By Stephen Bryen
The Obama administration decision to openly funnel arms to the Syria rebels is an escalation that has serious consequences for the United States and for the neighboring countries, particularly Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq. It also risks the credibility of the United States, because most of the outcomes that will result from U.S. arms transfers undermine our regional and global policies.
Ostensibly, the United States is taking action on the grounds that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons. There is proof that chemical weapons have been used, but mostly the culprits are the rebels and not the Syrian government. Even the UN’s top experts think the rebels have used such weapons, albeit with poor results where they have managed to kill their own villagers and some of their own fighters.
So the claim put out belatedly by the administration is neither credible nor can it be proven empirically. It is not a Tonkin Gulf incident sufficient to trigger a U.S. response. On top of that, since absolutely no U.S. interest is directly threatened by the Syrian civil war, the administration’s claim seems to create new risks, and not necessarily mitigate the situation.
Among Israel’s two top allies that border on Syria, neither wants to see the civil war in Syria spill over, any more than it has already, onto their territory. The Israelis are worried, of course, by the take-over of the Golan by Hezbollah, an Iranian-Syrian backed gang of Sh’ia terrorists whose armaments and training come from their sponsors. But the likely best bet for Israel, at the moment, is to wait out the civil war in Syria. Should Assad prevail he will re-position his forces on the Syrian side of the Golan heights. If he refuses, then the Israelis may do some of their own re-positioning.
For Jordan the problem is actually more serious. That is because all its “friends” –e.g., the U.S., Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and the emirates are using Jordanian territory to flow in arms to the rebels, many of whom are foreigners and Jihadists coming even from Europe, the U.S. and Chechnya. They are probably also flowing through fighters, a very risky problem for Jordan’s king, Abdullah.
Jordan’s long term stability has been a question mark for a while, and too much involvement in Syrian matters could be a tipping point. The U.S. could lose an ally, as can Israel, if mismanaged. Putting U.S. troops on the Jordan-Syrian border, even in the form of a so-called exercise, is a provocation that will be noticed by the Iranians and their allies.
In the big picture, the civil war in Syria is a manifestation of religious and tribal divisions that will not easily go away. One outcome scenario if Assad and his Alawi supporters win will be revenge on the Sunni population and on the Kurds. Massacres of population are predictable.
On the other hand, the same is true if the rebels win. They will slaughter as many of Assad’s people as possible, and that includes the civilian population. In this culture as is already perfectly clear, there are no red lines or limitations on excess.
The U.S., Israel and Jordan in particular have an interest in getting Iran out of their backyard. It is very clear that if the Assad regime prevails, the Iranians will establish real bases in Syria across from Israel and Jordan, and once developed they will move nuclear weapons there as well. In that context, Iranian bases in Syria are akin to Soviet missiles in Cuba.
So what of the Russians? Russia has marines already positioned in Syria, is supplying weapons, and probably is directly supporting some Syrian assets (e.g., intelligence, missile deployments and operations, air power). Essentially this is what Russia did for its clients in the Middle East in the past. It echoes what the Soviet Union did in the early 1970’s in Egypt that encouraged the Egyptians (and the Syrians) to make war on Israel in 1973.
At the same time, sharing Syria with the Iranians must make the Russians truly uncomfortable. The Iranians have been heavily involved in Syria providing troops, advisers, supplies, and training supported by an airlift operation that is continuous. They also pushed Hezbollah into the fight which has paid off handsomely for Assad.
The Russians have intimated that they could see a change in leadership in Syria, if handled by the Big Powers. But for any deal to work, the Iranians have to be expelled from the area. How to do this is a major challenge, but it may be the only way to avoid an escalation that will lead to widespread chaos and war. Iran has been allowed to become powerful even though it is still largely an untested state with significant flaws in its military capability (e.g., no real air force, no proven land army, and limited logistic ability if Iran’s enemies decide to block their power projection capability). This leaves Iran vulnerable to heavy pressure, including military pressure –something the administration, which has focused on so-called engagement, has utterly failed to do. Yet, looked at objectively, the Russians and the U.S. could find common ground here, if only they had the vision and clarity to make the effort.