Syria: That Boat Has Sailed

With the United States poised to apparently attack Syria in some form for a suspected chemical attack on civilians, there are some very important points to be made here specific to this situation and, more broadly, what passes for a foreign policy in the region. Along the way, some liberal hypocrisy is exposed. Before moving forward, some important questions need to be asked. The first is whether Assad’s military was involved in the chemical attack. In all likelihood, it was, but it needs to be remembered that rebel forces today are riddled with terrorists and jihadis who would have no qualms against using chemical weapons to elicit exactly the response Obama is considering. In the cut-throat world of Middle East, Muslim and Arab politics, anything is possible.

For example, on April 3rd, in a story overlooked by the media, it was known that rebel forces attempted to take a chemical weapons battalion located on Syria’s southern border with Jordan. Jabhat Nusra rebels- a/k/a Islamist jihadists- were operating nearby. Most of this information came from Belgian intelligence sources. Only the fact that Assad reinforced security and that its location was in a civilian area deterred an impending attack. The site was used to store deadly VM- a nerve gas- that could be delivered by a variety of means. In fact, prior to this most recent chemical attack, at least four Western intelligence agencies said VM gas from this facility had been used. On April 8th, the facility was abandoned after two Jabhat Nusra attacks that left 5 Syrian commandos and 27 rebels dead. Thus, it is obvious that rebel forces wanted to get their hands on chemical weapons. Additionally, some sources believe that rebels from Afghanistan and Pakistan may have smuggled small amounts of nerve gas into Syria, their most likely source being Iran. This is not to say that the Assad regime- either at his direction or that of lower level military commanders- is not responsible for this most recent attack. One would say the chances of that are certainly greater than 90%. However, to think that rebel forces, especially the hard line extremists, are somehow above using chemical weapons would be foolish.

It also does not insinuate that the United States or anyone else needs the unlikely blessing of the United Nations. Even if the United States could somehow diplomatically receive backing, Russia- whom Assad depends upon and who Russia willingly supplies- would veto any resolution authorizing force. Thus far, Russia said that any attack would be premature without the UN inspectors finishing their job. Their job would merely be confirming what every intelligence service in the world already knows. Regardless, Syria is not a party to the conventions regarding chemical weapons. Does anyone believe that a regime that uses chemical weapons on its own citizens really cares about a treaty or the Geneva Conventions? However, the only “legal” question is the role of Congress. As I understand it, Obama does not need Congressional authorization, but he would be foolish not to go that route. Bush received Congressional backing on Iraq over suspected weapons; Obama would get approval over the actual use of chemical weapons.

Still, there is opposition in this country. The most recent polls indicate that there is less support for action in Syria despite the nightly pictures of victims on television than Bush had for invading Iraq in 2003. Additionally, 116 Democrats have circulated a letter to Obama expressing reservations about military action, although the wording is certainly less confrontational than anything Bush had to endure. It is kind of amusing to read the liberal media these days as they are the ones beating the military option drums the loudest. These were the same voices who opposed Bush’s intervention in Iraq and deposing a man who was responsible for more deaths from chemical weapons than Assad in Syria. The only difference ten years makes is the party affiliation of the occupant of the White House.

The bottom line is that the Obama administration lost a golden opportunity two years, 100,000 lives, 200,000 injured and maimed, and 2.5 million refugees ago. In 2011, when the opposition to Assad arose as part of the so-called Arab Spring, it was a popular uprising against a dictatorial tyrant. But, Assad, unlike leaders in Libya, Tunisia or Egypt, held on and fought. At that time, there was scant evidence that terrorists had infiltrated the Syrian opposition. Today, that is not the case. It is known that contingents of Al Qaeda in Iraq have teamed with the homegrown Jabhat Nusra more often than not. The reason for the affinity to one another is simple- they share the same ideological goals which is the establishment of an Islamic state. Ironically, one of the only positive things to say about the Syrian civil war is that, at times, terrorists are killing terrorists.

At this point, Iran is supplying Syria with arms and personnel. It is estimated that the Iranian commitment is about $50 billion a month. Most of the fighters are Hezbollah members from Iran fighting alongside the Syrian military. Because of this, both Al Qaeda and Jabhat Nusra elements have targeted Hezbollah personnel. If that was the entire story, it would be great. But, just recently (July 9th) a car bomb exploded in a civilian Hezbollah-controlled neighborhood in Beirut, Lebanon which killed 53 innocent people. It is suspected that members of Jabhat Nusra were responsible for the attack. It is also known that Al Qaeda in Iraq is responsible for the recent resurgence of sectarian violence in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria.

There is also palpable fear in Europe, specifically the lesson of Afghanistan. They well remember that many of today’s terrorists were battle-hardened in that country when expelling the Russians. Today, there are some 400-700 European Muslims fighting in Syria. Western Europe fears their return to Europe as radicalized terrorists. There are also an estimated 3,000 fighters from the former Soviet Union. Training camps have been identified in Jordan, Turkey and Syria with the most radical Islamic elements in the Syrian camps and some Europeans have been sited there. Although likely illegal, the French were considering disallowing the return of French Muslims fighting in Syria. In a Berlin mosque, radical Islamic literature was found that was traced to three families, all of whom had recently returned from fighting in Syria.

Today, the CIA is cooperating with their British counterparts in London to track the flow of money to terrorists. Most of this was in response to the beheading of a soldier in England and the British beefing up operations to disrupt these money flows to terrorists. Some of this money has been tracked to Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and Morocco- four countries where Al Qaeda has experienced great difficulty in gaining a foothold thus far. However, because of these efforts, a 3-year-old radical Islamic cell was found to be operating in London. It needs to be mentioned that most of this money is traced to its point of origin in two countries. In the case of Qatar, whose goals are likely more attuned to the establishment of Islamic states, the money seems to come directly from the government. In the other country- Saudi Arabia- most of the money is funneled through charitable organizations located there. Regardless, some of these same networks of funding work their way through and into the hands of Syrian rebels, as well as some of the more radical elements in Libya today.

There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad is the most hated man in the Muslim world right now and the Arab world would like him gone. But, the ultimate goals of the players in the Middle East are troubling. Qatar has their ideas while Saudi Arabia would likely be more amenable to a Muslim state such as their’s. Turkey, meanwhile, which has been very cozy with the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi in Egypt, would like Assad gone for their own unique reasons. The underlying theme of all these countries is that the regime of al-Assad is too secular and all the players want a “more Islamic” regime ruling from Damascus.

And there lies the main problem with the lack of an earlier response in Syria beyond words from Obama. While on the one hand egging on popular uprisings in the Middle East with that Cairo speech and his embrace of Morsi and the “Arab Spring,” the other hand is paralyzed and fails to follow up with actions. Even then, those actions need to be questioned. For example, look at the damage Obama has done with his embrace of Morsi in Egypt. According to pollsters, Egyptian sentiments towards the United States is lower than it was under George W. Bush. His embrace of the Muslim Brotherhood at the expense of a reliable ally like Mubarak sent chills through the Middle East, especially states like Saudi Arabia and Jordan and even more so for Israel. Likewise, his embrace of Recip Erdogan, the leader of Turkey, is troubling. This is the man whom Obama claims to be “a friend” and with whom he has “built the bonds of trust.” For those words, Turkey has drifted away from close ties with Israel, supported Morsi and Iran, vetoed sanctions against Iran in the UN, and supported the Gaza flotilla while slowly ruling over the conversion of Turkey into an Islamic state.

In Syria, Obama made two tactical errors- failing to handle the situation in 2011 when it was more manageable and there were less terrorists involved, and then declaring the use of chemical weapons as the “red line” that needed to be crossed before the US did anything. With the first chemical attack, he began supplying the rebels with weapons, but to hear the rebels speak, they have yet to see those weapons. It is believed that along with the Jordanians, the US is helping train moderate rebels in Syria as well as provide logistical support. Neither of these actions designed to hurry along the demise of al-Assad seem successful. So now that this ill-advised line has been crossed- again- what is the response?

Apparently, any military response will be motivated by and designed as a punishment for using chemical weapons, and as a deterrent to other regimes with aspirations of using chemical weapons. But, the response has to be strong enough so as not to be a joke in the eyes of the world. If it is too strong, then it appears as if we have intervened on one side or the other. However, the administration has stated they are not in the business of regime change. That is a ridiculous tack to take. Of course, we want al-Assad out of power as do the Saudis, the Turks, the Jordanians, the French and the British, among others. But in his zeal not to be George Bush, the goal of any military action seems meaningless.

Assuming the United States takes the route most predicted- a series of cruise missile strikes (the Clinton strategy: “lob a few missiles at ’em; that’ll scare ’em”)- they would not eliminate all of Syria’s chemical weapons capabilities. Nor would it take out their military command-and-control. Already they have moved certain operations. Syrian naval vessels are seen docked next to civilian commercial ships as a deterrent against attack. One could expect that chemical weapons and command/control centers are now located in civilian areas making any missile attack threatening to those populations. We could conceivably attack their supply lines from the outside world. It is estimated that only six of 23 airfields are operational with the remainder either destroyed or in rebel hands. But, cutting the Syrian military’s arms supplies will work only insofar as the rebels are supplied. In effect, it would be a perverse system of making the war “fair.”

In the end, intervention in Syria’s civil war serves no legitimate national security purpose other than saving the credibility of the United States whose credibility would not have been an issue if “red lines” had not been drawn in the first place. Instead, this is less about the credibility of the United States and more about the credibility of Barack Obama. And even assuming the United States so cripples the Syrian military through this “punishment” that it tips the balance of power towards the rebels, then what? Is Obama prepared for a government in Damascus dominated by or sympathetic to Al Qaeda or Jabhat Nusra?

Barack Obama came into office in 2009 the most inexperienced modern president ever. Especially in foreign policy, he is proving his ineffectiveness and naivete with each passing day. Whether it is misreading the tea leaves or picking bad friends, the world and the United States is unfortunately less safe than it was in 2008. Obama has learned a tough lesson: criticizing the foreign policy of your predecessor and trying to be the anti-Bush is not a foreign policy at all. In the real world outside that of a community organizer from Chicago, one misstep has dangerous consequences. There are real world bad guys out there who do not really care about the United States, let alone some American giving a speech in Cairo. In Syria, the boat sailed two years ago. Today, Obama must now hope there are enough moderate elements left to keep Syria out of the hands of terrorists. “Hope” may win you an election, but pinning a foreign policy on “hope” is pure folly…and dangerous.