On June 13 the administration announced that it will begin supplying small arms and ammunition to rebels battling the forces of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad. It also indicated that it may decide at some point to send the rebels heavy weapons of the antitank variety. Off the table, at least for now, is the possibility of supplying the rebels with antiaircraft missiles.
The US has been supplying nonlethal aid to the so-called Free Syrian Army since 2012. The rebels are in fact a disparate grouping of Sunni Muslims, who range ideologically from mildly pro-Western to fanatical supporters of al-Qaeda. The pro-Westerners are by far the weakest group among the rebels. Hence the US hesitancy about supplying those antiaircraft missiles: it’s all too likely that they would fall into the hands of terrorists, who would use them to shoot down US military aircraft and passenger jets.
It is difficult to understand the administration’s decision to escalate our involvement, even in this small way. This spring the war turned definitely in the Syrian regime’s favor. In May a key leader of the Syrian Free Army admitted that the FSA lacked the power to topple the Assad regime. Supplying military aid now, when the rebels’ cause appears lost, seems foolish.
It may be that the administration is hoping to keep the rebels in the fight long enough to get a negotiated settlement. This analyst, however, believes that the Syrian regime, backed by Iran and Russia, is in a position to crush the rebels eventually. The peace conference to be held in Geneva starting in July will be a talking shop of the kind beloved by diplomats but incapable of stopping the fighting. The fight in Syria will be to a finish. Bashar al-Assad is almost certainly going to survive, although low-grade guerrilla conflict may persist for years.
The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow?
The only possible way to alter the course of events in Syria is for the Western powers to intervene with force. The Syrian air force would have to be destroyed, or at least grounded. Heavy weapons and other matériel would have to be supplied to the rebels, and trainers (i.e., boots on the ground) would be necessary if the rebels were to employ these weapons effectively. This raises the question of whether the Assad regime would respond by employing chemical weapons.
Ostensibly, the US decision to supply the rebels with small arms came as a result of a US finding that Assad’s forces had already used chemical weapons against the rebels. A resort to chemical warfare on a larger scale raises the specter of a major US intervention, including ground troops. Securing or destroying Assad’s chemical weapons would require far more than a commando-style raid by Navy Seals or the Army’s Delta Force. At a minimum, two combat brigades with accompanying support forces, i.e., 10,000 to 15,000 troops, would be needed. That this might lead to an even deeper US involvement is, given the vagaries of war, quite possible.
The Syrian conflict is a sectarian war between Sunni and Shia Muslims (the Alawite sect, to which Assad and his supporters belong, is an offshoot of Shiism). The Sunni forces, all but a small portion of them, are anti-Western, and include al-Qaeda affiliated elements. We have already experienced the difficulties of sorting out such a situation. Needless to say, another Iraq is the last thing America needs.
So far, the drumbeat for war maintained by Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham has fallen on deaf ears. According to the polls, 60% of the American people do not want a war in Syria. There is no great media push for war, as there was in Iraq. Establishment figures such as Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, are opposed to military intervention. Most importantly, and to his everlasting credit, the president has no desire to fight. Yet he has failed to come out and say frankly that Syria is a situation we cannot solve, and that to intervene in it would be a colossal blunder. His political timidity is baffling, given that he has no more elections to worry about.
The McCains of the world may yet have their way. The supplying of arms represents a commitment of US resources and prestige to the rebel cause. Will airstrikes, and possibly ground troops, follow? Incremental steps can lead to a deeper involvement, as Vietnam proved. There has been a small US force in Jordan for some time. In April Secretary of Defense Hagel announced that it would be augmented in order to “increase readiness and prepare for a number of scenarios.” It actually represents the germ of an advanced headquarters for a Central Command expeditionary force, should one be ordered into Syria. This constitutes another drop, and a significant one, in the trickle toward war. One hopes that Obama will find the courage to turn off the tap.