Syria, America and self-fulfilling prophecy
by Abdallah Schleifer
For about a year and a half, President Obama had been calling for the end of Bashar al-Assad’s rule in Syria and at the same time—aside from a very modest and covert CIA mission to train Free Syrian Army trainers in Turkey and/or Jordan—Obama has opposed providing any military aid to the Syrian rebels. Over the past year he has ignored the advice of his national security team to act more boldly.
Obama’s anti-Assad rhetoric on one hand and his passivity on the other, are a contradiction in terms that has become clear over the past year as Assad’s artillery and air forces has increasingly fought the war by devastating if not leveling towns, villages or urban neighborhoods held by the rebels and in the process inflicting catastrophic losses upon the civilian population.
The reason given for Obama reticence was concern that weapons supplied to the rebels might fall into the hands of salafist-jihadi fighters. But this has turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy, for as the fighting continued to rage on, the number of salafist-jihadi fighters among rebel forces has dramatically increased over the past year, and well-funded by wealthy sympathizers in the region, they are now, quite on their own, often better armed that the Free Syrian Army.
Instead Obama had pinned his policy to the dream of an improbable political settlement given Russian insistence that Assad remains President during a transitional phase, and with Iran and Russia shipping arms and ammunition to Assad while Obama dithered. Without American leadership the Saudi and Qatari provision of arms has lacked systematic coordination and has been obviously insufficient.
Why the change?
What changed Obama’s mind? The official story is that finally there is definitive proof the Assad’s forces have engaged in chemical warfare. But American intelligence has known for a couple months that Assad has been doing just that on a limited, occasional scale as if cautiously probing or testing world reaction. . And of course interventions that are drawn out and not successful can cost an American President dearly in domestic politics, with little reward if successful. But Obama cannot run for another term of office so one would think he would be more concerned with his standing in history than with an electorate he no longer must face.
What seems obvious is that his decision to provide military assistance to the rebels was forced by the fall of Al-Qusayr in which Hezbollah fighters openly intervened in the fighting ,significantly strengthening the Syrian army when it assaulted Al-Qusayr. Al-Quasayr is close to the Lebanese border and its capture facilitates the further flow of Hezbollah fighters into the country, so Al-Qusayr was as much a victory for Iran, patron of Assad, Hezbollah , and increasingly the government in Iraq.
But Obama is so uncomfortable with the new American policy that he did not announce it himself. Instead while Obama was enjoying the attention of Gay Pride Week celebrants, it was left to a presidential spokesman to announce in the most vague terms that America will now provide the rebels with military assistance.
But unless the American response goes beyond small arms, with weaponry sufficient for the rebels to stop Syrian Army tanks and bring down helicopter gunships; with a NATO imposed No Fly zone as broadly interpreted and successfully applied as it was by NATO in Libya, allowing the Syrian Free Army to hold territory and widely recruit Syrians ready to fight for Syria rather than a so-called Caliphate; establish U.S.- supported rebel governance in the secured territory, there will only two scenarios for the future fortunes of Syria. And both of them are terrible:
The first is victory for Assad. This could only be achieved by the death of tens of thousands more Syrians; would vindicate the Iranian and Hezbollah intervention; revive and renew Hezbollah’s hold in Lebanon, and contribute to a greater or lesser degree in the destabilization of Jordan, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states, as well as accelerate the present Iraqi government’s reliance on Iran. The other alternative is that more and more armed foreign salafist-jihadis will flood into Syria animated by the Salafist sense of Sunni Triumphalism. Given the murderous hatred that Jihadi-Salafists have for all Shiite—be they pro-Iranian or not, pro-Hezbollah or not—the Salafist-Jihadis are almost complicit with the regime and with Hezbollah, in turning this region into a sectarian nightmare.
Originally published on Al Arabiya and reprinted on TAM with permission of the author. Prof. Schleifer’s Alarabiya column will now be posted regularly on The American Muslim (TAM), and on Arab Media and Society, an electronic journal as well as the links twitted on a weekly basis to Arab Media and Society subscribers.
Abdallah Schleifer, Professor Emeritus at the American University in Cairo and former Al Arabiya bureau chief in Washington DC, is a veteran American journalist who covered the region for many years before joining the AUC faculty where he founded the Adham Center for TV Journalism. Schleifer served as NBC News Cairo bureau chief ; as Middle East .correspondent for Jeune Afrique based in Beirut ,and as special correspondent for the New York Times based in Amman.