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No U.S. Strategy in Syria

The U.S. refuses to arm rebel groups. Now, an al-Qaida affiliate has emerged as one of the strongest factions.

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A member of Liwa Salahadin, a Kurdish military unit fighting along side rebel fighters, aims at a regime fighter in Aleppo on December 6, 2012. (Javier Manzano/AFP/Getty Images)

More than 45,000 deaths and 22 months since the beginning of the Syrian uprising, the White House has finally run aground on the incoherence of its Syria policy. Having refused to provide the opposition with anything but nonlethal aid to bring down the regime of Bashar al-Assad—an end game that would have damaged Iranian interests throughout the Middle East—the Obama Administration left the field open to other actors. Yesterday, the administration designated one of them, Jabhat al-Nusra, as a terrorist organization affiliated with al-Qaida in Iraq—which has proven to be one of the most effective rebel groups in the battle against Assad’s forces.

The White House argues that by isolating extremists, it is helping pave the way for a post-Assad political order. But because the administration has refused to arm any of the other groups as an alternative, it is hardly surprising that the Syrian opposition assumes the White House is taking sides with Assad by sidelining Jabhat al-Nusra. “We are all Jabhat al-Nusra” says one Facebook petition circulating among the Syrian opposition.

It’s not just the decision over Jabhat al-Nusra that has the opposition frustrated with the United States. The administration has claimed for many months now that it’s only a matter of time before Assad falls. Yet rather than helping hasten that day, U.S. officials have tinkered, complaining that the opposition is not unified. It has obstructed, by vesting its confidence in UN envoys like Kofi Annan and Lakhdar Brahimi, and obscured, by trying to sweet-talk the Russians into abandoning Assad. In short, the Obama Administration imagined it might have a role in dictating the peace without helping to win the war.

As Hillary Clinton said late last week: “The United States stands with the Syrian people in insisting that any transition process result in a unified, democratic Syria in which all citizens are represented—Sunni, Alawi, Christians, Kurds, Druze, men, women. And a future of this kind cannot possibly include Assad.” Clinton’s vision of a unified, democratic Syria is divorced from reality. Given the United States’ decision to sit on the sidelines for nearly two years, what’s most likely to follow Assad isn’t an inclusive political process, but the next phase of what is already a very bloody civil war.


It was tens of thousands of corpses ago that a revolution about dignity and democracy turned into a conflict of atrocities and campaigns of sectarian cleansing. That won’t stop any time soon. Even if the Assad regime is in its “final phase,” as the head of Germany’s foreign intelligence agency argued recently, there will still be round after round of bloody reprisals.

In the beginning, the war’s protagonists were clearly marked. On one side were the regime, its military, paramilitary units, and foreign supporters, including Hezbollah and Iranian Qods Force operatives. On the other was the Free Syrian Army (FSA), a decentralized force comprising local militias and conscripts who had deserted the military. The entry of Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi units, allied with the FSA but not under its now unified command, as well as Kurdish groups, some siding with Assad and some against him, has blurred the lines.

The rising status of Islamists among the rebel groups has happened in part because the FSA depends on the work carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra. “Jabhat does the storming, and the FSA follows,” said Tony Badran, research fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies. “These are hard-charging, disciplined fighters, who seem to have won the sympathies of the population in a number of places. Unlike some of the FSA units they don’t seem to bother the local communities.” Jabhat al-Nusra has also fought against Kurdish groups, as has the FSA. At other times, the FSA has teamed up with Kurdish units to take on the regime. And there have been bouts of intra-Kurdish fighting.

What started as a war between the Alawite minority regime and Syria’s Sunni Arab majority in November 2011 has now dragged in other sectarian and ethnic groups, and the battle lines are no longer clear. “It’s a sectarian war, but there is plenty of switching sides, with shifts depending on given interests,” said Badran.

The key difference between Syria’s civil war and the region’s other recent, major sectarian conflicts is that there is no larger actor managing the balance of power. Though the Bush Administration made many mistakes in Iraq, the battle would not have tipped against al-Qaida without the U.S. military mediating that country’s sectarian conflict. In Lebanon’s long civil war (1975-1990), Syrian President Hafez al-Assad played a custodian of sorts, since he had the most invested in the result, backing a number of militias while taking the fight to others—and not infrequently switching sides.

No one is playing a similar role in the war for Syria. To be sure, plenty of outside actors have staked claims—with Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah supporting Assad and Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia most actively lined up against him. But there is no state arbitrating, however imperfectly, the outcome.

That was the part many in the region have expected the United States to play. American allies assumed that a second-term Obama, no longer beholden to electoral concerns, would seize the opportunity by arming the Syrian rebels. Now even U.S. officials admit that Washington may have sat on the sidelines for too long.

It’s no secret that Americans don’t want any more large-scale commitments in the Middle East. Polls show that only a small minority want to arm the rebels for the purpose of bringing down Assad. So, why should Obama buck popular will when he’s got a demanding domestic agenda to execute? The electorate already thinks that Obama is largely successful in foreign policy where, from his point of view, his enduring legacy is as a president extricating the United States from the Middle East, not committing further resources to half-baked adventures like his predecessor did.

However, the president is elected not merely to listen to the American people but to lead them. It is up to Obama to explain why unpleasant and difficult tasks are in the national interest and in accord with American values. Do we really need to wait for CNN to broadcast the effects of Sarin gas on thousands of Syrians before the White House wakes up?

The strategic case for U.S. action in Syria was clear from the beginning of the uprising. As Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, commander of U.S. Central Command, said in the spring, toppling Assad would be “the biggest strategic setback for Iran in 25 years.”

Perhaps some in the administration figured it was wise, based on the model of the Iran-Iraq war, to sit it out and let U.S. adversaries kill each other. The only pity of that decade-long conflict, the saying at the time had it, was that they both couldn’t lose. In fact, both sides came out of the war weakened—and more dangerous than ever to U.S. interests. Saddam invaded Kuwait, compelling the United States to send troops to the Gulf to force him out; and the Iranians continued to export terror, especially to Lebanon where Hezbollah’s power increased dramatically, threatening U.S. allies from Israel to the Gulf states.

American strategy has been most successful when it prioritizes threats. Roosevelt allied with the Soviets to defeat the Nazis; Carter and Reagan supported the mujahideen to help weaken Moscow. It is no coincidence that World War II and the Cold War were the last major conflicts in which the United States won decisively and dictated the terms of the peace. The reason this principle of prioritizing threats was not similarly observed with regard to Syria is that the president saw no reason to make his case to an American people sick and tired of the Middle East. We’ll have to live with that choice and will be rewarded with the contempt that incoherence, and weakness, reap.


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I support Assad. There are 1.8 million Christians who will be driven out or slaughtered if the rebels win. Already they are doing it where they can.

    GENERAL WESLEY CLARK – on plans to overthrow seven Mideast

    March 2, 2007, former 4-star General and US presidential candidate Wesley
    Clark was interviewed by Democracy Now.

    General Clark: About ten days after 9/11, I went through the Pentagon and I saw Secretary Rumsfeld and W. Secretary (Paul D.) Wolfowitz. I went downstairs just to say hello to some of the people on the Joint Staff who used to work for me, and one of the Generals called me in. He said, Sir, you gotta come in and talk to me a second. I said, Well, you’re too busy. He said, No, no. He says, We’ve made the decision. We’re going to war with Iraq. This was on or about the 20th of September. I said, We’re going to war with Iraq? Why? He said, I don’t know.
    He said, I guess they don’t know what else to do. So I said, Well, did they
    find some information connecting Saddam to Al Qaida? He said, No, no, there’s
    nothing new that way; they just made the decision to go to war with Iraq. He said, I guess it’s like, We don’t know what to do about terrorists, but we’ve got a
    good military and we can take down governments. And he said, I guess if the
    only tool you have is a hammer, every problem has to look like a nail. So I
    came back to see him a few weeks later and by that time we were bombing in Afghanistan. I said, Are we still going to war with Iraq? He said, Oh, it’s worse than that. He said — he reached over on his desk, he picked up a piece of paper. He said, I just got this down from upstairs (meaning the Secretary of Defense’s office) today and this is a memo that describes how we’re going to take out seven (7) countries in five (5) years starting with Iraq, and then Syria,
    Lebanon, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and finishing off Iran. (End of General Clark’s

    Military strikes on Libya began on March 19. The 2003 Iraq
    war also began on March 19. What is the significance behind March 19? Minerva. Minerva is the Roman goddess of war. March 19 is her birthday. The four days that follow are offerings to her – bloodshed. Minerva is famous amongst Freemasons


    Power Elite (PE) agent Lord Herbert Samuel (Jew) was one of the first to refer to the establishment of a “new world order” (House of Lords, May 16 and August 7, 1918). As a member of the Milner Group that controlled British foreign affairs from the beginning of the 20th century until WWII, Samuel in 1921 appointed Hajj Amin al-Husseini as Mufti and head political administrator of Arab Palestine. Lord Alfred Milner, who was in charge of executing PE member Cecil Rhodes’ secret “scheme to take the government of the whole world,” on June 27, 1923 in the House of Lords said regarding Palestine
    that there “must always remain not an Arab country or a Jewish country, but… an international country in which all the world has a special interest—I think
    some Mandatory Power will always be required.”

    While al-Husseini was in Palestine, Hassan al-Banna founded the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) in Egypt in 1928, and it has been from this organization that radical Islamic groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and al Qaeda have come (Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff of Newsweek have reported connections between al Qaeda and MB members Mamoun Darkazanli and Youssef Nada). Former CIA agent Robert Baer in Sleeping With the Devil explained how the U.S. “made common cause with the [Muslim] Brothers” and used them “to do our dirty work in Yemen, Afghanistan and plenty of other places.”

    In the 1930s, the MB supported Adolph Hitler (distributing his Mein Kampf), and by 1936 with only 800 members began to oppose British rule in Egypt.
    By 1938, the MB’s membership had grown to 200,000, and by the late 1940s to at least a half million.

    In 1933, when Adolph Hitler came to power in Germany, Young Egypt (Green Shirts) was also founded in October of that year by Ahmed Hussein who had been greatly influenced by al-Husseini. Young Egypt supported Hitler and the Nazis, and one of its early members was Anwar Sadat who helped the Nazis during WWII. In a September 18, 1953 letter to the Egyptian news daily Al Mussauar, he expressed his admiration for Hitler.

PhillipNagle says:

The sides of this war have always been clear, on one side a brutal dictator and on the other side Sunni Islamists. One sided is supported by Russia and Iran seeking to maintain influence in the area while the other side is supported by Saudi Arabia seeking to establish Sunni hegemeny in the area and have another Islamic state where non Sunni Muslima will be persecuted. The bad news is that the bad guys will win as there are no good guys involved. The good news is that the bad guys are killing each other in large numbers. The best thing the US can do is keep out.

    Pam Green says:

    I don’t believe that the U.S. has kept out. By arming the ‘rebels’ in Libya before the downfall of Gaddafi, and allowing the ‘rebels’ to seize Gaddafi’s arsenal, the U.S. funneled those weapons to their counterparts in Syria. That’s a fact. Are we to believe the U.S. did that unknowingly?

    YO Pip,

    I see you like reading Harry Potter. This was said over a year ago:

    Joe Lieberman: Let’s Bomb Syria

    March 28, 2011

    Joe Lieberman and the neocons will not be satisfied until the Muslim and Arab Middle East is reduced to a smoldering ruin like Iraq. The next target on the list following Libya is Syria.

    On Sunday, Lieberman said he would support military intervention in Syria
    if its president, Bashar al-Assad, resorts to the kind of violent tactics used
    by Libya’s Muammar al-Qaddafi, according to Fox News. Lieberman is the chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

    “There’s a precedent now that the world community has set in Libya, and it’s the right one,” he said.

    In essence, Lieberman said the “Arab street” wants us to kill civilians and bomb hospitals.

    The precedent in Libya is the slaughter of Arabs, same as it continue to be in Iraq. This was recently confirmed by a team of Russian doctors in the country. NATO bombs have hit hospitals – including the Beir al-Osta Milad hospital – and residential areas in Tripoli and other cities, but this of course is not mentioned by the corporate media. “The bombing of Tripoli and other cities in Libya is aimed not only at the objects of air defense and Libya’s Air
    Force and not only against the Libyan army, but also the object of military and
    civilian infrastructure,” the doctors from Ukraine, Belarus and Russia wrote.

    Medical infrastructure and personnel are protected under the rules of war established in the Geneva Law, specifically Article 12 of Protocol II. Neocons and neolibs of Obama’s stripe do not follow such laws, of course. Democrats and supposed anti-war libs are more than happy to support this murderous insanity, so long as a Democrat president calls the shots.

    Beginning with Bush Senior’s 1991 invasion, the U.S. and its coalition
    partners – now described as the “international community” – have consistently
    inflicted “apocalyptic damage” to the civilian infrastructure of Iraq, at one time the envy of the Arab world.

    Iraq now has 25 to 50 percent unemployment, rampant disease, an epidemic of
    mental illness, and sprawling slums, writes Adil E. Shamoo. Libya, Syria, and other recalcitrant Arab nations can expect the same globalist medicine if they continue to resist the forays of the globalists, who plan to turn the entire planet into a slave labor gulag.

    For the time being, though, Syria will not become another Libya, despite the wishes of Joe Lieberman. Secretary of State Clinton said that there is a need to differentiate between what’s going on in Syria and in Libya.

    In other words, for now, Freedom House-style external troublemaking imported into Syria will suffice. The Freedom House NGO is shorthand for the State Department, USAID, NED, the CIA, and the usual globalist suspects endeavoring to overthrow governments and make it look like the will of the people.

    Military intervention is not required until there is a “humanitarian” crisis of the sort the globalists declared in Libya. They are in the process of cooking one up in Syria as well.

    Joe Lieberman has jumped the gun. But he always does that when it comes down to invading impoverished Arab and Muslim nations and killing civilians in the name of saving them – after the CIA overthrows their governments, of course.

herbcaen says:

I wish complete victory to both Assad and the opposition. While ultimately I would like to see Irans influence diminished, a long protracted conflict that inflicts many casualties on both hezbollah and al qaida might be the best outcome.

feralcat says:

The United States should not commit its forces to military action
overseas unless the cause is vital to our national interest.
2. If
the decision is made to commit our forces to combat abroad, it must be
done with the clear intent and support needed to win. It should not be a
halfway or tentative commitment, and there must be clearly defined and
realistic objectives.
3. Before we commit our troops to combat, there
must be reasonable assurance that the cause we are fighting for and the
actions we take will have the support of the American people and
4. Even after all these other tests are met, our troops
should be committed to combat abroad only as a last resort, when no
other choice is available.

– Ronald Reagan

Geoffrey says:

This analysis is deeply flawed.

The author notes that intervention in Syria is hugely unpopular domestically but suggests it would be a good idea because Assad was a bad guy. Granting that the latter is true, why that necessitates US intervention, or why we might believe that a future Syrian government would be more kindly disposed to US values like secular democracy and religious tolerance is left unspoken.

It implicitly assumes but does not bother to prove that had the US armed the rebels earlier they would not have bothered to accept the participation of terrorist organizations such as Jabhat al-Nusra. Yet the author proceeds to quote an expert who attributes their popularity to the fact that “these are hard-charging, disciplined fighters.” In other words, the issue was not a question of armament but fighting experience. There is no evidence submitted that the thesis of this article is remotely true.

Finally, Mr. Smith further states that Jabhat al-Nusra is popular because they are dependent “on the[ir] work” and offers another quote that “they seem to have won the sympathies of the population in a number of places.” Why the United States would wish to arm rebels that are both dependent on the military strength of Islamic militants and completely comfortable with their ideology is a question that the author does not appear to have thought deeply about.

So we’re left with a rebel group that is comfortable working with terrorists, has provided no guarantees that they would defend US interests should they be successful, and is less powerful than the militants they invited in. Giving them guns sounds like a great idea.

Saudi Arabia will support the Muslims.Extremists this president has made a complete mess of our foreign-policy the Mideast is so much more dangerous is unbelievable the only good thing is that Iran will lose


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No U.S. Strategy in Syria

The U.S. refuses to arm rebel groups. Now, an al-Qaida affiliate has emerged as one of the strongest factions.

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