters’ accounts of the difficulties of effective action in Syria?

Obama is taking a cautious, nuanced approach to a deteriorating situation – one in which the right answers are unknowable at this stage. Even the Journal concedes that the President’s intervention is “carefully limited.”

He is working to create conditions that might ultimately force Assad and the rebels to reach a political settlement before civil war completely decimates their country.

Obama felt that he had to respond to Assad’s recent military successes and to the growing presence of Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon. Unless he had acted, there was an increasing likelihood that the anti-Assad insurgency might have been overwhelmed. In fact, that could still happen. If it does, Assad’s combat victories would foreclose any hope of an eventual political resolution.

Clearly, the President is not interested in launching the country into another Middle Eastern war. If he were to do so, the overwhelming majority of Americans would not support such an effort.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Robert H. Moore, The Raleigh Telegram’s national columnist, is a graduate of Davidson College and the University of North Carolina. He was a U.S. Army captain on the West Point faculty and has served on national security panels at the National Defense University at Fort McNair. A resident of the Washington, D.C. area since 1978, he has worked in various educational, government and private sector positions, including as a consultant to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee. ::

Article Posted: Monday, June 17th, 2013.

One Response to OPINION: Are There Any Good Options For The U.S. In Syria?

  1. Stu Lillard

    June 20, 2013 at 9:45 am

    Great article on foreign policy and actions! Right on target. Obama should continue “supplying non lethal aid to the rebels” and no more. We do not need to involve US troops in another Korean Peace Action as in the 1950′s. Assad must realize that a conference and armistice situation can help. Perhaps, Syria can be divided with an Aleppo area in the north and a Demascus area in the south.