America’s dangerous lethargy on Syria

Michael Young, September 21, 2012 – Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Lebanon. He tweets @BeirutCalling.

Amid signs that Barack Obama is moving closer to winning a second term, one question that comes to mind is whether his victory might mean a better future for Syrians. The president has been inept and dishonest, neither formulating a cohesive policy toward Syria nor properly guarding against the repercussions of the absence of a policy.

One problem is that the Free Syrian Army is not benefiting from sufficient military assistance. Some argue that Turkey, with American encouragement, is preventing certain types of weapons from entering Syria, for fear that they will fall into the wrong hands. Others suggest the problem is principally poor organization or favoritism in the delivery of arms. Whatever the truth, this situation is ensuring that the carnage in Syria drags on for longer than it needs to. Is this intentional? Perhaps not, but the Obama administration cannot imagine that the Syrian rebels will interpret it in any other way.

The United Nations secretary general, Ban Ki-moon, put it well earlier this week when he noted, “Unfortunately both sides, government and opposition forces, seem to be determined to see the end by military means.” Ban went on to say, “I think military means will not bring an answer.” He may be right, but Washington is neither here nor there on the matter. The Americans clearly believe that there is no political solution possible with President Bashar al-Assad, but have taken no steps to ensure that a military solution will succeed either.

Such dallying only makes more likely the exacerbation of violence, therefore the breakup of Syria. This cannot be desirable to the Americans. Syria’s disintegration would put considerable stress on other ethnically and religiously mixed societies in its vicinity, namely Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Obama’s objective in avoiding direct American involvement in sending weapons to Syria, while also regulating weapons flows by others, is to avoid allowing a worsening of the conflict. Yet everything the president has done, by thwarting a decisive outcome, has only worsened the conflict.

Unfortunately the Americans are unlikely to soon change their approach, in light of the attacks on American diplomatic missions last week. The prevailing wisdom in Washington is that the Arab uprisings have only reinforced forces hostile to the United States, and that the administration’s decision last year to take a stance against autocratic regimes brought America few tangible benefits, or popularity.

In that context, the stilted America view may well be that Islamists will, once again, gain from outside assistance in Syria, even though there is, plainly, a struggle there between secular rebel groups on the one side and Islamist groups on the other. American intelligence officers are on the ground and must be aware of what is taking place. If so, it’s up to Obama to formulate a policy that shapes whatever happens in Syria to the advantage of the United States.

Then there is the fact that the administration’s lack of initiative in Syria is apparently allowing chaos to prevail in the arms-distribution process. This can only further increase the risks for Washington. In a fascinating article for Time magazine, Rania Abouzeid chronicles the different agendas of Saudi Arabia and Qatar in getting weapons to the rebel forces. She describes “disorder and distrust” between Riyadh and Doha, noting that “the rift surfaced in August, with the alleged Saudi and Qatari representatives in charge of funneling free weaponry to the rebels clearly backing different factions among the groups–including various shades of secular and Islamist militias–under the broad umbrella that is the Free Syrian Army.”

According to Abouzeid, the Saudi effort is being run by Oqab Saqr, a Lebanese parliamentarian from the Future Movement (and someone formerly in charge of the Arabic section of NOW Lebanon). Saqr, who has denied participating in efforts to equip the rebels, has been criticized for showing favoritism toward certain groups. The Qataris, in turn, reportedly prefer to send arms to the regional military councils formed by the rebels for distribution. They are also apparently reinforcing groups affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, from whom the Saudis are staying away.

If Abouzeid is correct, then this is potentially very dangerous for the Americans. After all, the fragmentation of the rebel forces, especially over weapons, can create the same kind of pandemonium that the administration now regrets in Libya. It’s in such volatile environments that militant jihadists tend to thrive. That is precisely why the Obama administration has a vested interest in imposing order on the provision of arms, while also transferring weapons that provide the rebels with fundamental tactical advantages, for instance anti-aircraft missiles, so that the war can end quickly. Washington was surprised by the revolutionary events in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya last year. That shortcoming should be alarming enough not to be compounded by the utter absence of a strategy in Syria today. What is it with the Obama team? The Middle East will not simply drop off the American plate. Syria will get very much worse before getting better. If the Americans don’t want to absorb the backlash, then it’s time they end their hypocritical game of condemning Assad then doing nothing to push him out of office.