America's Catch-Up Policy on Syria

By Michael Weiss
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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.

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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.

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