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Rubin Reports

Syria’s Civil War: The Empire Strikes Back

May 6th, 2013 - 3:04 pm

“My opponent’s reasoning reminds me of the [man] who, being asked on what the world stood, replied, `On a tortoise.’ But on what does the tortoise stand? `On another tortoise. … There are tortoises all the way down.” –Joseph Berg (1854)

Given recent military gains for the Syrian regime, obituaries of dictator Bashar al-Assad have proven to be exaggerated and that gives the Obama administration a big problem. U.S. strategy, and that of the West and international organizations, has been based on two ideas that have proven to be wishful thinking:

– Assad and the opposition would make a deal and so everything could be settled diplomatically. This was absurd.

– The rebels would defeat Assad without direct Western intervention. So far, while the rebels have made gains, the regime is now on the counter-offensive. Up to 5000 Hizballah troops, better organized than the rebels, have entered Syria to fight for the regime. They are acting in self-interest to protect Shia villages and to keep their military supply lines open. (Incidentally, Hizballah is using Syrian- and Iranian-provided weapons that the United States and UN promised Israel they would block them from obtaining back in 2006.)  It could take two years or more for a rebel victory, and even then it isn’t assured.

One reason for the regime gains is that it has more reliable allies. What group would you rather have behind you: Russia, Iran, Iraq, and Hizballah; or the United States, EU, UN, and Arab League? Silly question, isn’t it?

But the second civil war — the one within the rebel side — looks just as bad. Who would you rather have behind you: the United States, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey — as the Islamists have had until quite recently, when the Americans started waking up — or … nobody, as the moderate rebels have had? The U.S. government suddenly discovered that it has helped put advanced weapons into the hands of al-Qaeda and other Salafist groups. Obama isn’t bothered by arming the Muslim Brotherhood.

Now comes a dramatic development — the opposition’s claim that the regime used sarin, a deadly nerve gas. Israeli intelligence confirmed that somebody used sarin; the Obama administration at first denied it. A couple of days later, however, the U.S. government changed its view.

Obama previously stated that the government’s use of nerve gas was a “red line” that would trigger escalated American intervention. Once the U.S. government admitted that nerve gas had been used, however, he said that the international community would have to reach the same conclusion before he would do anything.

But who used the nerve gas? UN investigators are concluding that the rebels might have used it. I am no expert, but I think it is possible that this is true on the following basis: the attack was on a very small scale in a non-critical area of fighting. If the Syrian government was going to use chemical weapons, it would be in a critical battle where victory was imperative and there were lots of enemy soldiers to kill and to terrify. This is what happened in the Iran-Iraq war.

Again, I want to stress that I am not claiming to know which side did it in a conflict where events are often mysterious and it is hard to be certain whether, for example, a claimed massacre did take place. There are no good guys, if we’re speaking of the two sides in general. Instead, there are lots of victims, terrified people, and very brutal guys. If the rebels are staging atrocities too, and the results are likely to be messy, what do you do?

So here’s the situation: Obama has painted himself into a corner regarding a two-year-long civil war in which more than 70,000 people have been killed. He understandably doesn’t want to intervene. And now a new element is added, for finally his government came to a realization that the forces they have been backing were radical Islamists from the Muslim Brotherhood and even more extreme Salafist groups. The moderates were neglected, even rudely shoved aside. And now it is too late — though official policy pretends otherwise — to boost the moderate rebels.

Of course, the Obama administration can do little things — send more non-lethal aid, urge the Qataris and Saudis to supply more weapons, and train the moderates it can find in the hope that they can stand up to the Islamists. But military intervention or even a no-fly zone, anything that will change the situation decisively? Nope.

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All Comments   (32)
All Comments   (32)
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By "moderate rebels" do you mean not fully radicalized Islamist's? Dormant Jihadi's? It's an oxymoron: like saying "communist allies" or "Chechen freedom fighters". Freedom from what?
I don't think going from a Syrian despot to a sharia based theocracy is much of a choice.
But I agree with your assessment of Obama's missteps.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
You Americans should "pull a Russian" and supply the weaker of the two forces with weaponry and other supplies to keep them fighting. This means that you will end up supplying both sides over time.

Muslims are only so happy to kill each other--you might encourage that to keep them from attacking USA. The only thing that seems to make them happier than killing each other is killing Americans.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Did you, somewhere in there, call Assad Islamist (regarding two Islamist entities)? In what way did you mean that, or did I misunderstand?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
We supported a moderate in Iran for a while -- the Shah.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Syria is the next act of the tragedy that started when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, or maybe it started when Saddam invaded Kuwait I don't know. But once American troops occupied Iraq they shattered the social fabric of that country and set off a bomb that could not help but shatter the old order of the Middle East. All of the combat experience that the radical Islamists gained fighting the best army in the world every day for several years is now spread into Syria. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps also gained a lot of covert experience in Iraq and are deploying that in Syria today. A very big conflagration will take place some day because of this that will probably end up endangering millions of lives. Thank you George W. Bush.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sir, I think you mean, "Thank you Bill Clinton for not taking out Osama Bin Laden when you could have. No Osama, no 9/11; no 9/11 no Iraq.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I find it hard to accept mass graves and terrorist training camps as "the fabric of a society".
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I find I want to take sides which is only human. Thanks for a penetrating article pointing out why this situation is bad however it comes out. All I would add is that based on what you have said in general about moderate democratic forces in the middle east it would have been a stretch to have effectively supported them in either Egypt or Syria. I think Obama is dead wrong supporting the MB in the hopes that it will moderate in power. [He has perhaps;-)] I agree that Iraq for all its problems has emerged with a reasonably moderate and democratic government by Middle East standards - so it is possible. I don't think the Democrats in the US can see the positive lessons learned in Iraq - they don't think there are any - and are about to preside over a disaster because of it.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Professor Rubin,

Why hasn't America been able to identify an assembly of Syrian (and for that matter Egyptian or Iranian) moderates, and provided them with economic and security support to host a free and democratic election for a Constitutional Convention in their defined borders?

During the American Revolution, France was a Super Power that helped America in that way to gain independence from the tyranny of England, and France was first to recognize the independence of the American Colonies (of course, the British Empire was breathing down their own neck).

Are true moderates such a miniscule minority in Syria, Iran, and Egypt, that nobody there is actually worthy of democratic support (like Sodom and Gomorrah, which lacked even ten righteous citizens)?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Couldn't agree more with FeralCat on this one. Don't make Bashir Al-Assad into some kind of folk hero. He may be more rich playboy than dedicated Muslim, but he was a brutal, Jew hating, dictator whose hands were strung to the puppeteer's wires. Iran lets him play moderate so long as he helps push the anti-Israel message in the UN. Stay out of it unless they directly attack Israel directly.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry, Mr. Rubin, but you are not winning me over to the "moderate rebel" faction in the current Syrian civil war, because I see no convincing evidence of the existence of any such faction. There is nobody to safely hand arms to over there. And if B. Hussein chooses to do so, I want him to explain to the American people whom he is arming and what does he reasonably expect us to gain from it. ... But of course that will never happen, because Obama, well into his second and final term, has NO intention of governing from the top.

Thus, final analysis, I do not back sending anything more powerful than a pea-shooter to Syria. Rather: arm Israel, because a big fight is surely coming.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
---- "Obama previously stated that the government’s use of nerve gas was a “red line” that would trigger escalated American intervention. Once the U.S. government admitted that nerve gas had been used, however, he said that the international community would have to reach the same conclusion before he would do anything."

Yeah, he's just quite the Abe Lincoln, ain't he?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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