The Syrian Dilemma
by Sol Schindler
General Douglas MacArthur had his failings, but he had his moments too. In explaining the elements common to all military defeats he remarked it could be summed up by a simple phrase: too late.
In a way he has explained our problem in Syria. After two years of conflict, 100,000 fatalities, hundreds of thousands of wounded, and millions of displaced persons we finally announced last June that we would send arms to the Syrian rebels. They actually began arriving about two weeks ago, but after two plus years of dithering it will be difficult to persuade anyone to pursue a program dependent on our assistance for an extended period of time.
Quite aside from the lateness, which is bad enough, is the harmful observation that we don’t seem to know why we are doing what we do.
Some time ago President Obama warned the Syrian regime that the use of weapons of mass destruction including poison gas, was an action that the U.S. could not tolerate and such action would become what he called a game changer and require American reaction. About two weeks ago Secretary Kerry announced that he had conclusive proof that the regime had used lethal gas in the massacre of over 1400 civilians, including children, and called for a world response. President Obama agreed, stated that the constitution enabled him to proceed independently but requested congressional approval for bombing as a response. Congress was in recess at the time but they have since reconvened and are debating the issue. UN inspectors who had gone to Syria to investigate the matter released their report Monday, September 16, stating that nerve gas had indeed been used. Such a report is of sublime uselessness since virtually everyone believed that to be the case, and was of no help to those still waiting to make a decision. To further complicate matters, or to insure further delay, Vladimir Putin has seized upon an off-hand remark by Secretary Kelly to say that he too would be agreeable to a diplomatic solution whereby the UN controlled the use of Syria’s poisonous gas. Now in mid-September the odds are that we will not bomb Syria but rather spend the next few months in negotiations concerning the structure of international control, which may or may not ever be realized, over the large amounts of lethal gas the Syrians possess.
Recognizing all this it is about time we asked the central question of what exactly we want in Syria, what it is we are trying to do. Is it a regime change? Sending arms to the rebels would make us think so, but our leaders tell us that is not our purpose. Preserve the regime? Two years ago President Obama recommended Bashir al Assad step down and out. What then, a fractured country consisting of an array of independent religious or ethnic enclaves? That would be an invitation to perpetual bloodshed which no reasonable person could want. Should we then continue to do what we are good at, dither, obfuscate, and postpone?
It should now be apparent that the great Sunni-Shia rift in the Muslim world which has existed for centuries has reemerged with its traditional violence. Sunni Mullahs in the Gulf states have called the Shiites heretics and demons, worse than Christians or Jews, and have called upon all able bodied young men to take up arms against them. Many, accordingly, have joined the rebels in Syria against the Shia friendly regime while Shia forces from Iraq and Lebanon have poured into the country to aid the regime. They with extensive modern arms deliveries from Russia and Iran have turned what once appeared to be an inevitable rebel victory into a slow reemergence of regime power. Because of its greater fire power the Syrian army can withstand the superior numbers of the rebels. They are also aided by dissension within the rebel ranks. A moderate leader was recently assassinated when he ventured into a Jihadist stronghold to talk about cooperation. In addition the Jihadists themselves are sharply divided between the Muslim Brotherhood backed by Qatar and the Salafists backed by Saudi Arabia. Clearly strong and united leadership (which has not yet been forthcoming) is needed by the allies backing the rebels, if indeed we are backing the rebels.
The scant polling that has taken place indicates the American public supports aid to the rebels. Some small groups, usually associated with Christians resident in Syria, think otherwise. They feel that a despotic and oppressive secular regime that does not single out minorities for discrimination is preferable to a despotic and oppressive religious regime which does and which they see forthcoming if the rebels triumph. Interventionists, such as Senator McCain, feel that if we channel our aid prudently and act vigorously we might be able to preserve the few democratic leaning elements that still exist in the rebel ranks for the betterment of the entire region.
The rebels have long pleaded for a no fly zone similar to what we established in Libya. Such a zone would enable ordinary people to live and breathe without fear of being strafed or bombed, to work and trade as they have always done. The creation of such a zone would be the logical military response, if we have a military response, to the Syrians’ use of chemical weapons. It would preserve life rather than extinguish it, and be a forceful reminder to the Syrian regime that it was time to bring the war to an end. Some oppose such action because they fear that the modern anti-aircraft missiles the Russians have supplied to Syria would be a risk to any aircraft trying to enforce a no fly zone. Certainly risk is involved, as it is involved in everything we do, and risk inherent studies should be made prior to any military action; but they should be made by military officers with combat experience, not by public relations experts who view all things from a domestic political level. For the record it should be noted that we have highly efficient Patriot missile batteries along with American technicians who can use them effectively established in Turkey and Jordan along the Syrian border and that by themselves without aircraft they can pacify a significant area, and the U.S. air force is still considered the best in the world and can do what ever is necessary when called upon.
No one, including the rebels, wants American troops in Syria. What is needed is assistance in communications, mobility, and fire power. This we and our allies can supply. What we cannot supply is a constructive conclusion to a ruinous war that benefits no one. If the regime wins despite our efforts we are faced with a bloc led by our self- confessed enemy, Iran, backed by Russia and joined by a Shia Iraq and, of course, Syria. If the rebels finally topple the Syrian dictatorship their government will consist of members of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jihadists from all the near-by Muslim states. It is truly a no win situation brought on in part by our own timidity and ineptness.
What we must do now and for the future is to revalidate the democratic virtues we have always maintained, have a foreign policy that furthers American interests and distinguishes friend from foe (a not impossible task) and ensure that an American alliance is a meaningful asset brought about by mutually beneficial action. If we do that with precision and clarity our road in the future will be calmer and more profitable than the one we are now traveling.
The views expressed by the author are his own.