Escalation in Syria?

The beginning of the popular struggle for democracy in Syria two years ago consisted largely of nonviolent protests that were met with government repression. We will never know if certain government concessions to the original peaceful protests would have led to reform instead of mayhem. The conflict, however, very soon transformed beyond calls for a broader democracy into a deadly civil war led by Sunni rebels, including jihadist elements, seeking to eliminate the secular regime and take power. This war, in its second year, has become exceptionally vicious, destructive of people and infrastructure. The UN says at minimum 93,000 Syrians have been killed.  A large number of the dead have been soldiers on both sides.

The U.S. and its closest NATO allies have supported regime change from the beginning, but only if it is possible to place a government submissive to Washington’s dictates in Damascus. That proviso is important.

It is incorrect to assume Obama is disinterested in overthrowing the Assad regime simply because he refused to commit to an American air and ground war to support of the anti-government forces. Obama’s problem is that the insurgents are thoroughly disunited despite receiving arms and money from Sunni countries and “non-lethal” aid from the U.S. and others for well over a year. White House efforts to form a reliable, united pro-U.S. rebel front have failed repeatedly. At the same time, Islamic jihadist fighting elements are stronger than the other warring groups in the Free Syrian Army. This suits the wealthy Saudi Arabian dictatorship, the major sponsor of the war, but is anathema to Washington for obvious reasons.

As we write, the Obama Administration has just announced, “following a deliberative review, our intelligence community assesses that the Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times in the last year.” Up to 150 people are alleged to have died from the gas.

Nerve gas may have been used, but I remain dubious that the Syrian government ordered its use. Assad fully understood that if even a small amount of gas was deployed it would cross Obama’s “red line,” leading anywhere from a marked increase in U.S. support for the rebels or massive retaliation. Assad clings tenaciously to his life, his office, and his constituency. Why would he, in effect, toss it all away by approving the use of a small amount of sarin knowing it could trigger his doom?

War hawks in Washington — liberal and conservative, as well as within the State Department —are demanding a drastic response from the White House, from arming the rebels with sophisticated weapons to establishing a no-fly zone to putting “boots on the ground.”

Obama is hesitant. According to the New York Times he has “decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition.” I suspect he will insist that the shipments must not end up with jihadist rebels. He can be expected to resist pressure to establish a no-fly zone in Syria backed with U.S. jets, as he did in Libya. Syria has sophisticated air defenses as opposed to nearly defenseless Libya.

Another factor causing hesitation is that despite a year of press and U.S. government exaggerations that Assad is on the precipice of defeat, the Alawite government controls most of the territory and nearly all the large cities. Recent battlefield support from Lebanon’s Shia self-defense organization Hezbollah has been an important asset for the government and has contributed to rebel setbacks and loss of territory in recent months.

The sarin announcement, and the subsequent American decision to openly send arms, benefits the insurgents at a time when they need a morale boost and an infusion of weapons with which to mount counterattacks. Obama will do what he can to keep the rebels in the field and bring about regime change. But he knows history will be unforgiving if he aligns with known terrorists, and justly suspects that the American people will oppose another U.S. ground war in the Middle East.

There is one important unknown factor: the influence on Obama from newly named security adviser Susan Rice, the former UN Delegate, and her replacement, Obama adviser Samantha Powers. Both are liberal war hawks and staunch advocates of so-called “humanitarian intervention.” They may push for a tougher line on Syria and elsewhere. At the UN, Rice has been publicly rude to chief delegates from both China and Russia. Powers is said to have been a major influence Obama’s decision to attack Libya. Veteran analyst M.K. Bhadrakumar, writing June 8 in India Punchline, commented that by advancing both advisers Obama “is letting loose two cats among pigeons, a reference to State and Defense Secretaries Kerry and Hagel.”