Thursday, February 06, 2014

Fear is the Beginning of Wisdom

The reality of events that defy early assumptions and beliefs are pushing us to intervene in Syria.

When protests erupted three years ago against Assad, I was in favor of seeing what we could do to harm our long-time enemy Assad.

When the protests evolved into serious armed resistance more than two years ago, I was in favor of helping the rebels to see what harm they could do.

My view was that even if the rebels failed, it was in our interests to demonstrate to Assad that if he continued to be an enemy who worked against us we would continue to seek any opportunity to harm him.

Two years ago, the fighting was widespread enough that I figured Assad couldn't hold everything.

But Assad did not panic. He drew in his forces, sidelined suspect troops, recruited militias, accepted Hezbollah and a Shia foreign legion gunmen to spearhead attacks, and welcomes Russian and Iranian diplomatic, military, and financial support. Assad worked the problem, as I so often advise.

So Assad may survive this revolt. His regime may not control more than the northwest corner of Syria in the end, but he may survive and provide a power projection platform for both Iran and Russia.

Jihadis could be running loose in large swathes of the rest of Syria.

And now, though the entire Responsibility to Protect notion is clearly not triggered by either gas use on civilians or 136,000 dead, the range of bad outcomes with no good outcomes in sight may prompt us to actually try to influence events on the ground:

Faced with the growing prospect of a failed Syria policy staining its foreign policy legacy, the Obama administration is discussing new options for addressing a nearly three-year-old civil war that is shaking up the Middle East order.

With some senior Pentagon and intelligence officials warning that an ungoverned Syria increasingly threatens American national security interests, the administration is discussing a range of steps that might alter the conflict. In virtually all ways – from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s hold on power to the strength of Al Qaeda-linked groups fighting in Syria – the civil war appears to be going in the wrong direction.

Let me say right now that I am more interested in moving to a better policy rather than complaining about past errors.

And I'm going to say right up front that bad things could happen with this new possible focus. But I can forgive mistakes made while trying to win. Stuff happens when you try to win against a foe also trying to win.

Recall, too, that the French took a few years to get help to us in our revolution against British control. It can take time to make a big step.

There was also an understandable if mistaken belief in the Obama administration that the growing revolt was a freebie for us. All we had to do, they thought, was have the president get in front of the parade by declaring that Assad must go (issuing a red line on chemical use was a bonus freebie tough line), and collect the glow of victory without lifting a finger. For a country that barely had the national morale to earn a battlefield victory in Iraq, that was a hope that should have been recognized as too good to be true.

There was also, I believe, a ridiculous notion left over from the Iraq War that American intervention in Syria would just make things worse. Based on this thinking, our intervention in Iraq led to 120,000+ unnecessary dead over 8 years of war and provoked al Qaeda to enter Iraq. If only we'd stayed out, the left-wing theory went, Iraqis would have worked it out on their own with far less blood shed and we wouldn't have angered Islamists into becoming jihadis in Iraq.

And we wouldn't have "tainted" the new Iraqi government as a friend of America, provoking more resistance, the Left thought.

Sadly for that theory, we stayed out and the body count in Syria is much higher in a little more than two years of war. And there are way more foreign jihadis fighting in Syria than we ever faced in Iraq. And Syrians and other Sunni Arabs have been begging us to intervene, spinning dark conspiracy theories about why we haven't.

Further, unlike in Iraq where we built up the capability and size of Iraqi security forces based on the clear majority of the people to the point where it could fight for the entire country, Assad's power base has too few people to sustain a military large enough to suppress a rebellion that keeps fighting. So Assad could endure in a rump Syria even if he manages to suppress the Sunnis within that contracted realm, while the rest of Syria is a battleground beyond Assad's control where jihadis fight non-jihadi Sunni Arabs for control of the north, east, and south.

When jihadis started flowing into Syria, another reason to refrain from helping the rebels emerged--how do we feed weapons to acceptable rebels without also arming jihadis?

But jihadis have gotten weapons despite our caution. Now only non-jihadis have insufficient weapons. And lack of weapons led many non-jihadis to joing the jihadis just to have the chance to fight Assad.

Remember, too, that it took time for us to set up positions in Jordan where we can train and equip rebels to fight Assad and be strong enough to hold off the jihadis, too.

I also said that a silver lining of the chemical weapons deal with Syria would be that if the rebels can hold out during the time Assad bought, we'd have more leverage since Assad's threat of chemical weapons use in case we intervened would be much reduced. Assad may have promised his supporters that he'd knock the rebels out during this time, but he has not. And he may not.

The only way out of the most likely outcome is to arm non-jihadi rebels to actually defeat Assad and deny him even a rump realm based on his Alawite core region. And we have to make sure that these non-jihadi rebels know they will have our support to fight the jihadis after Assad is driven from power.

That help could include armed drones operating from Turkey and Jordan.

But before then, I think we don't need to provide air support. We can provide rebels with small arms, anti-tank rockets, recoilless rifles, mortars, and heavy machine guns--but not anti-aircraft missiles. Plus ammunition, training, intelligence, and advice.

Add in UN-sanctioned humanitarian aid to keep rebel morale intact, knowing their families are not starving or dying of disease.

And we might consider organizing air drops of humanitarian supplies into rebel areas surrounded by Assad's loyalists to sustain morale.

We made a mistake in not intervening earlier, I think. But there were reasons the Obama administration did not think it had to intervene, reasons it though we could not intervene, and reasons they thought it would be counter-productive to do so. I thought their reasoning was wrong, but from their perspective it made sense.

Now at least, there seems to be some recognition that the assumptions and reasoning were wrong. And if we want a good outcome we have to actively bend events to make a good outcome more likely.

Or not. Maybe the assumptions are believe right but the result is bizarrely not turning out the way they thought.

But either way, the policy could be changing.

I salute a reality-based approach in Syria. May it work out for us and for the Syrians who have suffered through this war and the so-called peace that preceded it.

UPDATE: Well I'll be ...

America’s Director of National Intelligence James Clapper had some sobering words on the current state of play in Syria yesterday, as Haaretz reports:

“The prospects are right now that (Assad) is actually in a strengthened position than when we discussed this last year, by virtue of his agreement to remove the chemical weapons, as slow as that process has been,” said James Clapper, director of national intelligence.

The administration and its press acolytes did their best to spin the ugly meltdown of President Obama’s ill-considered and hastily abandoned airstrike proposal as a diplomatic victory, but around the world it was considered a major fiasco and raised deep doubts about the capability of this administration to manage American foreign policy with any kind of competence or credibility.

And things aren’t looking any better as time goes by. The Syrians keep missing deadlines, walking back concessions, and generally delaying and obstructing. Clapper was only admitting the obvious when he told Congress yesterday that Assad had come out of the deal stronger.

An administration official admitting the deal was bad. Huh. Just as I've bitterly complained about since the idea was raised.

This deal bought time for Assad to defeat the rebels by temporarily getting rid of a weapon that he could not use in a decisive manner (because we would have intervened directly if Assad had done that) while we ended threats of air strikes or real assistance to rebels.

Now, what do those water-carriers who praised the wisdom of the deal say about this assessment?

I will repeat, if we can avoid the defeat of the rebels while the chemical weapons are removed, we will create more freedom of action to actively seek the defeat of Assad. Without chemical weapons, Assad has no answer to our ability to intervene--from actively helping rebels to direct intervention (and I lean to the former).

As long as you can live with the idea that this was purchased at the price of several thousand dead per month of Assad's continued resistance, we're good.

And as long as we actually seek the defeat of Syria (which, do not forget, will be a defeat for Iran, Hezbolllah, Hamas, and Russia, not to mention al Qaeda if we get a government in Damascus that will fight jihadis rather than treat them as an asset).