Trouble Along the Med

The shootdown of a Turkish F4 in the waters off the Syrian coastal town of Latakia raises tensions in a country already at the boiling point. But the Syran air defense is not the only one watching the skies. Bill Gertz writes that “U.S. intelligence agencies are closely watching Israel’s military for signs it will conduct strikes on Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons, amid concerns the deadly nerve agents could fall under the control of Hezbollah or al Qaeda terrorists, U.S. officials said.”


However, other U.S. officials said special operations forces are prepared to take action inside Syria in the event the regime falls and the country spirals further into chaos. The teams would seek to secure or destroy stockpiles of chemical arms to keep them from being taken over by terrorists. Hezbollah has been very active in Syria, and there are reports that al Qaeda terrorists have moved into Syria during the current crisis …

The New York Times reported Thursday that CIA operatives are working in southern Turkey to coordinate foreign assistance to Syrian rebel forces.

The situation in Syria has reached the point where large scale military operations are now possible between the opposing sides, operations which can only be undertaken with support for each side by outside powers. Joseph Holliday at the Institute for War writes:

Syria’s maturing insurgency has begun to carve out its own de facto safe zones around Homs city, in northern Hama, and in the Idlib countryside. The Assad regime seized key urban centers in Damascus, Homs, and Idlib during offensives in February and March 2012. However, the rebels successfully withdrew into the countryside, where they operate with impunity. As of June 2012, the opposition controls large swaths of Syria’s northern and central countryside.

The Assad regime does not have the capacity to continue offensive operations while holding the key terrain it cleared in the spring. Currently, the regime is postured to hold Damascus, Homs, and Idlib, but not to defeat the insurgency that prospers in the countryside. In order to direct a new offensive against rebel strongholds outside of Homs city and in the Idlib countryside, the regime will have to consolidate forces for a large operation, which could compromise regime control of the urban areas. Increased direct military assistance from Russia or Iran could substantially mitigate this risk to the regime.

Syria’s loyalist security forces will have to balance competing priorities in the summer of 2012. First, they must ensure that fighting does not spread further in northern Aleppo and coastal Latakia provinces. Second, they must regain control of rebel strongholds to the north and south of Homs city. Finally, they must disrupt de facto rebel safe zones in northern Hama and the Idlib countryside.


Holliday writes that the rebels are slowly gaining the upper hand on Assad. The problem is that the rebels are also fighting among themselves. The challenge for the US, Holliday says, is to make sure that the successor regime is friendly to the United States.

The conflict in Syria is approaching a tipping point at which the insurgency will control more territory than the regime. Neither the perpetuation nor the removal of Assad will guarantee Syria’s future stability. In order to prevent Syrian state failure, the insurgency must mature into a professional armed force that can promote and protect a stable political opposition.

Increased external support for Syria’s insurgency has contributed to its success on the battlefield, but the resulting competition for resources has encouraged radicalization and infighting. This ad hoc application of external support has undermined the professionalization of the opposition’s ranks. Carefully managing this support could reinforce responsible organizations and bolster organic structures within the Syrian opposition.

The priority for U.S. policy on Syria should be to encourage the development of opposition structures that could one day establish a monopoly on the use of force.


Reuters reports that the regional powers are now worried that the fighting in Syria will spill over into neighboring countries — Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan.

“Our main concern is the spillover of the crisis into neighboring countries,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference with his Swedish, Bulgarian and Polish counterparts in Baghdad …

If the conflict were to slide into an all-out sectarian or civil war, Iraq, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey would all be affected, he said. “This is not an excuse to do nothing about Syria, no. But there will be an impact.”


In that context the shootdown of the Turkish jet provides yet another vector for the involvement of outside powers in the Syrian conflict. If Turkey gets more deeply involved the question will be what its goals are and who will ride in on its coat-tails

The New York Times, citing sources in Israel, write that Israeli officials now believe that a Third Intifada is imminent because the Palestinian Authority itself was at a dead-end. “The root cause of this instability is that Palestinians have lost all hope that Israel will grant them a state.”

These failures have left Palestinians who hope to make present conditions untenable for Israel with only two options: popular protest and armed resistance. The first option faces enormous obstacles because of political divisions between Hamas in Gaza and Mr. Abbas’s Fatah in the West Bank. Each faction regards mass mobilization as a potential first step to its overthrow, as well as a means of empowering a new generation of leaders at the expense of existing ones.

If mass demonstrations erupted in the West Bank, Israel would ask Palestinian security forces to stop any protests near soldiers or settlers, forcing them to choose between potentially firing on Palestinian demonstrators or ending security cooperation with Israel, which Mr. Abbas refuses to do. As he knows and fears, mass protests could quickly become militarized by either side. For that reason, his government has offered little more than rhetorical support for the small weekly protests so beloved by foreign activists and the Western press, and has actively prevented demonstrators from approaching any Jewish settlements.

The second option is armed confrontation. Although there is widespread apathy among Palestinians, and hundreds of thousands are financially dependent on the Palestinian Authority’s continued existence, a substantial number would welcome the prospect of an escalation, especially many supporters of Hamas, who argue that violence has been the most effective tactic in forcing Israel and the international community to act.


The desperation of the Palestinian Authority is another way of saying that the Israeli-Arab conflict is no longer the dominant narrative of the Middle East.  The Arab Spring has now shifted the basic fault line to the Sunni-Shia schism, with the conflict between old line strongmen and newly restive populations as the undercard.

As that drama plays out, the last Jews are holding out in Tunisia. Michael Totten reports that in the aftermath of the Arab Spring, they have lost the traditional protection of the former regime. Facing an uncertain future they are too cautious to even speak out.  They seem to sense, perhaps guided an instinct formed by centuries of survival, that now is the time to make themselves as unnoticeable as possible.

“How has the situation here changed for the Jews of Tunisia,” I [Totten] said, “since the fall of Ben Ali?”

“Nothing has changed,” the rabbi said. “It’s the same situation since Ben Ali’s fall.”

“This is a country ruled by an Islamist government,” Armin said. “Do you feel that presents any problems for the Jewish community?

“There’s no problem between the government and the Jewish community,” the rabbi said.

“But I have seen photographs of Salafists with their black flag in front of the synagogue here intimidating people,” I said. “Was that a one-time event, or are you worried they might become increasingly dangerous?”

“They don’t bother me,” the rabbi said. “They lived with us before. That incident was their business, not ours.”

What kind of answers were these?

Ahmed, our Tunisian translator and fixer, had a question of his own for the rabbi.

“Does it bother you that some people want Islamic law in the constitution?” he said.

“There’s no problem at all,” the rabbi said, “because the constitution is not written.”

“He doesn’t want to answer,” Ahmed said quietly to Armin and me as he leaned back in his chair.

I’m not even sure why the rabbi agreed to be interviewed. He answered almost all of our questions this way, as did his assistant. They answered as though the entire Arab world would judge them for what they said and pounce if they uttered a peep of complaint. They reminded me of citizens of police states who are asked on the record what they think of the government.


It is wait and see. And that is perhaps how it is all across the region. Nobody is sure what will happen next, perhaps not even the White House. Events in the last two years have consigned the dominant diplomatic paradigm in the Middle East to the scrap heap. The Palestinian-Israeli conflict, so long considered the key to creating peace in the Middle East is now revealed as nothing but an irrelevant distraction.

The main event is not now between the broader Arab/Muslim world and a minority population — the Jews — but between major factions in the Arab/Muslim world itself.  It is almost as if the Old Ottoman Empire, long believed to have been dead and buried, has risen in its several pieces from the grave. Arguably the 9/11 attacks on New York were the first major sign that this shift was taking place. Now the West must deal with it; Europe from its position of collapse and Washington, from its position of absent-mindedness.

Lee Smith, writing in the Weekly Standard, notes that the administration took itself almost entirely off the board in the region in what may be regarded by future historians as the one of the worst cases of mis-deployment in strategic history.  It then proceeded to compound the error by putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse.

Let’s look at Obama’s Middle East policy the way Tehran must. Obama withdrew U.S. troops from Iraq and has scheduled a similar exit from Afghanistan, exposing the region to Iranian influence that the United States will have little ability to check. Instead the administration has left U.S. interests in the hands of largely incapable allies. The Obama administration did sell $30 billion worth of F-15s to Saudi Arabia—as if hoping that with enough hardware Riyadh would be capable of defending itself.

But consider how the White House has treated its regional partners when the going gets tough. During the course of the Arab Spring, Obama turned his back on Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, angering the rulers of Saudi Arabia, America’s key Gulf allies because they happen to sit on the world’s largest known reserves of oil. At the time that might have been defensible. However, now it simply looks incoherent. When Syrian president Bashar al-Assad, who has plagued the Saudis for years, was targeted by a popular uprising, Obama did nothing to topple Iran’s lone Arab ally. Instead, he backed a Russian-inspired diplomatic process that has served only to buy Assad time​—​just as three rounds of nuclear talks have helped protect Iran from an Israeli strike. So the net effect of Obama’s Middle East strategy has been to protect Tehran’s regional security interests​—​Syria, Hezbollah, and the bomb.


The Washington Post editorial board writes today that the Obama administration is running the risk that radical elements will lead the Syrian War from the front if the US continues to lead from behind. “The longer the war lasts, the greater the chance that extremists will win. And it should consider what it will do if, as can be expected, the Assad regime mounts major new offensives against the rebel enclaves, using aircraft and unleashing the militias that have been committing massacres. To remain passive in such an instance should not be an option.”

But unfortunately doing nothing and waiting to take credit for whatever is ejected from the barroom brawl has been and remains a preferred administration policy strategy. What that passive inaction will do for the Western position in the Middle East is unknown, but the region will survive as it always has. It has endured worse folly in all these thousands of years, if you can believe it.

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