Once some powerful people in Washington decide that they want a war, they do not give up until they get it. The proponents of an American-led NATO intervention in Syria were on the defensive in April, when government forces were winning on the ground and the political balance inside the Beltway seemed to be favoring restraint. In May they regrouped and reconsidered their strategy. Now they are back with a vengeance.
President Obama appeared to be unenthusiastic about intervention, as was apparent during his meeting with Vladimir Putin at Los Cabos on June 18 when his remarks fell short of demanding President Bashar al-Assad’s removal from power. His more hawkish rhetoric at home indicates that he was merely trying not to irritate Putin by explicitly demanding regime change.
By now the proponents of Operation Syrian Freedom have put together four key ingredients needed for the pendulum to swing their way:
Atrocity management is the key: the staged slaughter of civilians in Houla by the rebels last month, reminiscent of similar stunts in the Balkans—notably the Racak “massacre” that preceded the U.S.-led NATO war against Serbia in 1999—produced exactly the kind of reaction its perpetrators were hoping for. More similar incident are likely to follow.
Misrepresentation of the insurgency as a fully-fledged civil war between two sides—one virtuous, the other unredeemably evil—is all but complete. Once the misnomer “civil war” is routinely used and accepted as accurate, it becomes easier to advocate intervening on the “good” side in that war. Arming the insurgents and helping them with air power is also possible—that was done in Libya—but the political consensus-building is more difficult this time.
The assertion that intervention is a moral imperative and a test of American “leadership,” which the rest of the world supposedly hopes for and expects, is equally predictable. The narrative has been developing since Gulf War I and it matured under Clinton. Only the names of villains and victims need to be filled in.
Last but not least, there is the claim that intervention is a geopolitical necessity, because the Russians are already involved by arming government forces and because a regime change in Damascus would be a blow to Iran’s position in the region. Nothing to do with the Syrian people, even though they would be the ones to pay the price of intervention in blood, like their Iraqi neighbors have done.
This last point is particularly worthy of attention, in view of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s deliberate misrepresentation of facts regarding the delivery of Russian helicopters to the Syrian government. On June 12 Clinton expressed concern over the alleged sale of Russian helicopters to Syria, saying that if the Syrian government got possession of such lethal weapons, it “will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”
The Russians replied that the helicopters had been sold and delivered to Syria a long time ago, that they were sent to Russia for refurbishing and were now being shipped back. On June 13 Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said that Russia was merely fulfilling its contractual obligations, signed and paid for long before the outbreak of the rebellion. He went on to allude to U.S. sales of arms to Bahrain—which faces latent unrest following last year’s protests that ended in bloodshed—by saying, “We are not supplying to Syria or anywhere else things that are used in fighting with peaceful demonstrators, in contrast to the United States, which is regularly sending such special means to countries in the region. For some reason, the Americans consider this to be in order.”
Victoria Nuland, spokesperson for the US State Department, effectively confirmed the Russian version and contradicted her boss when she declared on June 14 that “these are helicopters that have been out of the fight for some six months or longer. They are freshly refurbished.” An anonymous senior Pentagon official told The New York Times that Clinton had “exaggerated a little bit”—that is, lied—in order “to put the Russians in a difficult situation.”
For a Madam Secretary to lie is nothing new: Madeleine Albright did it routinely in the 1990s to justify the Bosnian intervention and the war against the Serbs. For her current successor to resort to falsehoods in order to provoke the Russians is remarkable, however, especially as it happened less than a week ahead of last Monday’s meeting between Obama and Putin. There are three possible explanations: that she was misinformed, which is unlikely; that she was acting on her own accord, which is possible; or that she was deliberately raising tension over Syria, which is most probable.
The Russians responded by announcing they would send two warships and a support vessel to the Syrian port of Tartus, where Russia maintains her only naval base in the Mediterannean. A Russian navy official said the ships will carry an unspecified number of marines, supposedly to protect Russians in Syria if necessary. Each ship is capable of carrying up to 300 marines and a dozen tanks. That would make it the largest known Russian troop deployment to Syria to date.
Once the “civil war” paradigm is in place, the next stage of the escalation is predictable: Saudi Arabia and the Emirates will provide the funds and Jihadist volunteers for the rebels, Turkey will be the staging post, while America and NATO will provide the weapons and trainers. It is eerily reminiscent of Zbigniew Brzezinski’s 1979 “brilliant idea” to train, arm and equip Islamic fundamentalists as a tool against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The fruits will be the same. A post-Assad Syria—however fragmented—would become a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism and Jihad terrorism.
That Syria is becoming an increasingly contentious issue in the relations between Washington and Moscow is an unnecessary and potentially dangerous development entirely of the Administration’s own making. That the strategic rationale for such behavior is lacking is unsurprising. All major interventions of the past two decades—Bosnia, Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya—have been self-defeating, illegal, and beneficial to the warriors in the path of the Prophet. Syria would be no exception.
Dr. Srdja Trifkovic, Foreign Affairs Editor of Chronicles, is the author of The Sword of the Prophet and Defeating Jihad.