Belmont Club

The Syrian Vortex

Michael Ledeen notes that the Syrian civil war is looking more and more Spanish all the time.

History may not quite repeat itself, but the war in Syria — invariably, “the Syrian Civil War” — is eerily similar to the “Spanish Civil War” in the mid-1930s. The latter started as an internal conflict, as did Syria, and then sucked in the major powers, including Great Britain, France, Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy, and Stalin’s Soviet Union. The Syrian war features active intervention from Russia and Iran, Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and Qatar, and increasingly busy action is en route from Great Britain, France, and the United States.

Last week saw Bashar al-Assad boasting of his foreign support. Assad now claims the upper hand in the Syrian civil war in part from the receipt of ‘an advanced Russian air defence system.’  But the New York Times article citing Israeli sources, claims he hadn’t gotten any Russian air defense missiles as yet.  However, another New York Times story  notes that the European Union foreign ministers had voted to end the arms embargo to rebels in the region.

“While we have no immediate plans to send arms to Syria, it gives us the flexibility to respond in the future if the situation continues to deteriorate and worsen,” William Hague, the British foreign secretary, said after more than 12 hours of stormy talks. …

Austria, the Czech Republic and Sweden came to the meeting strongly opposing arms shipments. They distrust large parts of the Syrian opposition and said they feared that the weapons would end up in the hands of jihadist groups.

According to the Daily Beast two administration officials told it that “the White House has asked the Pentagon to draw up plans for a no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced by the U.S. and other countries such as France and Great Britain. Assad continued to talk a tough game declaring he was “confident in victory” and that Israel would be punished for any future airstrike on his country.

The purpose of all this tough talk, according to the diplomats, was to increase the chances for peace. The McCain trip, the lifting of the embargo and other seemingly bellicose actions were paradoxically intended to strengthen the hand of diplomats at a scheduled peace conference in Geneva.

William Hague, the UK foreign minister, suggested that the [embargo lifting] move would help those peace talks. “It was important for Europe to send a clear signal to the Assad regime that it has to negotiate seriously, and that all options remain on the table if it refuses to do so,” he said.

Others claimed it would have the opposite effect: that it would simply escalate the conflict. One European diplomat said: “‘The only effect you could have — let’s be realistic about this — is that it will stimulate the Russians to provide even more arms,’ he said. ‘But they’ve been providing so many arms that I’m sure even more will not make much of a difference.'”

But if the Syrian situation  resembles the Spanish Civil War in the matter of international arming, there are also some differences. In the Spanish Civil War  the Nazis dispatched their Condor units to Franco while  the Communists dispatched the International Brigades to the Spanish Republicans to ensure own men, if not running the show outright were at least in positions of decisive influence.

Hitler and Stalin believed in being in charge. But the same can’t be said of the West, which seems to have trouble knowing what exactly the loyalties of their proxies might be.

The difficulties in telling one from the other were illustrated by accusations that Senator John McCain, who slipped over the Turkish border to confer with Syrian rebels, posed for a picture with kidnappers. McCain denied he did any such thing.

WASHINGTON — Senator John McCain’s office is pushing back against reports that while visiting Syria this week he posed in a photo with rebels who kidnapped 11 Lebanese Shi’ite pilgrims.

The photo, released by McCain’s office, shows McCain with a group of rebels. Among them are two men identified in the Lebanese press as Mohamed Nour and Abu Ibrahim, two of the kidnappers of the group from Lebanon.

A McCain spokesman said that no one who met with McCain identified themselves by either of those names.

It’s true one might have said “call me Moe” while the other offered to be addressed as “Abe”.  And it is doubtful the Senator had seen much of either beforehand. So how could he tell? The incident underscores the murkiness of the situation. But in fairness to McCain, President Obama can’t seem to tell whether the Syrians are using chemical weapons or not, even though he has described it as his “red line”. You’d think it would be easier to recognize Sarin than Moe or Abe.

LeMonde has a recent English-language first hand report by its correspondent Jean-Philippe Rémy, describing chemical weapons warfare in Damascus itself.

At first, there is only a little sound, a metallic ping, almost a click. And in the confusion of daily combat in Jobar’s Bahra 1 sector, this sound didn’t catch the attention of the fighters of the Tahrir al-Sham (‘Liberation of Syria’) Brigade. ‘We thought it was a mortar that didn’t explode, and no one really paid attention to it,’ said Omar Haidar, chief of operations of the brigade, which holds this forward position less than 500 meters from Abbasid Square….

Searching for words to describe the incongruous sound, he said it was like ‘a Pepsi can that falls to the ground.’ No odor, no smoke, not even a whistle to indicate the release of a toxic gas. And then the symptoms appear. The men cough violently. Their eyes burn, their pupils shrink, their vision blurs. Soon they experience difficulty breathing, sometimes in the extreme; they begin to vomit or lose consciousness. The fighters worst affected need to be evacuated before they suffocate.

Reporters from Le Monde witnessed this on several days in a row in this district, on the outskirts of Damascus, which the rebels entered in January. Since then, Jobar has become a key battleground for both the Free Syrian Army and the government. In two months spent reporting on the outskirts of the Syrian captial, we encountered similar cases across a much larger region. Their gravity, their increasing frequency and the tactic of using such arms shows that what is being released is not just tear gas, which is used on all fronts, but products of a different class that are far more toxic.

And if “what is essential is invisible to the eye” then perhaps even more alarming is al-Arabiya’s discovery of an old Hassan Nasrallah video in which he declares his political goals for Lebanon and the region. “Lebanon should not be an Islamic republic on its own, but rather, part of the Greater Islamic Republic, governed by the Master of Time [the Mahdi], and his rightful deputy, the Jurisprudent Ruler, Imam Khomeini.” For it is written:

When the time arrives, there will appear a select group of individuals who are appointed to assist in implementing the mandate of the Master of Time (peace be upon him). …

I received a message that the arrival of the Master of Time (Mahdi) is at hand and his soldiers are ready, and awaiting his arrival. That the supernatural army of the Master of Time (Mahdi) is ready, and awaiting his arrival is the greatest sign of his coming.

His army is full of youth. Twelve thousand of them respond to the name Husayn. Another twelve thousand of them respond to name ‘Ali. When Mahdi (alaihi salam) shall enter Damascus, and call out the Takbir, “Allah is the Greatest!” Twelve thousand of these soldiers will approach from the West. They posses supernatural abilities, and will be riding black stallions. Everyone one of them will carry the Crown of ‘Ali, they will fight for the glory of the House of ‘Ali under the Mahdi. Each one of these supporters of the Mahdi will be known by the (spiritual) name ‘Ali. Their sign is they will be carrying the Dhulfikar sword, and when they draw their swords, they will appear as the flash of thunder in the darkness of the night.

Considering that concepts such as the Mahdi play a considerable role in the Syrian Civil War, the relevance of the supernatural swords and mystical stallions cannot be wholly discounted. You can’t say the Levant is presently uninteresting. Chemical weapons, nukes — and the return of the Master of Time — what more could you want?

The conflict in Syria shares many of the features of the problem described in the previous post The Known Unknown. The Obama administration and Western Europe have opted to “lead from behind” — which is another way of saying they are going to operate by proxy. The Syrian rebels can be thought of as the international equivalent of the “informers” that law enforcement use to sabotage jihadi organizations. Somehow the diplomats are supposed to be in control of the Syrian rebels in the same way that the FBI, MI5 or SDIG were aware of, or in control, or could somehow influence the actions of Tamerlan Tsarnaev, Michael Adebolajo and Alexandre D. the Parisian neck stabber.

Doubtless law enforcement has many reliable informants whose successes we are never told — we only mostly know about them when they fail — but it does highlight the problem in Syria. Can the West really control its proxies? With all those weapons being poured into the region by rival major powers, how certain is anyone they won’t be double-crossed? What if those rebels posing with McCain turn out to be real kidnappers? What if Syria turns out like Libya? If  Hillary couldn’t see Libya coming let’s hope Kerry has learned a thing or two since.

The truth is that no one can be 100% certain that they know the “last little doll” inside the mind of Syrian rebels. Who knows but that the Master of Time might be there before them? He gets around.

Calling the Mahdi

Calling the Mahdi

Although much has been made of the disadvantages of using military force instead of “leading from behind”, at least the regular forces had the virtue being under orders; and were disinclined to run off on their own agenda. But the West  has chosen to “lead from behind”. It may work, but then it hasn’t been working too well so far.


The Three Conjectures at Amazon Kindle for $1.99

Storming the Castle at Amazon Kindle for $3.99

No Way In at Amazon Kindle $8.95, print $9.99

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