Friday, December 14, 2012

Obama Needs to Keep Brakes on US Syria Involvement

Reporting in today's NY Times (and elsewhere) that SecDef Leon Panetta has authorized the deployment of 400 US military personnel and two Patriot missile batteries to Turkey as a deterrent to a possible attack from Syria as that country's awful civil war continues.  Meanwhile, this post from Jon Lee Anderson at The New Yorker notes reports that US Special Forces may have been positioned in Jordan to move quickly into Syria to take control of chemical-weapons sites should the US feel that to be necessary.
But Anderson concludes his post with something we all ought to be mindful of:
For Assad, doing something to trigger a U.S. military intervention, even a limited one, might be a fatal misstep—or it could possibly be precisely what he needs to do to survive. The jihadists now fighting him might well turn their fire instead on the Americans, as they did before in Iraq.
For President Obama, U.S. military intervention has to be the least desirable of all possible actions—one with unforeseeable consequences, including the risk of becoming mired in a new, multi-sided Middle East conflict. For that reason, the threshold at which the U.S. might become more directly involved remains necessarily ambiguous, leaving the U.S. and Syria to test one another a little more closely all the time, in an old-fashioned, but very high-stakes game of chicken.
Whatever one's criticisms of the extent and nature of US involvement in Libya's civil war, Obama undoubtedly was wise in not inserting American boots on the ground.  As in Iraq, they would have been a magnet for jihadists from countries far and near.  The same considerations surely apply in Syria, where jihadists have already had a huge impact in the fighting.  But the Libyan situation wound down relatively quickly, and NATO air strikes could be launched with relative impunity.  The war in Syria, on the other hand, has stretched on for almost two years, and despite recent assessments that it has reached an "end-game" stage, it actually is likely to last much longer, even if Asad himself is driven from the capital in Damascus.  Syria has much better air defenses than did Libya; much of Asad's military and arsenal is still intact; and he has relatively powerful and reliable patrons in Russia and Iran.
That American troops have now been placed even closer to harm's way ought to concern us all.  If the carnage ramps up in Syria - and especially if it spills over even more into Lebanon and, quite possibly, Iraq - Obama will come under more pressure from some of the usual suspects in Congress to get America more into the fight.  And fresh off his success in forcing Susan Rice from the running for Hillary's soon-to-be-vacated SecState spot, Mr. McCain is going to be feeling both vindicated and invigorated. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Obama's "Benign Neglect" of Israel-Palestine

In today's Open Zion, Peter Beinart may have something - that Obama is backing away from the Israel v Palestine mess to "lead from behind" by letting the Europeans spearhead any effort to pressure Netanyahu on issues like the proposed settlement expansion in West Bank E1.

Beinart's also correct, though, that it may backfire: Bibi will keep on with settlement expansion, so that by the time (if ever) there's new opportunity for negotiation, there will be nothing left to negotiate about.

Let's face it: Obama has made a mess of the entire "peace process" issue.  As I warned back in early 2009, Bibi was able to bully our shiny-bright new president, although it was difficult for Obama to be tough with Bibi when Congress was in Bibi's corner to tag-team vs Obama.  But I now suspect that Obama's calculus is the following:

  • rebuilding here at home is priority #1.  That means expending tons of focus and energy on dickering with GOP leaders in Congress on fiscal cliff, taxes, etc.  Obama simply can't afford to dissipate his newly won political capital on battling with Bibi.
  • Congress, as ever, has Bibi's back. It would take a monumental blunder on Bibi's part for Congress to abandon him.
  • Bibi obviously is playing a long game with the "peace process" - meaning, stall, misdirect, do whatever it takes to give the settlers enough time to make "Greater Israel" an irreversible reality.  In point of fact, it probably already is.

How Israel's victorious Greater Israel champions are going to deal with the likewise probably irreversible rise of populist-Islamist-dominated states in their neighborhood is another question.  But they'd better be taking notice of how the leaders - and the people - of those states are no longer willing to take their cues from what Washington wants or demands.

Israel's leaders keep propelling their country farther and farther down the road to a defiant isolation from their neighbors.   In the process, they're also putting Israel farther and farther out on that proverbial limb. 

Saturday, December 8, 2012

"Who Lost Syria" Debate Coming?

It's difficult to know exactly where the situation in Syria is right now, or where it's headed, or when the Asad regime might fall.  Some recent reports suggest that rebel forces have the lion's share of the momentum.  Others remind us that the core of Asad's military remains intact and that his regime is in no immediate danger of extinction.  Almost everyone seems agreed, though, that a new and very different Syria is in the making.  Anyone who says s/he can predict what it's going to look like is passing pundit gas.

One of the fears most commonly expressed, though, is that the new Syria will not be to the US's liking. John McCain has long been banging the drum of "we gotta do something," "get in the fight," etc., just on the principle of "American values."  Coming from the guy who touted the Petraeus "surge" in Iraq as US "victory" there and intoned "bomb bomb Iran" on the 2008 campaign trail, McCain's prescriptions can be ignored as the rants of a bitter, angry, semi-senile pol whose party ought to be pointing him toward the exit. 

However,  a Paul Richter piece in today's LA Times hammers repeatedly on the idea that some Syrian rebel groups have been pleading for help (meaning arms, including heavy weapons) from the US, only to have the Obama administration stiff-arm those requests.   Richter pays brief lip-service to concerns that such US-furnished weapons might fall into the hands of jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra, which hopes to see a strictly Islamist state established in Syria.  (For recent reports and analyses of the "Nusra Front," see here, here, here, and here.)   Nonetheless, his conclusion is that Obama essentially is blowing it in Syria.  Predictably, he gets support for that assessment from two "expert" worthies from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), a think-tank long regarded as the premier mouthpiece for the Israeli government in D.C. (Well, that's if we're not counting the US Congress, but let's not go there right now.)  Given the current state of relations between Obama and Netanyahu, I'd bet that WINEP is hardly poised to be a source of even tepid support for Obama's Middle Eastern policies.  WINEP's takes?


Though they are in regular contact with military councils — provincial bodies that try to coordinate the patchwork of militias — relationships are not strong with individual groups, said Andrew Tabler, a leading Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. The United States could have built a valuable relationship, for example, with Al Farouq brigade, a nationalist but mainline group, he said. . . .

One unsettling possibility is that Syria could be filled with militias that retain their weapons, as in postrevolutionary Libya, but without goodwill toward the United States or loyalty to a transitional government.

"You could have dozens of militias, battle-tested and brimming with weapons, that don't necessarily consider the authorities in Damascus to be sovereign," said David Schenker, a Pentagon official in the George W. Bush administration who is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Schenker, at least, is on to something, because the Syrian civil war has become a proxy war between Sunni and Shi'i sectarian forces in the region.  The Saudis and Qatar have been funneling money and weapons to Sunni militias fighting Asad's forces; Iran (with at least veiled support from Iraq's Shi'i-led government) and Russia have been backing the Syrian military; and Iraqis of both sects, impelled by either religious or tribal ties, have entered the conflict in Syria as well.  Meanwhile, Kurdish groups have begun, with the Asad government's at least partial collusion, to create a semi-autonomous enclave in Syria's north, along the border with Turkey.

The point here is that Syria has begun to fragment, and it's only going to get worse.  The newly formed coalition of exiled rebel political leaders has little control over the various militias inside Syria, and no one seems confident that such control will soon be in the offing.  For the US to declare its support for the coalition and then try to ship arms to selected militias that supposedly back that coalition has all the makings of what the US military would call a clusterfuck, logistically speaking.  It would also lead to a situation where some miltias would become "American" ones, in likely competition with jihadist militias and others who might not want the stigma of American (= Israeli) support.

I hope Obama continues his current stiff-arm policy.  Syria has never been America's to win or lose, and it won't be in the foreseeable future either.  But perhaps, by not engaging with the Syrian civil war too closely now, the US can preserve some leverage to help shape Syria's - or at least, Syrians' - future later.  There may not be a Syria when all is said and done.   That's not for us to determine.


Monday, December 3, 2012

Palestinians' Lesson of November

As noted by Karl Vick at Time:

Hamas launched 1,300 missiles into Israel during the military offensive aimed at stopping the launches, and in return won territorial concessions. Under the terms of the cease-fire brokered by Egypt, Gaza’s fishermen doubled the distance they can travel from shore before encountering Israeli gunboats, and Palestinian farmers won access to the one-third of the enclave’s arable land that abuts the border fence with Israel proper.  A week later, Abbas, who heads the secular Fatah party, won the lopsided vote at the United Nations, and Israel’s response was to appropriate another chunk of the West Bank for its own use.   

Meanwhile, at this weekend's Saban Forum in DC, as David Remnick reports, US-Israel chumminess prevailed (with the exception of Rahm Emanuel's dressing down of some of the Israelis in attendance, in reaction to Bibi's decision to move forward with settlement expansion into the E1 section of the West Bank, outside Jerusalem).  Hillary Clinton admonished the Israelis to be more "generous" toward the Palestinians, but assured them that the US has their back and reminded the Palestinians of how misguided was their coup at the UN General Assembly.

Very little will come of that coup without some sort of leverage, and the Palestinians' only leverage at this point is their newly won ability to pursue action against Israel at the International Criminal Court - something that European representatives, the Brits especially, have tried to discourage them from doing.  Otherwise, leverage will have to come from the Europeans, who seem to have reached their limit with Bibi's brazen decisions.  Max Fisher documents today the growing gap between Israel and Europe, with a distinct trend toward less diplomatic support from the Euros.

Whether that will translate into Bibi's rethinking of his policies regarding the burgeoning Jewish colonization of the West Bank, however, seems highly doubtful.  Netanyahu, perhaps courtesy of his indoctrination at the feet of his late father, has a quasi-messianic view of his role in the creation of Greater Israel and the nixing of any putative Palestinian state.  And by and large, despite the growing speculation that Ehud Olmert might enter the electoral lists in January, the Israeli public outside the few angry, plaintive voices at Haaretz and the peace movement seems likely to stand with him.

Israel is therefore well on the way to isolating itself internationally, save its American ally, which is becoming less and less listened to by Israel neighbors.  Perhaps, in the short to medium term, Israel can survive in such circumstances.  But across the Middle East, the wave of Sunni Islamist resurgence is beginning to crest - in Egypt, in Syria, in Turkey, in Jordan, and surely, of course, in Gaza.  And the US, increasingly wary of military involvement in Muslim lands, may become reluctant to have "the back" of an Israel whose political leadership rejects real compromise in the West Bank or Gaza.

A. B. Yehoshua has called upon Israel's leaders to talk with Hamas.  (And at Foreign Affairs, Tareq Baconi likewise urges, "Don't boycott Hamas.") Bibi needs to listen.  Israel's existence may well be at stake.


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