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The Ever More Complex Levantine Puzzle

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By:Srdja Trifkovic | June 14, 2014

“Both Mr. Assad and the jihadists represent a challenge to the United States’ core interests,” former U.S. Ambassador in Damascus Robert S. Ford wrote in The New York Times on June 10. He advocated a strategy that would supposedly deal with both Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists: “with partner countries from the Friends of Syria group like France, Britain, Germany, Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, we must ramp up sharply the training and material aid provided to the moderates in the armed opposition.”

Decrying Washington’s “hesitation and unwillingness to commit to enabling the moderate opposition fighters to fight more effectively both the jihadists and the regime,” Ambassador Ford advocated providing his unnamed Syrian “moderates” with advanced military hardware, including “mortars and rockets to pound airfields to impede regime air supply operations and, subject to reasonable safeguards, surface-to-air missiles.”

Ford’s article is irresponsible and ill-informed at best. It was published on the very day the insurgents belonging to the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (also known as “ISIS” to include Syria) started its spectacular advance on Mosul, Tikrit, and points further south. Even more surreally dangerous were the BloombergView editors, who urged (also on June 10) an outright, American-led anti-Assad intervention: “the U.S. and its European and regional allies should take the initiative to circumvent the UN Security Council and put the needed military muscle on the ground. Yes, Russia and China will be furious. So be it.” Now that would be a bold strategy, with many exciting ramifications in Ukraine, along the shores of the South China Sea, and elsewhere. With their gas supplies in balance, “the European allies” can hardly wait.

Ambassador Ford has wisely stayed out of the news over the past couple of days, but it would be interesting to find out if he still stands by the assessment he made four days ago. Does he still advocate arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA) “moderates,” who have been comprehensively routed by the Syrian security forces and who no longer exist as a fighting force? That same FSA, whose units invariably melt away – Iraqi-army-style – whenever confronted with the warriors of jihad, and who have observed a truce with ISIS since late September 2013? To claim that its pathetic remnant can be trained, armed and equipped to the point where it would be able take on Bashar’s army and ISIS simultaneously is insane. Or does Ford have the murderous Al Nusra Front in mind, jihadist to boot, which is a battlefield rival to ISIS and hence perhaps worthy of being treated as a “moderate” force? That same Al Nusra which is currently spreading its reign of terror into Lebanon?

And how exactly would be those surface-to-air missiles subjected to Ford’s “reasonable safeguards”? Perhaps like 400 such missiles were safeguarded in Libya in September 2012, only to end up “in the hands of some very ugly people”? Not to mention thousands of others, which remain unaccounted for; and not to speculate on the vast, yet unknown quantities of U.S.-supplied weapons and ordnance – probably including anti-aircraft missiles – which have fallen into the hands of ISIS fighters in Mosul and Tikrit...

Does Ambassador Ford still advocate working with “our partners” which are funding ISIS, the group which “was built and grown for years with the help of elite donors from American supposed allies in the Persian Gulf region”? The same ones whom al-Maliki has been publicly accusing for months of supporting ISIS? In particular, does Ford still advocate cooperating with that same desert kingdom which, in addition to ISIS, has given us endless other woes around the globe? As Robert Fisk, one of the best informed Middle East analysts in existence, commented in The Independent on June 12, “after the grotesquerie of the Taliban and Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 suicide killers of 9/11, meet Saudi Arabia’s latest monstrous contribution to world history: the Islamist Sunni caliphate of Iraq and the Levant, conquerors of Mosul and Tikrit – and Raqqa in Syria – and possibly Baghdad, and the ultimate humiliators of Bush and Obama”:

From Aleppo in northern Syria almost to the Iraqi-Iranian border, the jihadists of Isis and sundry other groupuscules paid by the Saudi Wahhabis – and by Kuwaiti oligarchs – now rule thousands of square miles. Apart from Saudi Arabia’s role in this catastrophe, what other stories are to be hidden from us in the coming days and weeks?

Fisk rightly points out that “the story of Iraq and the story of Syria are the same – politically, militarily and journalistically: two leaders, one Shia, the other Alawite, fighting for the existence of their regimes against the power of a growing Sunni Muslim international army.” In that conflict, various Sunni ruling oligarchies in Riyadh and around the Gulf – most of them with substantial Shia populations – see their own broader picture in terms of an existential Sunni-Shia regional contest, in which their sympathies (and money, and arms) are invariably with the forces of “orthodox” jihad. The United States government needs to publically acknowledge this ill-guarded secret before any meaningful U.S. counter-strategy can be devised and developed.

Left to their own devices, those royal aiders and abettors of ISIS will not change their ways. Even the strange spectacle of ISIS joining forces with the Baathist remnant in northwestern Iraq is unlikely to sway Kuwait – the victim of Saddam’s aggression in 1991 – and terminate its role as a financing and organizational hub for ISIS and other Sunni jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq. It would be incongruous for the United States to treat Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Qatar, Bahrein, and Kuwait as “partners” while they continue supporting such groups, and at the same time to support Al Maliki against ISIS on the Iraqi front… and to continue insisting on Bashar’s removal on the Syrian flank.

It is ironic that, right now and in the foreseeable future, President Bashar al-Assad has a much better trained and more experienced army than Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – $20 billion of U.S. arms and training to the latter notwithstanding. In fact the Syrian government army is the only organized fighting force capable of effectively confronting ISIS at the moment. Baghdad and Damascus have a common enemy, and in order not to be defeated-in-detail in Niniweh and Aleppo they need to establish a common cause.

Therefore, if the U.S. government is to avoid another direct Middle Eastern intervention (and it must be avoided); and if it is to prevent the rise of an unabashedly jihadist state in the region (and a state it is, having under its control large swaths of territory that include major population centers and oil wells, an army, and some half-billion dollars in liquid assets and bullion), the time has finally come to revisit Washington’s rhetoric and future policy on Bashar.

For over two years, and with some urgency last fall, I have argued that Washington’s continued insistence on Bashar’s exclusion from any future Syrian formula is unrealistic, and that the Syrian government’s cooperation is essential in fighting the far greater menace of resurgent jihad. Prompted by ex-CIA Director Michael Hayden’s admission last December that Assad’s victory would be “the least bad outcome” in Syria, I argued in this column that the Obama Administration should heed his advice. Reasonable people ultimately see the reason, including a few bold voices in the MSM and think-tanks today. Writing in USA Today on June 14, RAND’s William Young correctly noted that, unchecked, ISIS and its affiliates will further deepen the divide between Sunnis and Shiites throughout the region and threaten Baghdad itself, that the continued arming of the rebels to fight the regime in Syria is not the answer, and that a full-scale military invasion of Syria by a coalition of western forces is unfeasible:

The answer may lie instead in a negotiated settlement, which includes negotiating with Syrian President Bashar Assad, perhaps brokered through the Russians and Iranians. As unpalatable as it may be to the West, such a settlement would acknowledge the political and geographical realities on the ground. Syria is now a divided country. Assad shows no signs of leaving. Iraq could end up being partitioned if current trends continue. And the situation in Syria presents a serious threat to the stability of Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and the Arab Gulf, as well as western oil interests.

Assad has much to gain from this proposal, Young concludes, as do Tehran and Baghdad: “In turn, Assad could help NATO and other willing partners focus time and resources on ISIS, which poses the greatest threat to the Middle East, the United States, and Europe.” In extremis, the same could apply to an anti-ISIS understanding with Iran.

The unrepentant interventionist cabal in Washington will reject such advice with horror and indignation. They still claim that Bashar can be removed, Iran sanctioned ad infinitum and preferably bombed, Iraq kept together, Jordan and Lebanon stabilized, and Turkey, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf relied upon… if only the U.S. would accept its “regional responsibilities” and become “fully engaged” yet again. They also claim that the latest disaster in Iraq is the consequence of the December 2011 American withdrawal. All that is nonsense. The chronic crisis in Iraq, which has been going on with occasional acute eruptions for 13 years, is the consequence of the illegal, unnecessary, costly, and tragic Iraq war, tirelessly urged and waged under countless false pretenses by these same people. They belong in jail or in mental asylum, not in Washington’s “foreign policy community.”
 

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