THE QUESTION OF 'INACTION' IN SYRIA: A COMMENT
>"Considerable ink has been spilled in recent weeks over the growing threat Al Qaeda fighters pose to the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. One of the many arguments being put forward for why the United States should not supply more direct assistance to Syrian rebels is that a rebel victory could result in Al Qaeda or its sympathizers coming to power in a post-Assad Syria. Given how Afghanistan's US-supported mujahideen later morphed into Al Qaeda and the Taliban, the Obama administration's caution is understandable. Yet ironically, this view transforms Al Qaeda into one of Mr. Assad's most effective assets. For the Syrian regime, the jihadist challenge in Syria is small yet growing, but the prospect of the US providing rebels with surface-to-air capabilities, a no-fly zone, or more direct assistance presents an existential threat. If Al Qaeda's presence is deterring US policymakers from getting further involved in the Syrian crisis, then it may be a presence that the Assad regime finds well worth preserving. The other problem with focusing too much on the prospect of an Al Qaeda ascension is that the costs of inaction in Syria are woefully underrepresented in the policy debate. Even if the rebels ultimately prevail, if the US continues to sit on the sidelines as the human toll rises, it could face a decidedly anti-American government in Damascus whether jihadists come to power or not. Of course, the prospect of Al Qaeda or other extremists coming to power, or having influence on a post-Assad regime would also be a nightmare for US regional interests. So that scenario should be factored into policy calculations, even if it is unlikely at this time. Yet the amount of attention that this scenario is receiving, especially in US intelligence circles, suggests that the magnitude of its effect on policy formation may be disproportionate to its likelihood. Focusing on Al Qaeda's potential for exploiting the Syrian conflict distracts from the rapidly mounting costs of US inaction. As Washington dithers, resentment of America is growing among the Syrian population and the broader Middle East. These are not potential costs; they are mounting costs. Anti-US sentiment weakens America's regional allies and empowers its enemies—like Al Qaeda. US influence on the Arab-Israeli issue, nascent Arab political reform, and even the future of Iraq is diminishing. Without clearer US engagement, the conflict in Syria will likely drag on. The longer it does, the more time Assad has to visit brutality upon the Syrian population—and the more likely would-be US supporters will turn in frustration to other sources of protection. The possibility of US arms and training for the Syrian opposition somehow empowering Al Qaeda is frightening, but so too is the establishment of any post-Assad regime that is hostile to US interests. If policymakers let fears of Al Qaeda keep them from providing more extensive support for Syrian rebels, they could help create the very conditions they were assiduously trying to avoid." Julie Taylor, "By Fearing Rise of Al-Qaeda in Syria, U.S. Ignores Greater Threat: inaction." The Rand Corporation. 19 September 2012, in www.rand.org. The above argument by the very learned, American 'think-tank' (the original 'think-tank' actually), the Rand Corporation, repeats in a more learned fashion the types of arguments that one has been hearing from commentators and policy-makers as different as the leader writer of the Financial Times and the 2008 Presidential contender, Senator John McCain among others 1. What does one make of it? As an argument, for the West intervening in the Syrian conflict, the thesis raises more questions than it answers. For example: what happens if the initial level of Western intervention (supplying of arms and training outside of Syria, as well as providing intelligence on the regime's military) fails to have the required effect? Does the Western powers then go 'va banque' and double the initial intervention by (to employ a frequently urged move) enforcing a 'non-fly' zone of the entire country? And, if that move fails to result in the ouster of the regime? Et cetera. The commentators who advocate Western intervention in the Syrian conflict fail to state what is to occur if the initial policy fails to have the required effect on the ground. I for one well recall the atmosphere of doom and gloom, which was prevalent circa August of last year, before the regime in Libya suddenly collapsed. Here we are dealing with a much stronger regime and a much weaker opposition on the ground. Not to speak of the assistance: financial and military which Assad Fils appears to be receiving from his allies in Persia, Iraq and Moskva 2. Secondly, little thought is given by the proponents of Western intervention as to who is to succeed the ousted Assad regime. That just as the ouster of the Qaddafi regime lead to a situation in which numerous groupings, some of whom are overtly opposed to Western interests, are now well-armed and able to operate in the open, similarly it would appear that the same may well be the case in Syria. Already we have both Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies providing indiscriminate assistance to Islamist elements in Syria 2. Unless there is much greater Western covert assistance than is being acknowledged, it is highly doubtful that even military assistance on a Afghanistan level circa 1985, will necessarily have any more likelihood of resulting in the Western powers being able to control events on the ground, post-facto the ouster of the Assad regime. After all, we all know the trajectory of events in Afghanistan, post-facto to the withdrawal of Russian troops in 1989, notwithstanding the very large-scale Western (American) and Saudi military assistance to the anti-Russian forces. The fact of the matter is that sans large-scale, overt, Western (read American) military intervention on an Iraq War scale, no amount of Western military assistance will necessarily result in the coming to power of pro-Western, secular, moderate forces in Syria. Au fond, the real flaw in the thesis that 'inaction' in the Syrian conflict will hurt Western interests, is that per se, one is not in fact told what those interests are. Obviously, in the Leibnizian best of all possible worlds, all will be peace and light in Damascus and Assad Fils and his clique would be peacefully enjoying an early retirement in some third-world watering hole. Unfortunately, we do not (yet) reside in the world according to Dr. Pangloss. With that fact in mind and once one thinks seriously about what are hard Western interests in the Levant, one comes to the sad conclusion that as long as the conflict in Syria remains in Syria, then the only people who ultimately have any real interest in ending this conflict is the poor, wretched people of Syria itself. Which is not to gainsay the fact that the downfall of the Assad regime, would strike a hard and serious blow against Persia and its regional allies in Baghdad and Beirut (Hezbollah). Merely that this positive outcome is not worth the bones of Furst von Bismarck's Pomeranian (or indeed American) Grenadier. And it is via overt Western military intervention, that the positive outcome that those who advocate involvement in the Syrian conflict can only be determined. 1. Senator John McCain, et. al., "The Risks of Inaction in Syria." The Washington Post. 5 August 2012, in www.washingtonpost.com. Leader, "Containing Assad." The Financial Times. 4 October 2012, in www.ft.com. 2. For the assistance which the Assad regime is receiving from its allies, see: Michael Peel & Lina Saigol, "Iraq sends crucial fuel oil to Syria." The Financial Times. 8 October 2012 & Daniel Dombey & Courtney Weaver, "Moscow accused of arms supply to Syria." The Financial Times. 11 October 2012 & finally, Michael Peel & Najmeh Bozorgmehr, "Iran [Persia] acknowledges elite troops in Syria." The Financial Times, 16 September, 2012, all in www.ft.com. 3. For the weakness of the opposition and the fact that the Gulf Monarchies and Saudi Arabia are directly or indirectly arming Islamist elements, see: David Lesch, "Interview: No end in sight in Syria Conflict." The Council on Foreign Relations. 6 September 2012, in www.cfr.org; David Ignatius, "Face to face with a revolution." Syria Comment. 10 October 2012, in www.syriacomment.com. Ilhan Tanir, "In the land of the Free Syria Army." Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 4 October 2012, in www.carnegieendowment.org; For the rise of extremists elements, in the aftermath of the downfall of the Qaddafi regime, see: George Friedman, "Geopolitical Weekly: From Gadhafi (sic!) to Benghazi". Stratfor: Global Intelligence. 18 September 2012, in www.stratfor.com.