Re-elected President Barack Obama’s first foreign policy challenge is likely to be Syria and one has to hope that he will have the wisdom to avoid grasping the nettle. After watching last week’s video of rebels lining up twenty-eight captured soldiers and executing them at close range with machine guns, one might well ask what has been going on in that country. It is the repetition of a familiar pattern for the US, beginning with fundamental failures on the part of Washington and its surrogates to understand the internal dynamics of a foreign land, resulting in bad decisions that have produced even worse results. Since 9/11 the United States has invaded two countries and interfered with a heavy hand in a handful more, with nary a good outcome to be seen. If Washington has a genuine national interest that is at stake in Syria, it would be that the country stay united and stable to keep it from becoming the latest playground for Jihadi warriors. Inevitably perhaps, it appears to be dissolving in chaos and that is precisely what it has become.
The Syrian debacle began as part of the Arab Spring in March 2011 as demonstrations swept the country demanding the ouster of President Bashar al-Assad and a new constitution that would remove the Ba’ath Party from power. The Ba’ath Party was then and is now dominated by Alawites, a sect of Shi’ite Islam. Al-Assad is himself an Alawite but has a British-born wife and is regarded as non-religious. Sunnis, the majority religious group in the country long resentful of Ba’athist Alawite rule, joined minority Kurds in the initial demonstrations, which were violently suppressed by the government.
Syria is a one-party state and its human rights record is abysmal, manifesting itself in arbitrary arrests, torture, beatings, and strict control over the media. A state of emergency was in effect from 1963 until April 2011, when it was lifted by presidential decree in an attempt to satisfy some of the demonstrators’ demands. There are no less than sixteen security agencies operating within the Syrian government, all of which have unlimited authority to arrest civilians. Nevertheless, the regime has considerable support. The Alawites constitute 12% of the population but are overrepresented in the bureaucracy and security services while having the most to lose with regime change. A large Christian minority has watched watched carefully the calamities inflicted on co-religionists in neighboring Iraq and is appreciative of the protection provided by the Ba’ath regime, the only remaining secular government in any Arab country. And the business class in Aleppo and Damascus has a major interest in avoiding an Iraq-type scenario that will inevitably lead to the loss of their privileged position as new rulers will inevitably move to reward their supporters. As protest demonstrations increased in size and intensity in late 2011, large counter-demonstrations also began to occur in support of the regime in Damascus and Aleppo, some orchestrated by the government but others spontaneously.
A major crackdown by the police and army in the summer of 2011 led to a hardening of the opposition. Soldiers and policemen reportedly began to defect and a flow of arms from Turkey funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar gradually turned a political protest into something approaching a civil war. The supply of weapons increased in the fall, some apparently coming from former Gaddafi arsenals in Libya, leading to the formation of the Free Syrian Army, allegedly made up of deserters from the Syrian armed forces. A political wing, called the Syrian National Council, also came into being, made up of exiles in Europe and the United States. It began to lobby heavily in both the US and Europe for a humanitarian intervention and its activities have sometimes been compared to those of the Iraqi National Congress of 2002-3.
By early 2012, protests had been replaced by armed conflict, mostly concentrated along the Turkish border and in the country’s southwest. In June the Turkish government may have deliberately ordered a penetration of Syrian airspace which resulted in a warplane being shot down. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who had together with a number of European and Arab nations been clandestinely supporting the rebels, declared “Turkey will support the Syrian people in every way until they get rid of the bloody dictator and his gang.” By July fighting was country-wide while Russia and China vetoed a US-backed UN resolution to sanction the regime.
The White House sees Syria as a prime target for humanitarian intervention, though the atrocities appear to be the work of both sides and numbers are elusive. The Free Syrian Army has been estimated to number anywhere between 1,000 and 25,000 and the claim that it is composed primarily of deserters has been challenged. Total deaths, one quarter of which might consist of Syrian soldiers and policemen, appear to exceed 30,000, but the numbers frequently are derived from opposition sources that would be seeking to hype the record. Indeed, Western media coverage of the conflict has generally reflected the rebel point of view and ignored the government claim of outside interference stoking the flames, which has more than a grain of truth to it. There is no authoritative body count in Syria, any more than there has been in neighboring Iraq.
If there has ever been a situation that makes the case for non-intervention, it would be Syria. But the role of Washington in the Syrian conflict is not terribly clear and a lot depends on where one looks. At the UN and State Department there have been repeated calls for Assad to leave. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton demanded in June that Assad step down and depart the country while President Barack Obama has declared that the US is “doing everything [it] can” to help the opposition. CIA, operating out of Turkey, has been helping the rebels with small arms, training, and some intelligence on army movements. But its more important task has been vetting the rebels to determine if they are truly reformers and friendly to the United States or, alternatively, Jihadis exploiting the situation as they did in Libya and to a certain extent in Iraq. A new al-Qaeda springing up in the heart of the Arab world at the center of a failed state is everyone’s most persistent nightmare.
Ironically, the limited US and other foreign support to the rebellion has made it viable while creating a compelling narrative, opening the door to an influx of Jihadis which has changed the nature of the beast. Independent observers had long noted the shifting face of the conflict but President Obama only belatedly touched on the central issue, asking in the final presidential debate whether the US is “absolutely certain that we know who we are helping.” Even Mitt Romney, being pressured by Republican politicians eager to enter the fray on behalf of the rebels, noted that any weapons provided must not get into “the wrong hands.” There are plenty of wrong hands out there, quite clearly, particularly as the rebellion’s political leadership appears to be somewhat out of touch, largely consisting as it does of exiles who have not been inside Syria for decades. The New York Times described the Syrian National Council as given to bickering and “far more caught up in fighting over spots on travel delegations than in creating an effective transitional government.” Its armed wing the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is meanwhile increasingly becoming radicalized.
The FSA claims that it can manage the still relatively small number of Jihadis, but can it? The evidence suggests that the FSA command actually does not control many fighting units and that groups in the forefront of the fight are disproportionately made up of the foreign volunteers. It has also been reported that the Jihadis are currently receiving most of the available weapons. After the fighting is over, an armed and organized minority having clear objectives competing for control with a fractured majority will have certain advantages. Recognizing that, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has most recently provided names of suitable candidates while calling for the creation of a new leadership group for the Syrian rebels, presumably individuals cherry picked to support American interests, which will inevitably include minority rights and freedom of speech. She warned that the revolution might otherwise be “hijacked.” Russia, which had agreed to support a transitional government for Syria in June, is pushing back, aware that it is an end run by Washington to introduce its own proxies. But Hillary should recall that similar promises to bring democracy were made by “reformers” in Libya, Tunisia, and Egypt and it is clear that even the Taliban know how to play that game. Promises made to Washington are promises meant to be broken.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer, is executive director of the Council for the National Interest.