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President Obama’s decision to arm Syria’s rebel movement can have one of two outcomes, neither one promising.
It could drag the United States into the very thing that Obama, during his 2008 campaign for president, criticised in the harshest terms: forcible regime change in the Middle East, engineered by US military action, but this time pitting the United States and its allies against President Bashar al-Assad’s entrenched government backed by Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hezbollah, Lebanon’s Shiite militia.
After long resisting direct US involvement in the civil war, Obama is now on a slippery slope of his own making toward an all-out conflict, taking sides in what could ultimately become a regional, sectarian war between Sunni and Shiite powers that could set off parallel civil wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and the Persian Gulf.
Or, if US support for the rebels remains limited to small arms and ammunition – with no anti-aircraft weapons, no no-fly zone, and no American bombing of Syrian airfields and other military targets – the United States will prolong the conflict, leading to an additional tens of thousands of dead, before a ceasefire and a political settlement is reached.
Could the US affect the situation on the ground?According to retired General James Barno, the former commander of US forces in Afghanistan, Obama’s decision to provide “small arms, ammunition, and possibly mortars and antitank rockets to the rebels… is unlikely to be enough to turn the tide against Assad — and it may actually prolong a bloody conflict.”
By jumping into Syria’s civil war, Obama also risks inflaming US-Iran relations, too, on the eve of the inauguration of Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s new president. Rouhani, a moderate cleric with close ties to Iran’s reformist Green Movement and to pro-business circles led by Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, has declared his intention to “destroy extremism” and to seek to restore relations with the United States.
But Rouhani will have to manoeuvre carefully among Iran’s hawks and the military establishment, led by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and that will be far more difficult if Iran is confronted with an American effort to remove its chief regional ally in Damascus.
Perhaps in an effort to reduce the possibility that it will tumble down Syria’s slippery slope, the administration downplayed the announcement about arming the rebels, leaving it to a White House functionary to brief the press and quietly putting out the word that Obama has only a circumscribed goal in mind.
That goal, it’s suggested, is to boost the rebels’ chances of halting or reversing recent battlefield gains by the Syrian armed forces in advance of peace talks in Geneva, which have been put off to September. But many analysts in Washington believe that the delivery of even the small arms Obama has committed to will take months to arrive and that it won’t be enough to affect the situation on the ground.
Assad’s ouster and the proposed peace talksMeanwhile, the Geneva conference itself is in doubt. While the Assad government, according to the Russians, has committed to participate in the talks, the fractious rebel movement – which includes a wide range of hardline Islamists, including some formally allied to Al Qaeda’s Iraqi wing – will probably be unable to assemble a representative delegation to Geneva, and in any case General Salim Idris, its titular commander, says he’ll refuse to participate unless the anti-Assad forces acquire a long shopping list of heavy arms, including anti-aircraft weapons.
The arms decision is only the latest in a series of stumbles by Obama. The president’s first mistake came back in 2011, when he issued a too-quick demand that President Assad step down, perhaps thinking that Assad’s government would collapse as easily as did Hosni Mubarak’s in Egypt and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s in Tunisia.
But, by demanding Assad’s ouster he signalled to the rebels that they had US moral support, without any commitment to provide military aid – just as former President George H W Bush did after the Gulf War in 1991, when he urged Iraq’s Shiites to rebel against Saddam Hussein. Thus encouraged, and perhaps expecting direct US aid, the anti-Assad forces escalated their rebellion, turning a relatively small-scale struggle into a raging civil war.
Obama compounded his mistake by tasking the Central Intelligence Agency to help Qatar and Saudi Arabia arm the rebels, despite the fact that much of that aid went to the extremists. And then he ordered the CIA to get involved in training the rebels, secretly, in Jordan. Finally, his comments about a “red line” if and when Syria were to use chemical weapons gave ammunition to hawks, neoconservatives and the far right – including key members of Congress – to demand that Obama go to war in Syria once evidence of a very limited, marginal use of some gases became apparent.
Moscow and Washington need to cut aid to all parties from all parties
Still, there is time for Obama to right himself on Syria. At the just-concluded meeting of the Group of 8, Obama got nowhere with President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who is implacably opposed to US backing for the rebels. Not only is Syria Russia’s remaining Middle East ally but, because Islamic fundamentalism is a threat to Russia across a wide belt of central Asia and the Caucasus, Moscow is alarmed at the possibility that radical Islamists might gain a foothold in Damascus.
Mincing no words, Putin caustically cited incidents in which Syrian rebels engaged in cannibalism and executed children for supposed religious transgressions, warning that the West ought to refrain from supporting such people. Still, the United States and Russia remain committed to the Geneva conference, and secretary of state John Kerry is working closely with Russia’s Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, on the Syrian problem.
In Washington, there are hints that ultimately the United States might agree to allow the Syrian “regime” – i.e., the existing government and its institutions, including the army – remain in power, as long as the Assad family departs – an outcome that conceivably could win Russian support.
That, however, is a diplomatic accomplishment with an extremely high degree of difficulty, especially at this late date. To make it work, the United States and Russia would have to jointly organise a ceasefire and make it stick by suspending arms deliveries to both sides, from all parties. That means that Russia would have to halt its military aid to Syria and convince Iran to do likewise, and the United States would have to get Great Britain and France to stay out and pressure Saudi Arabia and Qatar to cut off the rebels.
Otherwise, Obama will go slip-sliding down into the Syrian quagmire, and the very thing he least wanted will have happened: yet another Middle East war.