Real Men Go To Tehran Via Damascus

The CSMonitor’s Nicholas Blanford today writes that “diplomats and analysts say Western and Arab officials are mulling an option of military support for the rebel Free Syrian Army,” the Sunni main opposition to Assad’s Shiite regime. Despite the continued shelling of the Sunni stronghold city of Homs by Syrian government forces, now into its fifth day, the UNSC vetoes of China and Russia as well as military appreciation that Syria is not like Libya seems to have taken a “colaition of the willing” direct intervention off the table. Blanford quotes Andrew Exum of the CNAS think-tank in Washington, a group acknowledged as a primary driver of the Obama administration’s foreign and military thinking.

”œThe Syrians will almost certainly resist any intrusion into their sovereignty, so to execute either a NFZ [no-fly zone] or safe haven would mean a fairly extensive air war to reduce Syrian air defenses,” Exum says. ”œWe should also note that any such air operations would take place in some of the most militarily and politically sensitive air space on Earth.”

Syria has an aging but extensive air defense network provided by Russia, along with the bulk of its other weaponry. It’s military is five times larger than Libya’s. Both Hillary Clinton and the UK’s William Hague have explicitly ruled out direct military action for now.

It may be that the West is already funneling both weapons and trainers to the FSA’s rebels. Two days ago Borzou Daragahi, the Middle East and North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, tweeted: “Wow – Misurata revolutionaries announce combat deaths of three #Libyan fighters in #Syria”. That would seem to at least partially substantiate Philip Giraldi’s report back in December (well in advance of any UNSC vote) that:

Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi’s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi’s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.

However, Assad has friends that Libya did not have, namely Russian and China, who have interests in Syria that they can exercise, whereas they did not have the ability to project force in Libya nor supply the regime at reasonable costs. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Assad is ready to negotiate with the rebels but few believe Assad really means it – especially since the shelling of Homs continues – and in any case the rebels are standing firm on their call for regime change. Thus the stage is set for a protracted proxy war between the West and Russia, which has a major naval base in Syria it will not want to give up.

It also sets up a direct confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis in the region, with the neo-whatever eternal bugbear Iran sitting in the background as a clear target. The neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) think tank in particular is being especailly vocal on Syria right now, hoping to drive Western policy towards a showdown with Tehran. They are talking up the FSA:

”œI believe the FSA is now one of the drivers of the situation. It is going to shape the outcome,” says Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and author of a new briefing paper on the FSA. ”œIt has changed the nature of the conflict with the regime, is becoming increasingly identified with the popular opposition within Syria, has shown resilience on the battlefield, and is growing in capabilities and numbers.”

And talking up the notion of proxy intervention.

turning the FSA into a coherent military force will require ”œcoordinated action by the intelligence services of a coalition of the willing,” says Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The FSA, he says, would need an assured supply of arms and ammunition, especially anti-tank missiles, secured means of communication, advice on how to coordinate operations across different regions of Syria, intelligence on Syrian Army operations and vulnerable military infrastructure.

”œThe intelligence services of the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Jordan, and other states in the region have the know-how and capabilities to do these kinds of things,” Mr. White says. ”œIt would be important to have cooperation from one or more of the states bordering Syria, especially Turkey, in order to establish base facilities, training camps, supply routes and infiltration routes.”

It’s a dangerous route to take.

”œSyria is already an arena for proxy competition between Saudi Arabia and its allies and [rival] Iran and its allies,” says Aram Nerguizian, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a report published in December on the risks of military intervention in Syria. ”œAnything that would involve direct Western intervention would be deeply destabilizing at the regional level.”

Of course, destabilizing the region has long been the neocon answer to the Middle East – as long as it doesn’t include Israel. Their stated theory is that a shake-up will mean the emergence of democratic states more friendly to the U.S. Thus WINEP and others advocating covert arming of the rebels have both regime change and crippling Iran in mind when they do so.

“In Syria [sectarian identity] is there. All you have to do is scratch the surface,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under the presidency of Mr. Assad. “Until now, I don’t think you have seen a tremendous amount of organizing along sectarian lines…. But it is natural that the main divide is going to be between Alawites and other Shiite off-shoots versus Sunnis.”

The Guardian’s Seumas Milne is spot on when he writes:

Already US, British and French leaders are busy setting up a new coalition of the willing with their autocratic Saudi and Gulf allies, satirically named “friends of democratic Syria”, to build up the opposition and drive Assad from power.

Intervention is in fact already taking place. The Saudis and Qataris are reported to be funding and arming the opposition. The Free Syrian Army has a safe haven in Turkey. Western special forces are said to be giving military support on the ground. And if that fails, the UN can be bypassed by invoking the “responsibility to protect” civilians, along Libyan lines.

But none of that will stop the killing. It will escalate it. That is the clear lesson of last year’s Nato intervention in Libya.

…The overthrow of the Syrian regime would be a serious blow to Iran’s influence in the Middle East. And as the conflict in Syria has escalated, so has the western-Israeli confrontation with Iran. Even as US defence secretary Leon Panetta and national intelligence director James Clapper acknowledged that Iran isn’t after all “trying to build a nuclear weapon”, Panetta has let it be known there is a “strong likelihood” Israel will attack Iran as early as April, while Iran faces crippling EU oil sanctions over its nuclear programme.

Western intervention in Syria ”“ and Russia and China’s opposition to it ”“ can only be understood in that context: as part of a proxy war against Iran, which disastrously threatens to become a direct one.

To WINEP and many others calling for intervention by proxy in Syria, greater sectarian conflict and a possible confrontation with Iran are features, not bugs. The former head of Mossad took to the NY Times yesterday to proclaim that “Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel’s security” and “The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace”.

There are without doubt some serious and genuine advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect” doctrine who are allying themselves with the regime-changers over Syria, but they are few and far between.

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Steve Hynd

Most recently I was Editor in Chief of The Agonist from Feb 2012 to Feb 2013. My blogging began at Newshoggers and I’ve had the immense pleasure of working with some great writers there and around the web ever since, including at Crooks & Liars. I'm a late 40′s, Scottish ex-pat, now married to a wonderful Texan, with Honours in Philosophy from Univ. of Stirling, UK 1986. I worked most of life in business insurance industry (fire, accident, liability) including 12 years as a broker/underwriter/correspondent at Lloyd’s of London. Being from the other side of the pond, my political interests tend to focus on how US foreign policy affects the rest of the planet. Other interests include early and dark-ages British history, literature and cognitive philosophy/science.

13 CommentsLeave a comment

  • They are really pissed.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • as to write a diary on Turkey and Syria, JPD? I’d love to read your take on the dynamic there. From what I can see there’s a certain element of Sunni-Shiite rivalry going on there, but what are the other driving factors? The Kurds, other grudges?

  • …it justice at that granular a level. I just know that we, as analysts, need to be really careful that we aren’t like the drunk looking for his car keys under the streetlight, because that’s where the light’s best (i.e., focusing on what we know rather than what’s unfamiliar or unknown but important).

    If I was looking for something to structure thinking, for Turkey I would be thinking most about their objective being to demonstrate paramount leadership in the region as well as the more focused objective of stability on their border. My read of it is that they have not yet made the decision that Asad needs to or should go – so far as I know, relations had been pretty good – but they seem to be getting quite exasperated about his regime’s behaviour. From the perspective of the Turks, my guess is that they’re asking why it is that the Syrians haven’t gotten their act together and why it is that they’re so ham fisted and consistently making things worse.

    I’d run through the roster of the big players and look to see how they play out against Turkish objectives. Iran is a deeply involved competing hegemon that the Turks have just very pointedly lashed out at on the issue. The Saudis and the Egyptians are interested, but really can’t afford because of internal dynamics to come in the way they might otherwise – I think this contributes to Qatar being in the lead on a lot of this. Jordan is a smallish player, but actually has some of the most interesting pieces on the board (GID is very plugged in to Syria). Not terribly helpful I know.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • Definitely worth a read. What I’m picking up eslewhere is that Turkey doesn’t want to go the course of full-on military intervention but is providing refugee camps and probably cash and weapons for the mostly-Sunni armed opposition and its civilian tail.

  • Although the analysis was very thorough, I did not agree with the author’s proposed solution. The implications of a Turkey-Syria war are mindboggling. It would most likely evolve into a full-scale Shia-Sunni confrontation.

    I believe the only and best option for Turkey is to assist the Syrian people themselves, in whichever way they can, to get rid of Assad. This is basically, as you pointed out, what they’re already doing.

    “OTP – Occupy The Patriarchy” ~ me

  • BEIRUT (AP) – Gunmen assassinated an army general in Damascus on Saturday in the first killing of a high ranking military officer in the Syrian capital since the uprising against President Bashar Assad’s regime began in March, the state-run news agency said.

    SANA said three gunmen opened fire at Brig. Gen. Issa al-Khouli in the morning as he left his home in the Damascus neighborhood of Rukn-Eddine. Al-Khouli was a doctor and the chief of a military hospital in the capital. No one claimed responsibility for the killing.

    The attack indicates that violence in Syria is reaching the tightly controlled capital, which has been relatively quiet compared to other cities. Such assassinations are not uncommon outside Damascus and army officers have been killed in the past, mostly in the restive provinces of Homs and Idlib.

    The U.N. estimates that 5,400 people have been killed in Syria since the uprising began in March. But that figure is from January, when the U.N. stopped counting because the chaos in the country has made it all but impossible to check the figures.

    The Assad regime says terrorists acting out a foreign conspiracy to destabilize the country are behind the uprising, not people seeking to transform the authoritarian regime. The Syrian government says more than 2,000 soldiers and police officers have been killed by terrorists since March.


  • …capacity from this. They managed to kill a doctor (thanks guys, really morally defensible) – probably one of the least protected targets.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

  • The Iraqi branch of al Qaida, seeking to exploit the bloody turmoil in Syria to reassert its potency, carried out two recent bombings in the Syrian capital, Damascus, and likely was behind suicide bombings Friday that killed at least 28 people in the largest city, Aleppo, U.S. officials told McClatchy.

    The officials cited U.S. intelligence reports on the incidents, which appear to verify Syrian President Bashar Assad’s charges of al Qaida involvement in the 11-month uprising against his rule. The Syrian opposition has claimed that Assad’s regime, which has responded with massive force against the uprising, staged the bombings to discredit the pro-democracy movement calling for his ouster.

    The international terrorist network’s presence in Syria also raises the possibility that Islamic extremists will try to hijack the uprising, which would seriously complicate efforts by the United States and its European and Arab partners to force Assad’s regime from power.

    Read more here:

  • With modest effort they can provoke the Syrian authorities into ill-advised actions that will keep the conflict escalating. The confusion then gives themcover for basing for continued action in Iraq (and potentially elsewhere) and helps them hedge against their suuporters there falling victim to Iraqi government CI.

    All of which argues against the notion that the USG finds the notion of long term low level conflict in Syria attractive from a policy perspective.

    In combat one should be very suspicious of painless moral choices. When you are confronted with a seemingly painless moral choice, the odds are that you haven’t looked deeply enough.” ~ Karl Marlantes

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