Syria has opened fire on protesters as unrest spreads to Damascus and Aleppo. “Hundreds took to the streets in the cities of Homs, Hama, Tel and Latakia and in towns surrounding Deraa, with smaller protests in the major cities of Damascus and Aleppo, which are more firmly under the watch of security forces. Troops reportedly opened fire in some cases.”
In an ominous development, the BBC says Farsi-speaking armed units are being used to break up the protests by sniping at the demonstrators from rooftops.
Lots more video here. The events in Damascus are being keenly followed in Beirut, where a collapse in Syrian power would immediately change the correlation of forces. “Hezbollah will be adversely affected should the uprising in Syria expand,” Solh told AFP. “An escalation, on the other hand, will give hope to those opposed to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.”
Zyad Maged, political science professor at the American University of Paris, said should the revolt in the southern town of Daraa spread throughout Syria, that would weaken the regime and destabilise its allies in Lebanon.
“Hezbollah is hoping the domestic unrest in Syria ends quickly even if it’s through repression,” Maged said. “The Syrian regime offers a guarantee for them, geographically at least.”
Meanwhile, the United States has unsuccessfully tried to shift the burden of the Libya operation to Europe. The diplomats have decided to transfer command to NATO but leave the US military bearing the burden. It is the same dog with a different collar. The Libyan air force has disappeared and its navy has refused to leave port, but the main challenge remains protecting rebels on the ground. And that, alas, remains an American task.
The Western alliance already has assumed control of the arms embargo, led by an Italian vice admiral, and has agreed to take over the no-fly zone in coming days, Gortney said. But there is disagreement over the third mission, which includes air strikes to stop Gaddafi from attacking his opponents.
“This mission will remain in U.S. hands until such time as the coalition is ready to assume it,” Gortney told a briefing at the Pentagon. “My expectation is that it, too, could fall under NATO. But … these are decisions and discussions ongoing at the political level and I just would not speculate right now where it will end up.”
The US commitments in Libya will mean that Syria may not have to worry about any consequences, even in principle, beyond a State Department protest for its repression of demonstrators. Hezbollah, which hopes Damascus can crush dissent with force, may get its wish.
Yesterday, I noted that Obama’s Libya operation seemed disconnected from the principal powderkegs of the Middle East, which are Saudi Arabia and Syria. The fuze train burning toward Saudi Arabia comes from Yemen and Bahrain. The detonation wire going from Syria through Lebanon leads to Israel. And Obama is in Libya.
Commanders with limited resources choose their battles carefully because committing forces in one theater means they are not available in another. That applies to Commanders in Chief too. Former Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out that the unsolved puzzle of the Libyan operation is how it contributes to the wider strategy in the region. The AP noted that among the many fires burning all over the place, Syria and events in Bahrain and Yemen had at least an equal claim on American outrage. What principle then, guides the Commander in Chief’s budget of force?
A cynic might be inclined to argue that President Obama’s operation in Libya serves the purpose of preemptively tying up US reserves. It supplies a relatively target easy to beat up on — admittedly a bad guy who looks and plays the part — so that if and when the heavy lifting is required elsewhere the Commander in Chief can justly say, “I already gave at the office”. In that way, if Assad decides to play Hama rules, the President can claim he is already preoccupied with protecting unnamed persons in the Eastern Libyan desert. You can avoid the big conflicts by embroiling youself in little ones.
Perhaps the operating principle of the administration’s regional policy can be summed up in a Three Stooges line: “it’s Dr. Jekyll, let us Hyde.” Now, with the fires burning ever closer to main magazines of the region, US forces are committed elsewhere. Having missed the opportunity to get on the side of the Iranian demonstrators when Tehran was tottering, the administration may now miss a similar opportunity in Syria. No matter; at least they succeeded with Mubarak and may succeed, if ever they make up their minds to go for regime change in Libya.
There might not be any strategic rhyme or reason to it , but Libya is apparently the right place to focus efforts because as former State Department official Nicholas Burns explained, that’s where the UN resolution is.
“The ability to reach a consensus on action in Libya, in the face of potential crimes against humanity,” he said in a recent commentary, “is not illegitimate simply because a similar consensus cannot be reached in other circumstances.”
Charles Krauthammer called this approach “The Professor’s War,” obsessed with legality but completely bereft of sense. It was, he said, war yet not war, led yet not led, by men who dithered over parchment. He wrote:
In any case, for Obama, military objectives take a back seat to diplomatic appearances. The president is obsessed with pretending that we are not running the operation — a dismaying expression of Obama’s view that his country is so tainted by its various sins that it lacks the moral legitimacy to … what? Save Third World people from massacre? Obama seems equally obsessed with handing off the lead role. Hand off to whom? NATO? Quarrelling amid Turkish resistance (see above), NATO still can’t agree on taking over command of the airstrike campaign, which is what has kept the Libyan rebels alive. This confusion is purely the result of Obama’s decision to get America into the war and then immediately relinquish American command. Never modest about himself, Obama is supremely modest about his country. America should be merely “one of the partners among many,” he said Monday. No primus inter pares for him. Even the Clinton administration spoke of America as the indispensable nation. And it remains so.Yet at a time when the world is hungry for America to lead — no one has anything near our capabilities, experience and resources — America is led by a man determined that it should not. A man who dithers over parchment. Who starts a war from which he wants out right away. Good God. If you go to take Vienna, take Vienna. If you’re not prepared to do so, better then to stay home and do nothing.
Krauthammer is wrong. This is even better than doing nothing. It’s appearing to do something while doing nothing. Or perhaps even more clever, doing something while accomplishing something else.
Deraa, the site of one of the many protests, was where the fledgling Royal Air Force won its first ground-air battle in 1918 in support of Colonel T. E. Lawrence’s Arab Revolt. He was cutting the lifeline of the Ottoman empire. Viewed from the 21st century, the battle seems almost quaint: biplanes dropping a few pounds of bombs from low altitude and landing to rendezvous with riders in flowing robes on steaming horses. But those riders, all encased in cotton, creaky leather and sweat, had the virtue of knowing which end was up. Today we are even luckier to be led, not simply by the competent and daring, but by leaders who are truly awesome.