With all the recent developments in Egypt, it seems many Americans have forgotten about the situation in Syria. The last major development concerning the United States was President Obama's authorization to arm the rebels after the apparent "red line" had been crossed. The "red line" was the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons (specifically the agent Sarin) against the rebel forces. Now that the United States has decided to arm the rebels, what is our new role in the conflict?
Now the Administration has declared its support for the rebels against the Assad Regime. Our prior reluctance to get involved could be attributed to the fact that the Administration wanted to stay neutral for as long as possible thus avoiding conflicts with Syria's allies. Now that the United States has made this commitment, there are grave implications for international conflict. With the decision to get involved, the United States is also getting involved with Syria's allies.
When looking at the Syrian conflict, it is almost more important to look at the other countries involved rather than the actual substance of the civil war. Syria's closest ally is Iran. Iran has been condemned by the international community for funding Hezbollah. Hezbollah hails from Lebanon but is an Iranian proxy terrorist organization. Hezbollah has been aiding the Syrian regime and sovereigns are concerned because Iran has involved international organizations directly into the conflict. Until Hezbollah's involvement, the conflict was strictly Syria v. Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry stated recently with the Friends of Syria
(members include Egypt, France, Italy, Germany, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi
Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, The U.K. and the United States)
"we do not believe it is appropriate for the Assad regime to have
invited the Iranians and Hezbollah to cross international lines and to
have their fighters on the ground. There are no United States
fighters. There are no Saudi fighters. There are no Qatari fighters on
the ground." Iran also happens to be one of the United States' biggest adversaries and their extreme Islamic views pose a danger to the region's political stabilization.
Syria is also supported by Russia. Russia is an enormous country and has a respectable economy. What is Russia's stake in the Syrian conflict? Why are they supportive of the regime? There are two answers to this question. The first being Russia has a major naval port at Tartus which is the second largest port city in Syria and is located on the Mediterranean coast. Russia also exports arms from Syria. The second answer seems to be more complicated. Fiona Hill writes that Russian President Vladimir Putin is afraid of his own state's collapse a la the Chechnyan revolution in the 1990's. Hill states that given Russia's large Sunni population, Putin is fearful of Sunni extremism which is why Russia helped the United States post-9/11 and has sided with Shia Iran. Hill also notes "in short, Putin doubts that the United States and the international community can deliver stability to Syria, so he continues to stand by the flailing regime as the only means of avoiding the collapse of the state altogether." The biggest take-away from her words are that Putin is not opposed to Assad's departure - he wants to ensure that Syria's chemical weapons do not fall into the wrong hands while maintaining order among Sunnis in his own country. Putin wants to make an example.
United States' relations with Russia have been rocky at best. President Obama has made recent attempts to bridge the gap and create peace such as a nuclear arms draw-down effort between the two countries. The most current example of this enigmatic relationship was Putin's refusal to extradite American fugitive Edward Snowden on the basis of his espionage charges against the United States.
China also has a history of providing military support to Syria. China has one of the world's largest economies and again the United States does not share pleasant relations with the People's Republic.
On the other side, Qatar and Saudi Arabia have been assisting and aiding the rebels for some time now. Again, as with the allies of Syria, it is important to point out the stakes for the pro-rebel countries. Saudi Arabia is playing a leading role in taking the diplomatic reigns of the region while Qatar has fallen behind. Saudi Arabia has also pledged their allegiance to Egypt after the fall of Morsi. The Saudis also hate Iran and Hezbollah. They believe that arming the rebels in Syria is imperative. They would love to destroy Hezbollah and Iran anyway possible which is why they have supplied the rebels with anti-aircraft and anti-tank capabilities for some time (more on that later). Qatar is very small but they are a very oil rich, wealthy nation and are attempting to gain diplomatic power in the region. The Saudi-Qatari relationship has experienced some tension. Ian Black of The Guardian reports Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud believes "Saudi Arabia 'cannot be silent' at the intervention of Iran and Hezbollah, both close Assad allies....'The most dangerous development is the foreign participation, represented by Hezbollah and other militias supported by the forces of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.'" Saudi Arabia has been an ally to the United States in the region despite their shady past of funding proxy terrorist organizations.
By entering into this conflict, the United States is joining a global clash greater than that of the Syrian civil war. There has also been word that our weapons have not yet reached the rebels. USA Today reports that "rebel leaders say they have seen little or no evidence of U.S. supplied arms entering the country and the momentum on the ground is shifting toward the Assad regime. Administration officials have said they will vet rebel groups to ensure that weapons don't fall into the hands of al-Qaeda affiliated opposition forces." One of the biggest concerns with arming the rebels was the possibility of our weapons falling into the hands of our enemies as they did under the Carter Administration's arming of the Afghan mujahideen against Russia or the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra scandal. This begs the question is the Obama Administration's decision to arm the rebels merely a symbolic gesture to satisfy proponents of human rights and to show a compromise with the Neo-Cons?
So far the White House has not commented on the delay of arms. Press Secretary Jay Carney assured that the Administration is "not bluffing" and "the president was very serious." Some analysts even wonder now if those arms will make a considerable difference in the rebel forces' efforts. The rebels have asked for anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons but the United States is fearful of those falling into the wrong hands. Ammunition and small arms are not going to cut it, according to some critics.
New York Magazine's Frank Rich this week asked if the Obama Administration has "overlearned" lessons from the Bush Administration's Middle Eastern intervention in reference to the "inaction" in Egypt. Rich writes, "I find it hard to see what any post-Bush president can accomplish in the region without the country behind him or her, and neither Obama nor any of his likely Republican successors seem inclined to make a case for any serious intervention." This points directly to my questioning of the Obama Administration's commitment to Syria. They were very reluctant (as they should have been) to get involved and their first steps of involvement were the most passive of the choices presented. However, their actions have directly related us to the conflict.
If things progress unfavorably for the rebels in the coming months (which seems to be the current path) do we provide more aid? Other countries in the region have more of a direct stake in the conflict than we do. There seems to be apparent human rights violations (for which humanitarians are criticizing countries like Russia for still backing the Assad regime) which should gain global traction and intervention. However, the United States should not be the only Western nation going about this and there needs to be a larger coalition. Hopefully the conflict does not escalate to a larger proxy war involving other nations thus becoming a new Middle Eastern quagmire. If so, the United States would be dragged right in as a global leader and supporter of the rebels through arms assistance. The United States is now involved as much as Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar and if things progress in the wrong direction, we may need to prepare for additional military intervention. According to Aljeazeera , however, Secretary Kerry states "I emphasize, we do not seek a military solution. [We seek them to] come to the table to find a political settlement." I hope so.