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Syria's Civil War: The Empire Strikes Back

"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.