West was wrong on Syria

Syria, the ‘new Afghanistan’

Behind The Headlines by BUNN NAGARA

July 28, 2013

The tide is turning against Western military intervention in Syria, on the scale of a historic tsunami.

WHEN regime trouble first broke out in Syria in March 2011, Western and Israeli strategists began to salivate.

That was just one month after a mass uprising erupted in Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya. Following the upheaval and then invasion of Iraq that toppled Saddam Hussein nearly a decade before, Syria’s disturbances would be another stab at a regional strongman who had thumbed his nose at the West and Israel.

From that point on, easy assumptions about the “Syria campaign” acquired a life of their own. Buoyed by visions of continued success, few if any of the questions that mattered were asked:

What do foreign military forces hope to gain by removing President Bashar al-Assad? What other challenges might that prospect unleash? Would Israel, the United States or any other Western power be able to withstand the repercussions of Assad’s fall?

Such core questions might have produced discomforting answers, so they were never asked. They were shunted away or buried by consistent wishful thinking, evasion or denial.

When Assad warned that the militants lined up against him included al-Qaeda fighters, he was ignored or ridiculed. Nothing could get in the way of another “regime change” adventure.

Towards the end of last year, reports emerged of several attempts by Western governments to deepen the conflict. British special forces (SAS and SBS) as well as American mercenaries were said to be training rebels of the militant Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Russia and China, as key members of the UN Security Council, have consistently refused to join the Western-led scramble to train and arm the rebels. Russia instead stuck to its contractual agreement to sell defence equipment to Syria.

Last December, the Russian Foreign Ministry warned of the use of chemical weapons by rebel forces. It would take some time before the Western powers came around to recognising those risks and dangers.

Meanwhile, the military training the West gave the rebels included skills in handling banned chemical weapons. The official reason was that these would become necessary should Syria’s stockpile suddenly become publicly accessible.

Critics said that was only a cover for enabling the rebels to use chemical weapons against Assad’s forces. One element in this possibility was the difficulty in telling the “good” rebels from the many terrorists among them.

By the beginning of this year, the FSA continued to press their demands for heavy-duty weapons from the West such as anti-aircraft systems. The issue was about raising the stakes and escalating the conflict.

Some 5,000 tonnes of weapons have since been funnelled by the CIA from several “global surplus” locations into Syria, with the connivance of Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. This was said to minimise bloodshed, although how increasing arms flows could decrease conflict was never explained.

On the ground in Syria, however, the “unexpected” opposite was happening. Tension, conflict and casualty tolls continued to rise until the UN estimated in recent days that killings had exceeded 100,000.

Soon enough, several systemic problems with the Syrian uprising could not be contained or denied anymore.

Last month, Western strategists began to worry about the unprecedented spread of terrorist skills and terrorists themselves to other countries. The scale of fighting in Syria had come to attract militants from around the world, including the United States and Europe.

EU home ministers met in Luxembourg, having suddenly woken up to the reality of how their military training given to Syrian rebels could be coming home to haunt them. European counter-terrorism director Gilles de Kerchove said the flow of militants into and out of Syria had reached a new high.

Foreign militants in Syria are said to number up to 6,000, with as much as 10% from Europe. A smaller percentage comprises US nationals.

In recent years, dozens of Americans have been arrested for such terrorist involvement. For most of them, the rebel group of choice is the al-Nusrah Front, or Jabhat al-Nusrah (JN), which the US State Department has designated the Syrian affiliate of al-Qaeda – and being the same as al-Qaeda in Iraq.

British Member of Parliament Paddy Ashdown has been urging Britain to stop operations of arming and training Syrian rebels. He said most of the weapons supplied to them so far are in the hands of militant extremists.

The presence and spread of extremists have exceeded most expectations. Recent US and British reports mentioned that even bakeries using US-supplied dough essential to the people’s diet are now run by JN.

Foreign aid workers delivering humanitarian assistance have also been “targeted” by the extremists by way of ideological conversion. Militants hope to sell their struggle to the foreign helpers so that upon returning home they would start their own terrorist cells, having gained new contacts and subversion skills.

In Syria itself, hundreds of attacks have been launched by extremist groups, universally acknowledged as the best organised rebel units on the ground. Washington has conceded that extremists are already operating in all the major cities in Syria.

Earlier this month, Russian scientists discovered that rebels near Aleppo had used the chemical weapon sarin against troops and civilians. The missile fired on Khan al-Assal killed 16 Syrian soldiers and 10 civilians.

At the same time, Britain, France and the United States – emotionally anxious to escalate their military involvement in Syria – have accused the Syrian government of using chemical weapons. But Damascus reported that Western intelligence agencies were still checking if that had happened in a recent army engagement in Homs.

In-fighting among rebel units have been occurring on occasion, notably between terrorist groups and other rebels. The conflict spiked a fortnight ago when al-Qaeda affiliates in Iraq and Syria operating under the name of “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant” shot dead an FSA leader.

To observers, the shooting at an FSA checkpoint illustrated the growing conflict between “extremist” and “moderate” rebels. The evidence so far is that the extremists are gaining.

But as Western governments quietly scaled back their ambitions in Syria, the rebels went on the diplomatic offensive to accuse them of betrayal. Then London and Washington indicated that they would consider their military plans again.

However, the issue of deeper involvement is not as clear-cut as some would like. And usually it is the military personnel themselves who have a better sense of the risks and limitations.

Upon his retirement this month, Britain’s senior-most military officer, General Sir David Richards, warned Downing Street that Britain needed to be more focused on strategy to avoid failure in Syria.

While careful to remark that decisions would have to be made by Britain’s civilian administration, he said pressing with the country’s position would require more military inputs that could pull it into long-term war.

Within days, the deputy director of the US Defence Intelligence agency, David Shedd, also avoided recommending deeper military involvement in Syria, while deferring all decisions to civilian policymakers.

He estimated some 1,200 rebel groups in action, and that dispatching US troops would mean a war lasting many years and costing billions. Shedd conceded the complexity of the situation and said the best option may be to depend on allies in the region.

That would mean Israel, which has already targeted Syrian military rocket installations.

> Bunn Nagara is a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis) Malaysia

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