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.

 

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