It was for several good and solid reasons that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration long resisted pressures to intervene more forcefully in
Syria's civil war. To start with, there is the sheer complexity of a conflict at
the intersection of religious, ethnic, regional, and global politics, as
illustrated by the plain fact that the most Westernized of Syrians (including
its Christians) support the Assad government that the United States seeks to displace, while its enemies
are certainly not America's friends and,
indeed, include the most dangerous of Muslim extremists. But no matter: After
two years of restraint, the administration -- having decided to send "direct
military assistance" to the rebels -- has chosen sides and is now choosing
sides within sides.
By now, after failed attempts at managing complexity in
Iraq and Afghanistan, all should soberly recognize that any successful
intervention requires the terrible I-win, you-lose simplicity of war. When that
is absent, so too is success. In the end, regardless of the costs in blood and
treasure of U.S. efforts -- costs that in this case also include a greater enmity
with Russia -- it is still likely that all sides will blame the American
infidel for anything that displeases them, as in Afghanistan, Egypt, Iraq, and
Libya. Neither complexity nor the inevitable accusations of sinister American motives
(greed for oil, war on Islam, or both) can be helped, but the Obama administration
has stepped forward anyway. Even if conditions on the ground in Syria virtually
exclude the possibility of a good outcome, the following five rules -- derived
from bitter experience in arming other rebels (some of it personal) -- could at
least serve to minimize the damage.
1: Figure out who your friends are.
The first rule, politically, is to identify one's
allies. When Obama finally, officially, makes the announcement that
Washington is arming the rebels, it must include the key phrases: "We are
acting with our allies in the region" or, better, "our close allies in the
region and beyond it." But once the obligatory words are spoken, it is essential
that all U.S. personnel all the way down the chain of command be fully aware of
the brutal truth that explains the survival of Bashar al-Assad's regime: America's "allies in
the region" are remarkably ineffectual, in spite of every apparent advantage.
Early on, Qatari Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al
his total support for the "Syrian people," sending money and buying weapons at
ridiculous prices (and delivering very few).
And though his armed forces are small and
poorly placed to provide any combat support, he does have billions of dollars
at his disposal that he can and does spend on every passing
whim. The same goes for the Saudis, who are much less noisy than the Qataris in
supporting the rebels but are the real leaders of the Sunni crusade against Assad -- and they too are not short of funds.
Yet in spite of the most ample promises by Qatar and the Saudis, Syrian refugees in Jordan
have been living in misery -- there are even persistent
reports of the sale of child
brides by desperate families. Likewise, the actual flow of weapons to the
rebels has been notably meager. In neither case it is just a matter of simple
avarice, but rather reflects the operational incapacity of both governments. For
more than a year, Washington has been content to allow others to funnel weapons and money, but with Assad's recent
victories against the rebels, Obama was forced into action. The Saudi and
Qatari rulers just do not have honest, efficient officials whom they can
rely on to distribute money or weapons wisely. In the bad old days, the Saudis
would just hand over sacks of $100 bills to Osama bin Laden, before he turned
against them. Now, too, they would willingly hand over sacks of bank notes to a
chief if there were one, but they simply cannot field officials on the ground who
can choose between the great number of Syrian claimants, given U.S. injunctions
not to arm the most extreme jihadists, including those who accept the "al-Nusra"
A much greater surprise is Turkey's all-round incapacity.
Early on, with characteristic bombast, Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan more
or less ordered
Assad to stop shooting and start talking. With 75 million inhabitants, a
fast-growing economy, a million men under arms, and a 510-mile border with
Syria, Turkey should have been the dominant power in the confrontation. But
instead of being intimidated into surrender, or just moderation, the Assad
regime publicly ridiculed
Erdogan and Turkish imperial pretensions, denounced Turkey's Islamist government as
nothing more than Sunni fanatics, and then proceeded to shoot
a stray Turkish jet fighter before repeatedly sending artillery rounds into
Turkish towns. The Turkish response to this insult and attack? Nothing. And
that is what Turkey will do as an ally of the United States in Syria: nothing.
It turns out that the country's 15 million
to 20 million
Bektashis and other Alevis, long cruelly persecuted by Sunni rulers, oppose any action
that would strengthen the Sunnis of Syria. In addition, there are also some 2
million Alawites along the border with Syria, mostly in Hatay, the piece of Syria annexed
by Turkey in 1939, who vehemently support their compatriot Assad. Then there
are the Kurds who predominate in the provinces
along the border with Syria and automatically oppose any action by the Turkish
armed forces they have so long resisted. On top of that, Turkey's ruling AKP
Islamist party has used conspiracy charges, arising
from the supposedly vast Ergenekon plot, against
dozens of very senior officers to immobilize the armed forces, which are guilty in the party's eyes of both defending
secularism and menacing democracy. They have succeeded all too well, but this
leaves Turkey as a non-power -- a richly ironic outcome given the solemn
debates of recent years on whether Ankara is a regional power, a middle power,
or a neo-Ottoman power as Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu kept claiming.
The world has discovered that Turkey is not even a small power. The bottom line
is that the United States will not only lack an ally in fighting Assad, but will
also have to operate in a hostile environment, given the many people in Turkey who
support the Syrian regime -- some of them ready and willing to attack any U.S.
personnel they encounter, or at least help Assad's agents in trying to kill Americans.
2: Be prepared to do all the work.
Given these "allies," the United States will have to do
the lifting -- and not just the heavy part. There should be no illusions now
that anyone will be of much help, with the possible exception of whatever money
can be extracted from Qatar and Saudi Arabia. That, in turn, raises the issue
of which Americans should do the dirty work of funneling weapons. Always
bureaucratically adept, even if operationally incompetent in far too many
cases, the CIA already has the Washington end of the action. But if weapons are
to be supplied, it is essential to call on the only Americans who can tell the
difference between Sunni bad guys who only want to oppress other Syrians and
the really bad guys who happen to be waging their global jihad in Syria. What's
needed are true experts, people who really speak the region's Arabic: the regular U.S.
Army and Marine Corps officers who successfully sponsored and then effectively
controlled the Sunni tribal insurgents in Iraq whose "awakening" defeated the jihadists
who were attacking U.S. troops. Some of them are already involved in
supporting the rebels under Joint Special Operations Command, but if the mission were expanded it
would be a good idea to call for volunteers from the reservists who did the
same job in Iraq.
3: Don't give away anything that you would want to have
That includes expertise in identifying and handling any
chemical weapons that might be encountered, as well as the supply of any portable
anti-aircraft weapons. There are likely already a great number of them in Syria,
some of them much more effective than the old 9K32 "Strela-2" or SAM-7 models that have already been
used by terrorists against civilian aircraft. Whatever happens, the U.S. counterpart to these weapons -- the current
version of the FIM-92 Stinger -- cannot be supplied, as it is even
more lethal than the original that was used to such great success against
Soviet forces in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Syrian government's use of
aircraft for bombing rebel targets might have to be deterred by threats alone --
under-the-table threats, of course, given the impossibility of obtaining Russian
or Chinese consent at the U.N. Security Council. Any U.S. intercepts of Syrian
aircraft would amount to a drastic escalation, but Assad knows full well that American
strike aircraft could reach Syrian airspace in minutes from nearby bases, including from the
British staging facilities in Cyprus.
4: Do not invite an equal and opposite response by another great power.
The prospect of any such drastic escalation
immediately brings us to Rule 4, which might as well be Rule 1, or Über 1: Nothing
should be done, not even the supply of the smallest of small arms, without a
serious, full-dress effort to find some understanding with Russia, for which
Assad is not one ally among many, but arguably its only extant military ally. After
being cheated over Libya, where a no-fly zone was illegally converted into a
free-bombing zone, the Russians will want compensation in Syria if they
cooperate at all, including a continuing if diminished role for Assad. That
will not satisfy Sunni supremacists but should satisfy Washington, for which
neither a rebel defeat nor a rebel victory constitutes a successful outcome. In
exchange for the keeping of Assad, the Russians would have to secure the essential quid
pro quo for Washington: a clean and final break with Iran and Hezbollah -- which,
by the way, would satisfy the Saudis too, as well as Israel.
5: Lay some ground rules for the endgame.
The fifth and final rule reflects some more bitter
experience: Whatever happens, but especially if the regime collapses, it is
imperative to maintain a sharp distinction between the government that must be
purged and the state that must be preserved. This includes institutions like the
regular army and police, as well as the Ministry of Agriculture and other such
agencies. Under the Assads, decades of nominally Baathist (but actually secular)
rule favored the rise of Alawites, Christians, Druze, and Ismailis in the
bureaucracy. If U.S. arms prove to be the factor that gives Sunni rebels victory,
and if Sunnis fire them all, the Syrian state will disintegrate -- with all the
disastrous consequences experienced in Iraq. Unpaid soldiers and police become bandits
and insurgents; public services and utilities, including water and electricity,
go to pot; chaos and sectarianism flourish. As it is, Syria after Assad is
likely to fragment into ethnic ministates, but if its state apparatus is also
dissolved, the ensuing anarchy will be especially miserable and uncontrollably
violent, with plenty of evil consequences for all near and far. The last thing
the Levant needs is another Somalia, or several of them. The rebels must be
told from the start that if they start firing state employees en masse (as
happened in Iraq and Afghanistan), all aid will be cut off.
The Obama administration has displayed prudent
restraint in dealing with Syria until now. After recent regime successes
against the rebels, it can convincingly argue (despite the somewhat
inconclusive and murky assertion that Assad's use of chemical weapons has now
been verified) that it must provide some help to the rebels simply to deny a victory
to Iran and Hezbollah. Even so, one hopes that it retains its prudence -- and
keeps these five rules in mind.
Guillaume Briquet/AFP/Getty Images