U.S. President Barack Obama should rearticulate his policy of regime change for Syria, says Michael Weiss, a columnist at NOW Lebanon.
“No direct U.S. military engagement would work without a concomitant commitment to building up the armed opposition, which has also been a long-neglected official U.S. goal,” he writes for Foreign Affairs. “A responsible and trustworthy rebel army could be tasked not only with fighting the regime and its manifold proxies but also with safeguarding U.S., European, and regional interests from the rise of extremists in the Levant.”
Unfortunately, he notes, the US and the West have failed to deliver on earlier commitments to send light weapons to the Supreme Military Command, a the coordination and logistics umbrella for the Free Syrian Army (FSA) led by Salim Idris (above).
“And yet, in spite of such torpidity, there are encouraging signs,” Weiss argues:
Little covered by the international press and policy wonks, in recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory at the expense of both Assad and al Qaeda, which has been using the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand its reach to establish what it hopes will be a Islamic emirate in advance of a worldwide caliphate. The credit for this goes mainly to Saudi Arabia and to what it calls its “southern strategy,” or the buildup of rebel forces in and around Damascus, particularly in the towns of Barzeh, Jobar, and Qaboun, where rebels have seized regime weapons caches and even overtaken an electrical facility. All of these towns are located in Eastern Ghouta district, the very same area that Assad gassed last week and had gassed before then, too.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad wrongfully underestimated the U.S. policy against intervening in any international conflicts……Assad had previously used chemical weapons on different occasions and the U.S. administration did not react in any way to deter the Syrian regime,” Syrian analyst Atef al-Souri writes for Fikra Forum:
As for the rebels, they are achieving noticeable progress around Damascus after receiving sophisticated Saudi weapons….As for the strategic objective behind the [U.S.] intervention, we are hoping that it would be for the purpose of pushing Assad to accept the Geneva agreement and cede power.
Any regime change should remain the task of the Syrian people, said the ranking Republican on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
“I hope it is the kind of action that does not move us away from the policy we have right now of where we want to see the Syrian opposition group taking the lead on the ground,” said Senator Bob Corker.
Train the opposition
“The United States should now make recruiting and training many thousands more rebels a top priority,” Weiss contends:
One incentive for doing so is that, unless Washington plans to dispatch Joint Special Operations Command units into Syria at a later date (and that does not seem likely), it will require its own proxy — a Syrian gendarmerie — for curtailing the military and political influence of al Qaeda. …Some have said that building a trustworthy rebel ally is an impossible task. But there is perhaps no better indicator of the readiness of certain rebel formations to play ball than the confidence with which top FSA commanders in Deraa openly condemn Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — the two al Qaeda franchises in Syria — and label them hirelings of Syrian intelligence.
Conditions are “fertile for the weakening of the jihadists” to the benefits of opposition moderates, Weiss contends.
But the goal of the U.S. operation is “not about regime change,” said State Department spokeswoman, Marie Harf.
“Seeking to reassure the public that the United States would not be drawn into a civil war in the Middle East, and perhaps to lower expectations of what the attack might accomplish, Obama administration officials acknowledged that their action would not accomplish Mr. Obama’s repeated demand that Mr. Assad step down,” The New York Times reports:
Some lawmakers have warned that the operation might turn out to be a largely symbolic strike that would leave the Assad government with the capability to mount sustained attacks against civilians with artillery, rockets, aircraft and conventional arms and would do little to reduce the violence in Syria, limit the flow of refugees or encourage Mr. Assad to negotiate seriously if a Geneva peace conference is convened.
Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, suggested in an interview that the attacks should “tip the battle in favor of the insurgents.”
“We should try to help the rebels and help the people fighting Assad,” Mr. Engel told the Times.
Frederic C. Hof, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council who previously worked on Middle East issues for the State and Defense Departments, urged that the administration consider a broader military mission: destroying or significantly degrading the regime’s ability to carry out intensive military operations.
“Something that is significantly less than that, something that is seen as symbolic, I think would just enable Bashar al-Assad to say I have stood up to the world’s only superpower and faced it down,” he said.
A bipartisan group of 66 former U.S. government officials and foreign policy experts this week urged President Barack Obama to take a “decisive” approach in responding to Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons, through direct military strikes against key pillars of the regime and “accelerated efforts to vet, train, and arm moderate elements” of the opposition.
Signatories included exiled Syrian dissident Ammar Abdulhamid, Elliott Abrams, Dr. Fouad Ajami, Paul Berman, Senator Norm Coleman, Stanford University’s Larry Diamond, Dr. Paula J. Dobriansky, Dr. Robert Kagan, James Kirchick, Bernard-Henri Levy, Dr. Robert J. Lieber, Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Dr. Joshua Muravchik, Arch Puddington, Leon Wieseltier, and Dr. Radwan Ziadeh (right), a spokesman for the Syrian National Council, and a fellow at the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
“Assad has emerged unscathed from every reprehensible escalation of violence he has committed against his own people,” says Ziadeh, a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy.
Prevent ‘a Congo on the Mediterranean’
“In the next few days and weeks, then, it is not just live images of explosions in Damascus that should consume the United States’ attention, but also to activity at the northern and southern borders of Syria,” Weiss writes in Foreign Affairs:
Are the rebels receiving adequate weapons and training? Are they gaining ground in the southern front? Has Idris stopped drafting open letters to the president begging him for more help than he’s yet received? The answers will indicate whether a coherent strategy is in play….It would be folly to have witnessed the shattering of previously held myths about Syria only to see the recrudescence of another: that a Syria with Assad in it will prove more stable and manageable than a Syria without him. Obama needs to start by recognizing how foolish and dangerous that assumption is.
“Two or three days’ worth of airstrikes that are not geared toward regime change would do little to prevent the emergence of a Congo on the Mediterranean,’ Weiss concludes. “But they would guarantee that the United States will be returning to this conflict later, at time not of its own choosing.”