America's Catch-Up Policy on Syria
Almost ten years to the day that the United States invaded Iraq, the world has seen yet another Ba'athist dictator's statue being pulled down in yet another Arab country. Only this time, it wasn't American soldiers helping the locals make reproaching use of their footwear. It was al-Qaeda. One could do worse for symbolism in locating the schizophrenic failure that has been US policy in the modern Middle East.
Raqqa city, the provincial capital of Syria's northeastern region, was overtaken on Monday after an eight-day fight that left 65 anti-regime militants and 150 Assadist troops dead. Forty-five of the latter were evidently perforated with machine gun fire after the battle had ended by a hitherto unknown group going by the unappealing name of Ansar Caliphate Brigade. They were acting on a mutually agreed-upon order not to leave any hostages. A few were kept alive, mainly for propagandistic purposes, including the governor of Raqqa and the regional head of the Ba'ath party, who can be seen in this video looking like Bernie Madoff surrounded by a few of his investors.
The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Jabhat al-Nusra, the US-blacklisted Syrian arm of al-Qaeda in Iraq, was the vanguard force behind the sacking of Raqqa, whose smallish population of 240,000 has lately swelled to around 800,000 as internally displaced Syrians have fled there from other areas to escape violence. Ahrar al-Sham, another Salafi-Jihadist unit, was also involved in what has so far been the most successful rebel operation in the two-year anti-Assad insurgency. The regime responded, predictably, by launching air strikes on Raqqa.
The sacking of Syria's first provincial city follows another high-profile raid of the former nuclear facility at al-Kibar, where, according to IHS Jane's, "a number of fixed launchers for missiles" may have fallen to the opposition. The wrinkle here again is that al-Kibar is located in Deir Ezzor, a province to Raqqa's south, and Deir Ezzor is Jabhat al-Nusra country. Now would be a good time to recall what Osama bin Laden's recommendations were on the proper use of Scuds.
Washington, one senses, is beginning to re-evaluate its non-policy as well as its non-strategy for Syria, which had lately taken the form of attempting to ring-fence a humanitarian catastrophe and security sinkhole in the Levant in the hopes that a kind of Congo on the Mediterranean might be maintained - Congo, of course, being one of President Obama's other major foreign policy concerns. The results so far have been as one might have anticipated for a failed state that borders Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon, and Jordan, and the placard makers of Kafranbel have proved abler policy intellectuals than Tom Donilon, Valerie Jarrett, and Denis McDonough.
At the weekend, 40 Syrian soldiers fled into Nineveh Province in Iraq in order to evade what Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's spokesperson Ali al-Musawi said was a Syrian insurgent attack at the Yaarubiyeh border crossing. On Monday, these soldiers were being transported back into Syria via Anbar Province, in a bus that was under the armed Iraqi military escort, when they were set upon and killed by unknown assailants at the Waleed crossing. Maliki, in comments approvingly regurgitated by the Syrian Arab News Agency, claimed that "vandalism and the use of arms will lead nowhere." In an interview with Foreign Policy magazine, Faleh al-Fayyad, Maliki's national security advisor, blamed Qatar, Turkey, and other Arab states for financing al-Qaeda in Syria, while promising that his own government harbored no real affection for Bashar al-Assad who "has hurt Iraq the same as Saddam Hussein." Yet this avowed victim-enemy of Assad has been transporting Iranian arms and Iranian personnel into Syria for months, embarrassing the White House's repeated attempts to get it to stop (Joe Biden once staked his vice presidency on predicting the pro-American tilt of Maliki).
Also left uncommented on by al-Fayyad is the fact that Iraq's 2008 amnesty law, designed to appease restive Sunnis, resulted in the release of 17,800 out of a total of 33,600 prisoners in the whole country. The US-Iraq Security Agreement, which transferred detainees from American to Iraqi custody, enabled the release of an additional 5,000. Not only are Iraqi prisons jihadist recruitment centers, staffed by notoriously corrupt guards who facilitate al-Qaeda prison breaks, but Maliki has, only this past January, released a further 300 detainees incarcerated under anti-terrorism laws in an effort to appease more Sunnis. How many of today's Syrian jihadists were yesterday's Iraqi convicts is impossible to discern. Suffice it to say that if the fabric of the Sykes-Picot Agreement is indeed unraveling, as Walid Jumblatt not long ago predicted, then it is the holy warriors of the Jazira who are tugging at the threads most assiduously.
Now enter into this forbidding matrix a newly-minted Secretary of State looking to redeem of his former foolishness about the beneficence of Damascus. At a news conference in Riyadh on Monday, John Kerry told reporters: "There is no guarantee that one weapon or another might not at some point in time fall into the wrong hands. But I will tell you this: There is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them, and the indication is that they are increasing their pressure as a result of that."
In other words, not only has the Obama administration finally discovered who the legitimate opposition are, it has also decided improve on its largesse of walkie-talkies and night-vision goggles and to trust that its designated middle-men will start acting as reliable brokers for delivery. The US has been training rebels in Jordan since last year, allegedly in the use of anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles and in securing chemical weapons stockpiles should these need securing. Britain, which had to undergo a Syria rethink after David Cameron's visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan last November, has announced that it will send bulletproof vests and armored vehicles to the kinds of Syrian fighters who don't get arrested at Heathrow Airport. Walid Saffour, the Syrian National Coalition's representative in London, openly predicted that the next and final phase in this drip-drip policymaking will be a "breakthrough that will end the restrictions of European countries" to dispatch ammunition and "quality weapons." Saffour went on to speculate that even if the European Union didn't end its formal embargo, EU countries would "quietly" change their individual policies.
Supreme Military Council head Salim Idriss is in Brussels right now, in full De Gaulle mode, telling Eurocrats that with the right hardware, he can bring down the regime within months. Idriss and Mouaz al-Khatib, the charismatic and politically savvy chairman of the National Coalition, will meet President Obama next week in Washington, no doubt to the loud objection of the Kremlin, which thinks of Khatib as the next Shamil Basayev.
The Council had divided Syria into five geographical fronts - southern, northern, eastern, western, and central - and its international patrons seem to have been similarly allotted their responsibilities according to lines of longitude and latitude. As opposition figure Amr al-Azm told NOW recently: "The Saudis, along with other western countries, namely Britain, are supporting the brigades present in Damascus and south, all the way to Daraa, whereas the middle strip between Aleppo and the northern border is being controlled and influenced by Turkey, Qatar, and the Muslim Brotherhood."
This would appear to track with recent noticeable developments on the ground. On February 26, Reuters reported that advanced weapons and cash for paying rebels' salaries are now moving into Syria via Turkey under a "new command structure" aimed at marginalizing the "Islamist" quotient of the armed resistance. Unlike previous semi-secretive gun-runs from Hatay and Gaziantep, these new supply lines are wholly formalized, according to one rebel commander in Homs, who said the materiel is passing through the Bab al-Hawa border crossing. That crossing is controlled by the al-Farouq Brigade, which is affiliated with the Brotherhood and funded by Qatar.
The New York Times last week corroborated my guesswork that Croatia is indeed selling high-caliber weapons (the M60 recoilless gun, the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22 rocket launcher, and the Milkor MGL/RBG-6 grenade launcher) to non-extremist forces in the Syrian opposition. These have apparently been purchased by Saudi princes and delivered to Jordan for distribution into Daraa, though they've lately been popping up all over the country, including, alas, in the hands of Ahrar al-Sham. Croatian newspaper Jutarnji List, reported that four cargo shipments were documented on December 14th and 23rd, January 6th, and February 18th. That fine publication even went to the trouble of producing a photograph of a Jordanian transport aircraft sitting on the tarmac at Zagreb's Pleso airport. Croatia's foreign ministry vehemently denies conducting business with any sheikhs for the purpose of any Arab revolution, yet sources tell me that prior to authorizing these arms sales, Croatian diplomats toured Washington asking US officials for their permission to do exactly that. They evidently got it. So, in effect, Washington is already involved in exactly the kind of "militarization" of the opposition it publicly claims to abjure as it still holds out for a "peaceful" transition of power.
White House rhetoric at this point amounts to fumes from a stalled engine. Should it continue to not directly arm the rebels, or to simply try to steer the flow of weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Croatia, Turkey, or Libya to responsible recipients, then this will only be because of its irrelevant posture of conciliation it maintains toward Russia, China, and Iran. Those powers already view Washington's agenda through the same prism of cynicism and mercenary self-interest as they do their own; what must really puzzle them is America's inability to articulate its own intentions clearly and make good on them without recourse to so much chicanery.
Moscow's state arms dealer Rosoboronexport solemnly reaffirms its right to satisfy "outstanding" arms contracts to sell Yak-130 attack jets to Damascus; Tehran refers to Syria as its "35th province," much like Saddam referred to Kuwait as Iraq's 19th. The mullahs and their wholly owned subsidiary Hezbollah are working to construct a "Syrian Basiji" paramilitary force, estimated to be 50,000-strong, to help prop up the Assad regime and "to set the stage for major mischief if it collapses," according to one US official quoted by the Washington Post. IRGC Commander Hassan Shateri was killed in Syria a few weeks ago, likely not on a sight-seeing expedition. Louay Moqdad, a Free Syrian Army spokesperson, has said that Assad's troops are pulling out of Homs, Zabadani, and Qusayr to allow Hezbollah to guard this valuable corridor for an Alawite retreat to the mountainous coastal region. "The Iranians oversee the operations and the regime provides them with air cover," Moqdad told NOW. Meanwhile, Hezbollah and Syrian rebel violence has hemorrhaged into northeastern Lebanon, particularly in the Hermel region, from which Hezbollah has fired Katyusha rockets into Syria, and into which the rebels have sent their own rockets in retaliation.
Against such bare-faced interventionism, the world's only superpower finds it necessary to outsource its own stake in geopolitically crucial Middle East country to the Wahhabist and Hashemite kingdoms and to a small but plucky nation of Balkan Catholics. At this rate, and for all the good it has done Arab perceptions of American goodwill, all the heralded "non-lethal" aid Kerry wants to send to Syria might as well be marked "Made in Mexico." A half-baked, semi-furtive policy means that we are lying to enemies who see through our lies anyway while simultaneously denying ourselves the chance to purchase credibility among those Syrians we purport to help.