Saturday, February 23, 2013

Obama's Dilemma in Syria

For weeks, people like Elliot Abrams, Richard Cohen, John McCain, Lindsey Graham  - the list is long and, in a manner of speaking, distinguished - have been hammering Mr. Obama for his failure to bring the US "into the fight" in Syria.  We are warned repeatedly that "the rebels" are storing up resentment against the US for its refusal to supply them with heavier weapons to use against Asad's forces.  Meanwhile,wiser and cooler heads - among them, Marc Lynch at FP - have praised Obama for limiting the US's involvement in Syria.  For the most part, Israel has been depicted in this imbroglio as essentially a concerned and ambivalent onlooker - no fan of Bashar al-Asad (whose Syria for years has styled itself the spearhead of resistance to Israeli domination of the Middle East), yet wary of what Asad's demise might bring in its wake.

At least two recent articles, however, make plain another dimension of this situation.  Both Sheera Frenkel (for McClatchy) and Barbara Slavin (for IPS, posted also at New Atlanticist) report on how Israel is keeping careful watch over arms being shipped to the anti-Asad forces and is working to dissuade the Obama administration from changing its policy and sending advanced weaponry to the rebels.  

Why? Obviously, the Israelis are concerned that Asad's eventual ouster will lead to a new government likely dominated by Sunni Islamists whose military deterrent will comprise the various militias - some of them, like Jabhat al-Nusra, motivated by jihadism - now leading the rebellion.  The better-armed they become, the greater threat they will pose to Israel in the months ahead.

But, second, dissuading the US from sending weapons to the rebels leaves Israel with a hand much freer to intervene in Syria in any fashon Israel sees fit.  That could be with airstrikes or special forces, or even - as some have suggested - the creation of a "security zone" along its border with Syria, a la its security zone in southern Lebanon during the era of the Lebanon civil war.  No US weapons to the rebels means no possibility of hard feelings with the US if the IDF takes military action that might blow up those American-supplied weapons. 

Given these revelations, it will be interesting to see if the usual suspects begin to dampen down their demands that Obama send high-end weapons to Syria.

And for those who want the US to send in those weapons because of moral, humanitarian, R2P concerns for Syria's people, they ought not be surprised that Israel's interests supersede those concerns.  The people of the West Bank could tell them all about that.

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