Weighing US Intervention in Syria (excerpt)
Michael O’Hanlon, Brookings, Feb 28 2013
The most likely scenario for US troops in Syria resembles what NATO did in Bosnia in the 1990s. First, we arm the weaker side. Then we support it with air strikes. Finally, we help negotiate a peace accord allowing some degree of autonomy for the various sectarian groups within a weak federal structure. In Syria, such an operation would only make sense if it were a combined Arab League-NATO mission, in which US forces were just a small fraction. Using the Bosnia precedent, and allowing for a population four times its size, up to 200,000 foreign troops could be needed in a post-war stabilization effort. But if their focus were on policing ceasefire lines, the number might be cut in half, with the US share perhaps 20,000.
How Syria Is Becoming Bosnia
David Rohde, NYT Blogs, Feb 25 2013
Typhoid and hepatitis outbreaks are spreading. An estimated 70,000 people are dead, and another 850,000 are refugees. After covering the battle for Damascus for a month, photographer Goran Tomasevic of Reuters declared the situation a “bloody stalemate.” Tomasevic wrote in a chilling first-hand account: “I watched both sides mount assaults, some trying to gain just a house or two, others for bigger prizes, only to be forced back by sharpshooters, mortars or sprays of machine-gun fire. As in the ruins of Beirut, Sarajevo or Stalingrad, it is a sniper’s war.” Many analysts believe the Obama administration’s policy toward Syria is a failure. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are funneling more aid, armaments and diplomatic cover to Assad. And Syrian rebels who once hailed the US now loathe it. Across the country, pro-Assad forces use airplanes, Scud ballistic missiles and artillery to level rebel controlled neighborhoods. While Syrian insurgents fight with the tragi-comic DIY weapons displayed in this Atlantic slide show. Last week in the London Review of Books, Ghaith Abdul-Ahad of the Guardian described the continued atomization of the Syrian opposition. Abdul-Ahad, an Iraqi who covered the dissolution of his own nation, freely admits that “we in the Middle East have always had a strong appetite for factionalism.” But then he delivers a damning description of how prevarication in Washington creates deepening anti-USAianism among the rebels. One rebel commander asks: “Why are the US doing this to us? They told us they wouldn’t send us weapons until we united. So we united in Doha. Now what’s their excuse?” In the meantime, hard-line jihadists and their funders in the Persian Gulf are filling the void. The exasperated commander declares: “Maybe we should all become Jihadis. Maybe then we’ll get money and support.” Many believe the time has come for the Obama administration to mount a new policy in Syria. But don’t expect one anytime soon. In an interview on Thursday, a senior administration official played down a report in the NYT that Obama might reconsider arming Syria’s opposition. He said:
Last year, the president rejected a proposal from four of his top national security advisers that the US arm the rebels. But a subsequent review by US intelligence concluded that only a large infusion of sophisticated weaponry would tip the military balance against the Assad regime. We have to assess what it would take to change the calculus and hasten the transition. As you know, we have opposed supplying the rebels with anti-aircraft missiles out of concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Jihadis. God forbid that a US weapon should be used to strike an Israeli passenger plane, or that one should be fired into Israel!
The problem, though, is that Jihadis are becoming the most influential and well-armed insurgents in Syria. Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s article begins with a description of a rebel commander withdrawing his fighters from an important rebel defensive position in Aleppo because a donor in the Gulf is willing to provide him with more funds and weapons. The rebel commander says:
He says he will pay for our ammunition and we get to keep all the spoils of the fighting. We just have to supply him with videos.
Meanwhile, assistance to the Assad regime is growing. A recent New Yorker piece (paywall – RB) detailed stepped-up military aid from Hezbollah. One Hezbollah commander told the magazine: “If Bashar goes down, we’re next.” (really – RB) And the White House official said:
The extent of Iranian assistance to Assad is stunning. They are all in. They’re doing everything they can to support the Assad regime and putting in enormous amounts of arms and individuals.
Why, then, isn’t the US even partly in? In Ghaith Abdul-Ahad’s article, rebels complained that the US was blocking countries in the region from providing sophisticated anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles to them. The White House official denied that was true, saying:
The armed opposition remains deeply divided and the situation on the ground is confused. We are trying to learn from the past, and particularly from our experiences in Iraq. The US has a long history of picking winners and losers based on the guy who speaks English well. It’s just trying to learn the lessons and be humble. We don’t have perfect visibility into the situation. Interjecting that forcefully in an armed way has huge risk.
US fear of inadvertently arming Jihadis is paralyzing efforts and limiting our options. There are no simple solutions in Syria, but the West is missing a strategic opportunity to weaken Iran and Hezbollah. Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar could be allowed to fully arm the rebels. Supplying them with sophisticated anti-tank missiles and other conventional weapons, not surface-to-air missiles, could help turn the tide. And if the West is serious about a diplomatic effort, it must redouble its efforts instead of deferring to Russian promises that have so far proven hollow. Two years after the uprising began as a non-violent protest movement, the death toll in Syria is approaching the roughly 100,000 dead of Iraq and Bosnia. While it may not have a political cost in Washington, the White House is sending a clear message across the Middle East: USraeli lives matter, not Syrian ones. The figure is 70,000 and counting. That number will come back to haunt us.