Friday, February 15, 2013

What is the U.S. Doing in Syria?

In one sentence?  Pouring fuel on the fire.

U.S. policy towards Syria has three parts: Humanitarian aid, aid to the armed Syrian opposition, and sanctions.

Humanitarian Aid

Two weeks ago, President Obama released this video, explaining to the Syrian people what the U.S. was doing to help them.

At the 0:55 mark he says this:

“American aid means medicine and treatment for hundreds of thousands of patients in Damascus, Daraa and Homs. …American aid means winter supplies for more than half a million people in Aleppo, Homs and Dayr az-Zour.  And we’re working with allies and partners so that this aid reaches those in need.”

Damascus, Daraa, Homs, Aleppo, Dayr az-Zour.

What do those places have in common?

They are all under the control of the regime.

According to McClatchy Newspapers, “The United States has deferred to the United Nations in distributing food and other aid to Syria’s displaced, but the U.N. won’t enter any part of Syria without the government’s permission.”

This effectively means that the very regime the U.S. is trying to overthrow (more on that later) is controlling who gets the humanitarian aid we send to Syria.

So, for instance, the Atma refugee camp, home to 20,000 refugees, directly across the border from Turkey?

No aid.

Reports Al-Jazeera English: “The UN channels all its aid through Damascus and the main distributor of this aid is the Syrian Arab Red Crescent which operates predominately in government-controlled areas.  …Aid workers inside Damascus tell us that even aid earmarked for disputed areas outside of the city is often commandeered by government soldiers never to be seen again.”

Last week, State Department officials told reporters that 49% of food aid going in to Syria was reaching “contested areas.” Roy Gutman of McClatchy notes that “they didn’t say which side controlled those areas.” Al-Jazeera: “The [Syrian Arab Red Crescent]'s own website lists the areas it has distributed aid to in Aleppo. All are held by the regime.

In short, if you're a Syrian unlucky enough to be living in opposition-controlled territory, or territory that is viewed as disloyal by the regime, as far as the U.S. is concerned, that's just too bad for you.

Which is ironic, considering the second plank of our Syria platform:

Aid to the Armed Opposition

If you’re a keen observer of the Syrian Civil War, you might ask yourself how it is that the Assad regime, for forty years the most feared police state in the Middle East, just twenty-three months after picking a fight with unarmed protestors, is now deploying tanks, snipers, artillery, helicopters and planes against its foes in a death match for Syria’s two largest cities – and is losing?

The erosion of popular support for the regime is the smaller part of the explanation.  The bigger part of that story is that the armed opposition is being funded, armed, and organized by foreign powers – all of them close U.S. allies.

Here I’ll let Scott Stewart of Stratfor take over:

There have been numerous videos released showing Syrian rebels using weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M-60 recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. [Those are really good weapons.] …What is so interesting about these weapons is that they were not in the Syrian military’s inventory prior to the crisis, and they all likely were purchased from Croatia. [i.e. – someone foreign is giving them to the rebels.]

This means that the current level of external intervention in Syria is similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

Obligatory Charlie Wilson’s War clip:

It’s a given that Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and other Sunni Muslim states are funneling these weapons to the rebels.  It’s also a given that the U.S. knows about this, and is encouraging it under the table.

What we have in common with these states is a desire to see Iran’s only Arab ally, the Assad regime, toppled.

What we don’t have in common with these states is a healthy respect for democracy, pluralism and human rights.  There’s no reason to think they wouldn’t be thrilled to see Sunni Islamists come to power in Syria.  If anyone’s looking for a clue, all four of these states have Christian populations of under 1%.  In all four cases, that’s by design, not chance.  Syria’s Christian population is over 10% - for now.

In June, the New York Times reported that the CIA was helping the reconstituted Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey funnel “automatic rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and some antitank weapons” into Syria.

Ostensibly, the CIA is doing this to prevent these weapons – which, it’s worth repeating, can blow up tanks – from falling into the “wrong” hands.  I have no earthly idea what they mean by “wrong.” In the words of Swedish Syria expert Aron Lund:

By November 2012, the ideological spectrum of Syria’s armed movement had narrowed to one ranging from apolitical Sunni conservatism or rural sufism, across the Muslim Brotherhood’s ikhwani Islamism, to the rigid ultra-orthodoxy of salafism. There was little or no room for secular ideologies.

Besides these covert moves, the U.S. is overtly providing tens of millions of dollars of “nonlethal aid” to the Syrian rebels, including intelligence and communications equipment.

Last week, outgoing defense secretary Leon Panetta revealed that President Obama had vetoed a plan to directly arm the Syrian rebels, a plan supported by the State Department, the Defense Department and the CIA.

To me, this reveals a lot about our president’s feeble sense of morality.  He’s willing to give the rebels nonlethal aid, and to give loads of military aid to countries that are giving the Syrian rebels weapons, and to help those countries give the Syrian rebels weapons – but give them weapons directly?  That’s where he draws the line.

The only practical effects of Obama’s refusal to go all the way are that the war will be prolonged, and the victorious rebels will have less reason to listen to us when we raise the issue of rights for religious minorities in the new Syria.


The third piece of the U.S.’s Syria policy is a draconian set of economic sanctions it has imposed with the help of its allies (currently including every country that neighbors Syria except for Iraq – and, well, it’s Iraq.  They’d be able to help more, but they have their own history with U.S. sanctions.)

Supposedly these sanctions are directed at the regime, not the Syrian people.  Funny thing: when the regime owns the country’s entire banking system and most of its economy, this is what happens to the people when you sanction the regime:

- Syria’s economy shrunk by 20% in 2012.
- The Syrian pound has lost half its value against the dollar since the conflict started.
- Wheat and barley production has dropped by over half in the past year.

True, American-led sanctions aren’t responsible for all of this.  But they certainly haven’t helped.

According to David Ignatius at The Washington Post, “U.S.-led economic sanctions appear to have backfired, much as they did in Iraq in the 1990s, hurting poor and middle-class people while allowing regime loyalists to get even richer.” Ignatius cites a report from Syrian opposition leaders calling the sanctions effort “the epitome of failure”:

“The regime is capable of bypassing most sanctions by using non-U.S. and non-Western productions. . . . It’s the Syrian people who do not have the means and the connections to bypass these sanctions. …These conditions have produced the largest transfer of wealth from the people to the government supporters. Under the current shortages and rising prices, the only businessmen who can sustain a profitable business are the ones who have military might at their disposal to protect their convoys.”

The report explains the effects of the U.S. embargo on diesel fuel into Syria this way: “Of course the military gets first dibs on [the fuel that does come in], and the civilians bid up the price of what is left.”

Ignatius: “Desperate for heating fuel, poor people are burning plastic and tree leaves.”

In this crazy era, it's unimaginable that there could be a major civil war in the Middle East without the U.S. being involved in at least some way.

I will outline what I'd like to see the U.S. do in Syria next week.  A preview - I'd like us to use our tremendous influence to discourage people in Syria from killing each other.

Alternatively, if the U.S. government was really super-convinced that Bashar al-Assad and his regime were beyond the pale, irredeemable, there's a number of ways they could force him out.  They could work out a deal with the Russians to stage a coup in Damascus.  They could enforce a no-fly zone over Syria, to keep Assad's planes from carpet bombing Syria's cities.  They could, you know, blow up Assad's house.  We can blow up just about anything these days, or so I hear.

We are doing none of those things.  Instead, we are strangling Syria's economy, dumping weapons on the country, dumping food and medical aid in the lap of the regime we claim to despise too much to even talk to, to distribute as it sees fit, and then standing back, posing as the voice of moral outrage, and offering up platitudes about the Congo.

There is no moral universe in which this is the right thing to do.

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