Monday, April 7, 2014

U.S. Skepticism for Providing Lethal Aid to Syrian Rebels

This article first appeared on The Epoch Times    

     The policy of the United States towards Syria has been called into question by many lawmakers such as Senators Bob Corker (R-TN) and John McCain (R-AZ) as having "no military options on the table."  "What is our strategy in Syria? I don't see we have one, other than letting people kill each other off, and letting it fester," Corker lamented at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing recently.  Senator McCain denounced the Geneva II talks as a failure and berated Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Anne Patterson. "So the purpose of Geneva was to give opposition legitimacy, not to oust Assad," McCain sarcastically remarked.  McCain also voiced his continued frustration regarding the ongoing slaughtering of rebels and civilians stating that they needed anti-tank capabilities to remain competitive against pro-Assad forces but so far, the Obama administration has demurred.  He reiterated that he is not urging boots on the ground, as the Obama administration is skeptical of supplying, but necessary military and lethal aid to rebels.

    The Obama administration's strategy in Syria has been shaped around a decade of war of which the majority of Americans disapprove.  According to the Washington Post, only 30 percent of Americans believe the Afghanistan War was worth fighting and only 38 percent believe the Iraq War was worth fighting.  President Obama ran on the moniker of anti-warmongering.  However, as Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution noted, the American people are not satisfied with the president's foreign policy despite giving them what they want - troop reduction and the beginnings of isolation from global conflict.

     The president has been trying to get the US off its "permanent war footing."  The lessons from Iraq are worth learning.  After over 4,000 American deaths and the displacement of thousands of Iraqis, President Obama does not want to put troops right back into the line of fire after winding down two of America's longest wars especially since there is still work to be done in Afghanistan after the 2014 troop withdrawal date.

     To counter Senator McCain's position of supplying lethal aid, the lessons of the Afghan Mujahideen against Russia in the late 190s and early 1980s serve as an important reminder.  President Carter believed he was assisting the disadvantaged Mujahideen against the Russian superpower invasion, however, the weapons the US supplied to the Afghans are now being used against Americans.  After President Carter, President Reagan continued clandestine relations and efforts with Pakistan and their intelligence outfit (ISI) who was assisting the Afghan Mujahideen but also building relations with terrorist networks.  In fact, it was more important to the Reagan administration to maintain the amicable US/Pakistan relationship than condemn Pakistan for breaking agreements of uranium enrichment and state-sponsored terrorism because the Pakistanis were key in helping the Afghans (and Americans) defeat the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

     Husain Haqqani, in his recent book, "Magnificent Delusions," stated, "American leaders had chosen to trust Zia's [Pakistan's President] word against hard intelligence about Pakistan's nuclear program...The US intelligence community believed that Pakistan was producing enough highly enriched uranium for at least one atomic weapon.  But still the administration committed itself to providing $4.02 billion in aid to Pakistan," in violation of US law similar to the situation currently in Egypt, which is why the Obama administration eschews "coup" to describe the ouster of Mohamed Morsi because the US would have to cease aid to Egypt if it was.  Even more disturbing, Haqqani asserted, "Ironically, the origins of those terrorist attacks [September 11, 2001] could be traced to the radical Islamist groups that had been raised and trained in Pakistan with covert US funds."

     These lessons weigh heavily on President Obama despite pressure from countries such as Saudi Arabia, with whom the US has shaky relations with at the moment.  The Saudis are concerned with the US policy in Syria especially their lack of lethal aid.  Bernard Gwertzman from the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote recently, "The big rumor going around was that the United States was going to agree to give shoulder-launch missiles (i.e., MANPADS) to the Syrian opposition. But the official U.S. response coming out of the meeting was, 'No, we don’t approve of that, and we don’t want to see those kinds of weapons introduced because who knows what’s going to happen to them after that.'"

     When the administration first decided to arm the rebels nearly nine months ago, it was important to identify who the rebels really were at that point meaning the US had to distinguish their overall intentions.  The US did not want a similar situation of supplying arms directly to terrorists vis-a-vis the Afghan Mujahideen.  As the Syrian civil war has progressed, Syria has become a haven for terrorists and extremists as many US officials have warned.  Terrorist factions have sided with rebel groups with the hopes of toppling the Assad regime and instituting their own rule of Sharia Law and regional autonomy.  The US does not want to be providing aid to these groups yet there have been reports of US equipment falling into the hands of such extremists.

     Assistant Secretary of State Patterson addressed this issue in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stating that the aid was suspended until the warehouses became stabilized. She believes they have developed trusted and vetted partners to whom they can send direct aid.

     There are myriad concerns regarding policy in Syria and the US should not approach it lightly.  Despite the disapproval of many in Congress and many Americans, the Obama administration has been careful not to provide aid that can one day be used against the US.  However, by continuing to seemingly do nothing, US allies remain as frustrated as those in Congress and relations are beginning to become strained.  The administration had, however, taken covert measures to train rebels in Jordan using CIA personnel and funds to hide the actions from Congressional oversight.

     As Slate's chief political correspondent John Dickerson stated recently in a podcast, there was covert action taken by the Obama administration to disrupt the Iranian nuclear program, such as hacking into computer programs, that the administration could not share with the American public insinuating that despite the heat the administration has taken on Iran and Syria, there are moving parts behind the scenes that cannot be disclosed in public.

     Case in point, Assistant Secretary of State Patterson's insistence on a classified briefing to members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee regarding military options on the table.  The chair and ranking member of the panel, Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) and Senator Corker, were not pleased with the insistence of a classified briefing as past briefings have provided little useful information.  The senators agreed to a classified briefing provided intelligible answers to four questions were obtained: 1) what are all the military options being considered; 2) what are all options overt and covert being considered; 3) what happens to undisclosed chemical weapons, and; 4) what are the consequences if Syria misses the deadline to eliminate all of their stockpiled chemical weapons?  As the administration continues to analyze their policy in Syria, it is important to point out the lessons from the past that are shaping the decision.             

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