The Road to Damascus
Michael Totten was recently at a meeting in Morocco where the "friends of the Syrian resistance" conferred at a truce in a posh resort. The girls were pretty, the scenery spectacular and the food excellent among participants dressed in Western fashion "hunched over laptops and iPads":
Pre-packaged videos play during breaks in the main room. They're professionally-made short documentaries about the atrocities being committed a few thousands miles to the east. You could dismiss them as propaganda, but they seem solid enough and not terribly different from what I've seen on Frontline, which aired an outstanding two-part program in the United States a few weeks ago.
An air of well-funded competence permeated the proceedings. "The meeting is taking place at a luxurious resort that's well out of my price range. I'm down the road at a nice enough place, but this resort really is something...cops at the Friends of Syria gathering in Marrakech look perfectly capable of putting down a serious ground assault by terrorist forces. You can tell just by looking at them."
Later in the proceedings representatives of the U.S. and British governments turned up to put a half-stamp on proceedings:
This time the United States is announcing policy changes. Washington now recognizes the Syrian opposition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. And it considers the armed Islamist faction Jabhat al-Nusra a terrorist organization. ... Now Britain is speaking. The room is still quiet. The United Kingdom is expanding its assistance to the Syrian opposition and is doing so publicly, on the record.
They were late to the party. The leader of the Syrian opposition has now said it no longer needs foreign forces to topple Assad. But it's really no party, as Totten observes, just the calm before the storm. "The Syrian opposition is only united temporarily. Secular and Islamist factions will battle it out in the aftermath. They know it. Believe me, they do. They're united right now because they have to get rid of Assad. They'll settle their own accounts later. Sunnis and Alawites are likely to slug it out, too. And there might even be fighting between Arabs and Kurds. When the next phase starts in earnest, there will be no sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people."
The question, according to John Hannah writing in Foreign Policy, is what Obama will do when the fireworks start. He was standing around observing the fuses being lit. When it blows ... Hannah writes: "watching the nightmare in Syria unfold, you have to ask yourself: Could the Obama administration have made a worse hash out of the situation if it had tried?"
Short of an outright Iranian victory that saw the Assad regime's power fully restored, it's hard to imagine a more dire set of circumstances for U.S. interests. The Syrian state is well on its way to imploding. A multiplicity of increasingly well-armed militias are rushing to fill the vacuum. At the forefront of the fight are a growing number of radical Islamist groups, including some affiliated with al Qaeda. The prospect that Assad' s demise will be accompanied by the use (and/or proliferation) of chemical weapons and massive communal bloodletting gets higher by the day. Libya on steroids is what we're looking at, only this time not on the distant periphery of the Middle East but in its heartland, a gaping strategic wound that is likely to threaten the stability and wellbeing of Syria's five neighbors -- critical American partners all -- for years to come.
Does it require saying that it need not have been this way? That with sustained American leadership over the past 21 months the most threatening aspects of this crisis could not only have been seriously mitigated, but U.S. interests significantly advanced?
His wistful look back at lost opportunities would have required more competence than US foreign policy has demonstrated of late. It wasn't as if nobody saw the cliff rising up before them. Hannah reminds readers that there was a whole chorus of foreign policy pundits who warned the administration about "leading from behind."
But no one in the administration deigned to listen, probably because they thought they were so much smarter than everyone else. As Totten notes, they've belatedly awakened from their dream of superiority only to see the house on fire, the flames already flickering at the feet of the bed.
Too late for much now. At this late stage the only remaining question is probably: how bad will it be? Hannah hopes it's not too late to run out with the baby in one hand, the wife in the other, and the ancestral family portrait between the teeth. But as for the house ... well, it was nice while it lasted:
Belatedly, it seems to have dawned on the administration that simply sitting on the sidelines, allowing events to play out while hoping for the best might not accrue to U.S. interests, and could well prove catastrophic. But having waited so long to act, the window of opportunity that was once available for shaping an outcome consistent with U.S. concerns has narrowed considerably, if not closed. ...
It was less than two years ago that the uprising in Syria presented the United States with a historic opportunity to weaken Iran and advance our own regional interests. Today, Syria looms as a potential strategic disaster, where America's options for positively shaping outcomes have all but vanished, and frantic efforts at damage limitation are all that remain. In the arc of that transformation from hope to despair lies the tale of a colossal policy blunder, perhaps the Obama administration's most serious to date, one whose consequences will almost surely haunt us long after the president leaves office.
If Assad had only been replaced by a stable, U.S.-friendly regime, events in Syria could have been an unambiguous victory for the Obama administration. He would have been sitting pretty. But, never missing a chance to miss a chance, Obama has bought into chaos that could lead to a Middle East greatly influenced by al-Qaeda and spreading instability in Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and Turkey.
Disaster. But as the November elections showed, the administration's voter base is perfectly capable of ignoring a nearby blaze and remaining blind to the lurid flames for so long as they can be distracted by the latest media-produced spectacular.
Thus, even though the SS Hope and Change has been holed below the waterline and may in fact be doomed, the relevant question preoccupying the cruise directors is how long before the passengers notice. Probably the first passengers to notice something is wrong will be American Jews. "Major General Aviv Kochavi, chief of Israeli military intelligence, told Israeli lawmakers in a closed-door session that he is concerned about an influx of global jihadists into the Golan Heights, as the Syrian regime moves its forces out of the border region and into the cities to fight unrest, according to a statement from the office of the Knesset committee’s spokesman." Instability in Jordan would create threats to the Jewish state as well.
After the Jews, a smattering of other nationalities may begin to question the reassurances of Cruise Director Axelrod. There are almost certain to be substantial refugee flows in the near term. But barring the use of the Syrian chemical weapon arsenal, probably the biggest effect of the Syrian catastrophe will the conjoining of Gulf states and Salafist fighters throughout the region.
Max Boot warns that "it is hard-line Salafists who appear to be making the biggest military gains on the ground, to the consternation of more secular rebels, thus raising the specter of Syria becoming a Taliban-like state after Assad’s downfall–or, at the very least, the specter of Taliban-like extremists gaining control of substantial territorial enclaves. If that were to occur, the U.S. would have no to blame but itself because the Obama administration’s current policy of not arming the rebels is providing Persian Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar with an opening to shape the uprising in their own twisted image."
By then even Lena Dunham might say "is this part of the show or is the ship sinking for real?" Well, ha ha ha. What do you do when the phrase "Osama Bin Laden is dead and General Motors is alive!" doesn't catch anymore? Why, sell a new phrase! "Osama Bin Laden is alive and he's selling gas to anything made by General Motors!" Is everybody happppy?
That is the something which even the most distracted revelers on the SS Hope and Change are likely to notice, an event that will probably manifest itself in more security threats to the U.S. Obama might be able to counteract this somewhat if he allows the development of domestic gas resources and ramps up his drone campaign. But the cat will be out of the bag and at some point he will be unable to conceal the true scale of the Syrian catastrophe. Obama has managed to keep it under wraps so far:
Congressman Jason Chaffetz (R- UT) told Breitbart News on Wednesday that he has been “thwarted” by the State Department from seeing any Americans who survived the deadly attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Many people forget that there were Americans who survived the Benghazi attack, some of whom were badly injured and are still recovering.
“My understanding is that we still have some people in the hospital. I’d like to visit with them and wish them nothing but the best but the State Department has seen it unfit for me to know who those people are—or even how many there are,” Rep. Chaffetz said. "I don’t know who they are. I don’t know where they live. I don’t know what state they’re from. I don’t even know how many there are. It doesn’t seem right to me."
Chaffetz's story is eerily reminiscent of the treatment accorded to the Japanese survivors of the Midway Battle described in Jonathan Parshall's Shattered Sword. "Hirohito issued a directive to the Naval General Staff ... that the Midway wounded were to return to Japan under tight security and be forbidden contacts, 'until they could be healed, heartened, hushed, and reassigned.'"
This policy was put into effect as soon as the fleet reached Hashirajima. The wounded were transferred to the hospital ships HikairaMaru and Taleasago Maru, which in turn transported 280 and 338 cases, respectively, to naval hospitals at Kure, Sasebo, and Yokosuka. Many of the men were classified as "secret patients" and quarantined in special wards, cut off from both other sailors and family alike, in order that no word escaped regarding Kido Butai's destruction. Both Fuchida and maintenance man Arimura suffered these indignities, as did Soryu's badly burned executive officer, Cdr. Ohara Hisashi. Only specially cleared nurses and doctors were allowed into the wards, and there were fewer of those than need wanted. No communications in or out, not even letters from home, were permitted. Some of the men weren't allowed to leave for a year or more and were shamed by the medical staffs at having been defeated.
They stopped the news from being reported in Japan. Too bad they couldn't keep the Fleet from advancing on Japan as well.
It is difficult to put any other construction on the Blackout On Benghazi other than as an attempt to conceal Obama's part in what Hannah called "the Syrian nightmare." But just as Midway could not ultimately be concealed, neither can the strategic disasters of the Obama administration be spun forever. Just be sure to get into the lifeboats when the time comes and to always remember to run towards the part of the SS Hope and Change that sinks last.