Belmont Club

The Call of Cthulhu

Getting involved in the Middle East is like having the girlfriend from hell. Just as you were headed out the door, she threatens to commit suicide. The decision by Damascus to use heavy weapons like artillery, armor, and aircraft against the Syrian rebels not only underscores the superiority of the Assad regime in this category of combat, it also illustrates why it is so hard to leave the region to its own dysfunctional pathologies. Assad’s forces are advancing, albeit fitfully, on Aleppo, causing a further increase in the spate of refugees. At least 200,000 are on the move.

But more armaments are on the way to the rebels, and so the show will go on. NBC News reports on rumors that the Saudis have set up a military assistance command in Turkey. The Gulf sources had also said the Adana center, which is near the Syrian border and a U.S. Air Force base at Incirlik, was set up at the suggestion of Saudi Deputy Foreign Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Abdullah during a trip to Turkey.

It’s going to get worse, not better.

Other parties are arming up factions in the region. The Iraqi authorities report that someone is selling heavy weapons to the Kurds, but declined to say who:

A high-ranking Iraqi official said on July 29 that security agencies have uncovered a secret weapons deal between the autonomous Kurdistan region and an unnamed foreign country.

“The weapons include anti-armor and anti-aircraft missiles, and a large number of heavy weapons,” the official said, without specifying the exact weapons systems.

The official said Iraqi authorities have obtained “all the documents” pertaining to the deal, which is for “weapons of a Russian type made in 2004,” and are trying to block it.

For its part, Baghdad has ordered 36 F-16 warplanes from the United States and has already fielded M1 Abrams tanks.

Barzani expressed concern over the F-16s earlier this year, saying he was opposed to the sale of these warplanes while Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in office, fearing they would be used against Kurdistan.

Who could that someone be? Whoever it is, they’ve got a side to back. The Syrian civil war, like the Spanish one in the 20th century, has become a proxy battleground for foreign powers. On one side of the conflict are Iran, Russia, and Syria. Against them are the KSA, Qatar, and Turkey. What about the United States, one might ask, what about the hegemon? Well, what about them?

Syrian officials have accused Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey of supplying weapons to rebel groups. The New York Times wrote that “Saudi Arabia and Qatar have led an effort to arm Mr. Assad’s opponents. Turkey is said to have allowed weapons to move over its border, and United States intelligence officials have helped select the recipients, according to American officials.”

The leader of an opposition group suggested Sunday that the rebels would need heavier weapons. “The rebels are fighting with primitive weapons,” said the leader, Abdelbasset Sida of the Syrian National Council, according to Reuters. “We want weapons that we can stop tanks and planes with.”

The Washington Post has objected to America playing a supportive and second-fiddle role in the region. In yet another editorial, it warned of the dire consequences of letting the fires burning through the Middle East get out of hand:

America’s long paralysis in responding to the conflict in Syria is coming home to roost. Outside Aleppo, one of the oldest cities in the world, Syrian forces are massing for a possible assault on opposition fighters. President Bashar al-Assad has sent fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, and armored columns, threatening tens of thousands of terrified civilians.

Another argument for remaining on the sidelines was that the opposition is fractured or ineffective and includes unknown or extremist elements. But if the administration is committed to Mr. Assad’s downfall, those weaknesses argue for more, not less, U.S. involvement, to get a better read on opposition forces and to encourage those less inclined toward sectarianism …

No one is arguing for a Libyan-style intervention into Syria at this point. But the United States and its NATO allies could begin contingency planning for a no-fly zone, now that Mr. Assad is deploying aircraft against the opposition. Instead of providing only non-lethal support, such as medical supplies and communications gear, America could help supply weapons to the outgunned opposition fighters. It could work with Turkey and other allies to set up havens for them.

Yes, this is an election season, and Americans are fatigued from a decade of war. But global leadership does not take a timeout, and sometimes it has to lead toward a consensus, not wait for one to form. “The United States has been, and will remain, the one indispensable nation in world affairs,” the president declared in a speech last week. Fine words.

The Post is basically arguing that unless America leads from the front, Syria — including possibly Kurdistan, Iraq, Lebanon, and possibly a wider area — will be remolded along the lines preferred by Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey. It further argues that in order to undercut the attraction of Saudi-bought heavy weapons, the United States must sweep the Syrian air force from the skies through a no-fly zone and put airpower over the battlefield. This would reduce Syrian heavy weaponry to impotence, make the Saudi military aid unnecessary, and make America the dominant military influence over the country.

But is the administration going to do it? One indicator that the DOD is not counting on a future of peace of the region is the ongoing repositioning of its combat equipment from Europe. Finally the warehouses are leaving the continent. Any equipment to be left in Europe will be assigned to training exercises. The rest is going to be brought back to the Continental United States or positioned to cover Africa and the Middle East and the Pacific in the West:

The Army is planning for a significant portion of the prepositioned stocks to be afloat, an effort that would include eight ships. Two vessels would be dedicated to munitions, with one assigned to the Pacific and one to the Middle East.

The other six ships, which could be sailed to conflict zones as required, would carry equipment for an infantry brigade with MRAPs, and a sustainment brigade. The vessels would carry equipment necessary for transforming a commercial port into a dock that could load and unload military equipment.

This writes the apparent final chapter to the Cold War saga in Europe and identifies where the DOD thinks the next decade’s trouble spots will be. But the repositioning is a long-term move. In the near-term America’s only cards in the Middle East are airpower and naval blockade. In the longer run, the U.S. will have the option to deliver ground combat power to the region either from the Meditterranean or the Persian Gulf. The Syrian civil war has effectively returned the focus of U.S. operations away from Southwest Asia to the Middle East. Barack Obama’s “war of necessity in Afghanistan” is now being hijacked by events in the Levant.

Cthulhu, that perennial horror nobody ever seems to be able to get away from, has called once more; and although Barack Obama has put him on hold, someone will take his call eventually, since he never gets off the line. But maybe America won’t take the call just yet.

As the Washington Post notes, the administration has not yet decided whether it will continue to “lead from behind” for the present — that is to say, let the Saudis lead — or open an air umbrella over the Syrian rebels to take charge of events again. President Obama will probably avoid making a decision before November. Until then, KSA, Qatar, and Turkey will probably lead the way.

Some reports suggest that the president is extremely risk averse and will only go for an action when it is politically safe to do so. Recently, Richard Miniter alleged that President Obama canceled the raid on Bin Laden’s hideout three times before approving it:

In Leading From Behind: The Reluctant President and the Advisors Who Decide for Him, Richard Miniter writes that Obama canceled the “kill” mission in January 2011, again in February, and a third time in March. Obama’s close adviser Valerie Jarrett persuaded him to hold off each time, according to the book.

Miniter, a two-time New York Times best-selling author, cites an unnamed source with Joint Special Operations Command who had direct knowledge of the operation and its planning.

Obama administration officials also said after the raid that the president had delayed giving the order to kill the arch-terrorist the day before the operation was carried out, in what turned out to be his fourth moment of indecision. At the time, the White House blamed the delay on unfavorable weather conditions near bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

But when Miniter obtained that day’s weather reports from the U.S. Air Force Combat Meteorological Center, he said, they showed ideal conditions for the SEALs to carry out their orders.

The rough weather must have been coming from elsewhere. If Miniter’s report is true, then Obama must have been gauging the political winds. Jarrett could not have possibly contributed any meaningful operational input to the raid decision. Her advice must have been based on completely different considerations. Although Miniter’s allegations have not as yet been confirmed, it is entirely possible that the decision on how to proceed in Syria is going through the same process of clearance.


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