The White House announced last week that the U.S. would soon be directly (and finally, overtly) arming the Syrian opposition, the first step down a road of further U.S. military involvement, challenging fiscal requirements, and other third order repercussions in the Middle East.
There are infinite variables to analyze in the context of Syria’s bloody two plus-year civil war; the ones we should be most concerned with are in regards to U.S. foreign policy and interests. The purpose of this article is to highlight the major variables and issues being discussed in news media and to open them for critical discussion.
A Dog in the Fight?
At the macro level, the most important questions to answer in the context of Syria are fairly obvious, yet they need to be asked: what U.S. interests are at stake and what will the extent of U.S. involvement entail? As revealed by White House staff, President Obama has identified enough U.S. interest to warrant directly supplying Syrian rebels (unidentifiable factions of which have been directly compromised by AQI’s cover organization al-Nusrah Front) with some level of weaponry to counter the Assad regime.
Citing international norms and “clear red lines that have existed within the international community for decades,” the White House deputy national security adviser’s statement shares the rationale behind President Obama’s decision in the wake of multiple alleged chemical weapons attacks by the regime.
Paraphrasing the White House release, the U.S. Intelligence Community has “high confidence in [the intelligence community’s] assessment [regarding use of chemical weapons] given multiple, independent streams of information.” This, at least, is somewhat heartening. However, let’s play devil’s advocate. Does Curveball (Iraq) ring a bell?
The specific scope and scale of U.S. support aside, U.S. decision-makers have a lot to consider before engaging directly in the Syria conflict – there are U.S. dollars, resources, logistics, action arms, and ultimately U.S. lives – that will be expended should the White House order it. We need to ensure that arming the rebels over the next few months outweighs the benefits of remaining a neutral* bystander as the conflict works itself out. (*Remain neutral in the context of providing only the minimal sufficient support required to satisfy our allies in the region should they request it, i.e. Israel, Jordan, Turkey, etc.)
21st Century Weapons – Smart Decisions Required
As the U.S. announces its intentions for Syria and determines its scope of involvement, the issue of weapons must be discerned. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Obama administration is, “opposed to providing sophisticated weapons, such as portable anti-aircraft missiles, because of the possibility that those arms could be turned against the U.S. or its allies in the future,” which is at least somewhat comforting. It would appear the U.S. decision-making apparatus has at least retained some recollection of previous U.S. decisions to arm parties in a conflict, citing the lessons learned regarding U.S. support of the mujahadeen in the USSR invasion of Afghanistan during the Cold War.
However – considering that the U.S. has made disadvantageous decisions to arm various groups in the past, and considering that the group that it has elected to support is or was pervasively associated with (it’s difficult to separate the good from the bad; think COIN ops in Afghanistan) the enemy the U.S. has spent years and billions of dollars fighting, the immediate outlook of the White House’s latest decision is not exactly enlightening.
Identifying the type and suitability of weapons the U.S. chooses to provide in arming the Syrian rebels must also be taken into critical account – not only for their immediate use in the conflict but in decades to come.
Other Nation Involvement
While the U.S. will hopefully not introduce any weapon systems to Syrian rebels or the region that could create long-term security woes for U.S. national security or regional interests, other countries aren’t thinking the same way. In the latest turn of events, Iran has reportedly announced a decision to send 4,000 of its Iranian Revolutionary Guards to Syria – in support of the Assad regime.
While these claims have yet to be substantiated by Iran or other sources, any direct Iranian involvement spells yet another major strategic concern the U.S. will have to manage while implementing its support to the Syrian opposition.
The Iran claim is made further significant because Iran was recently called out by the State Department in their annual Country Reports on Terrorism, which noted that 2012 marked an unprecedented resurgence of Iranian-backed terrorist activity across the globe not seen since the nineties. At face value, the prospect of another nation directly opposing the US-backed party in a conflict is disconcerting enough, let alone one that has sponsored terrorism as emphatically as Iran.
With U.S. partners surrounding Syrian territory (discounting Iraq), any U.S. presence in the region – whether directly supporting the conflict or simply containing it – creates an environment in which any number of hostile or mishap encounters with unfriendly actors could quickly degrade operations.
Chemical Weapons: Upsetting the Balance
The U.S. has stated from the beginning that its major concern in Syria was the location and status of the Assad regime’s chemical weapons stockpiles, the use of which would constitute U.S. involvement in the conflict.
In recent months, there have been several such allegations of both parties to the conflict employing the use of chemical warfare against each other. The problem? Without third-party verification (i.e. someone other than the main players, like the UN) of chemical weapons use, we’re left with a nonsensical game of he-said, she-said. (As of this writing, the UN has yet to send a team into Syria to investigate these claims of chemical weapons usage.
Now that chemical weapons have been used to the extent of crossing President Obama’s ‘red line’, the bigger issue of determining the effects of direct U.S. support to Syrian rebels on Assad’s chemical weapons stockpiles is at stake.
In the context of recent U.S. support, one of the top challenges facing the U.S. is deciding how to arm the Syrian rebels achieves their desired effects but also does not disrupt the stability of chemical weapons, in regards to the actors that control them and whom they are used against.
Other U.S. Activity in the Region
In conjunction with directly providing weapons to Syrian rebels, the White House announced the possibility of implementing a military exclusion zone (MEZ, or no-fly zone) over part of Syria, along the Jordanian border. A MEZ in and of itself is a task that warrants considerable planning, oversight, and execution. Those that worked Northern Watch, Southern Watch, OIF, or previous engagements can attest to that.
It must be noted that as a general consensus, Syria possesses the most dense SAM coverage in the world. Actual capability and operability aside, this is still a fact that will become all the more apparent to any U.S. assets tasked with implementing the MEZ along the Jordanian border. (“SAM” refers to the entirety of Syria’s Air Defense Systems, primarily the anti-aircraft systems used to deny any adversary the ability to enter a designated radius around the system.)
Most importantly, implementing a MEZ places U.S. (and other coalition partners, if any) assets at risk and directly in harm’s way. Determining which U.S. interests are being protected or being threatened to warrant such level of support to the Syrian opposition just became all the more critical.
Syrian Rebels: the AQ Problem
The final issue discussed in this article is in regards to the valid risk of U.S. weapons inadvertently ending up in the hands of al-Nusrah Front (ANF), the alias of our long-time enemy: Al Qaeda and Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). Since designating ANF a foreign terrorist organization in late 2012, the U.S. has kept a sharper eye on their scope of activities, assessing that ANF, “could successfully smuggle WMD, conventional weapons, and operatives across the [sic] the border into Iraq from Syria.”
The prospect alone that AQI has 1) created a front organization and infiltrated various levels of the Syrian opposition, 2) attempted to hijack the opposition’s struggle for freedom from the Assad regime, and 3) is assessed to possess the capability to conduct transnational weapons smuggling operations, should be enough to warrant more extensive questioning from U.S. decision-makers prior to deciding to supply weapons to Syrian rebels. However, the White House remains confident in U.S. ability to support the right groups with the right weapons.
Is this decision – while ideally well-intended and in support of U.S. interests abroad – one that will prove effective in the long-term, once the Assad regime falls and creates yet another power vacuum in the Middle East (think Libya)? Is this decision one that creates a level of forward progress in U.S. foreign policy and our counterterrorism efforts across the globe?
Refine and Supervise
As the U.S. plan to arm Syrian rebels develops, the American public must remain aware and educated about what actions are being taken in the Middle East. It is not acceptable to gloss through the morning news and simply absorb or accept the various reporting regarding U.S. actions in Syria. A keen watch regarding the issues discussed above must be taken into account so that our policy-makers and decision-makers are held to a standard that demands only the most stringent of decisions and actions; all decisions made in the next coming weeks will determine the shape and intensity of any and all blowback we may experience in regards to foreign policy, counterterrorism operations, and world affairs.
In the rapidly developing 21st century, we need to be looking ahead as far as possible, while retaining lessons learned from previous engagements. There are critical decisions that must be made; decision-makers must face the issues and make the calls that benefit U.S. interests in both the short and long-term aspects.
(Featured Image Courtesy: Pan-African News Wire File Photos)