More arms wrong strategy in Syria

February 26, 2012


— Following a week when more brave reporters died chronicling President Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of more than 6,000 of his countrymen, you hear more calls for sending weapons to the embattled opposition militia known as the “Free Syrian Army.”

More weapons undoubtedly will flow to the opposition, one way or another, but they’re not going to bring about a democratic Syria. The moral case for arming the rebels may be strong, but it doesn’t overcome the practical problem: The battlefield is Assad’s area of strength, not weakness.

A better route to democratic change in Syria is the mix of economic, diplomatic and other pressure that was on the agenda for Friday’s “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunis. Covert supply of weapons is likely to keep the opposition from being overrun, but both Turkey and the United States oppose any move toward outside military intervention or open support of rebel fighters.

“The only thing that’s accurate in ‘Free Syrian Army’ is that they’re Syrian,” cautions one skeptical administration official. “They’re not going to free Syria, and they’re not an army.” That may sound harsh, but shoveling weapons to this disorganized opposition now is only likely to increase civilian deaths. The insurgents are too dispersed, disorganized and untrained to be an effective national force.  

The right Syria strategy should address Assad’s key vulnerabilities, which are not military. The first is money, without which the regime can’t survive. The second is sectarian tension, which Assad fosters because it boosts his claim to be protector of the minority Alawite and Christian communities.

Let’s look at these two pressure points carefully, and think how the United States could help remove the pins on which Assad rests.

First, money: Assad’s regime survives because it has enough cash to pay the army, sustain the economy despite sanctions, and grease the palms of thousands of henchmen. The U.S. recognized this vulnerability when it imposed economic sanctions last August, which were followed by similar moves by the European Union, the Arab League and Turkey.

But the Syrian cash machine continues to operate. Despite sanctions, the Central Bank’s reserves still total about $10 billion, or about six months of imports, according to U.S. estimates. That’s down from about $18 billion before the conflict exploded a year ago — a fall, but not yet a crippling one.

The Syrians survive partly by piggybacking on the thriving Lebanese banking system. Obama administration emissaries sharply warned the Lebanese government in November that it can’t play both sides of the street; if Lebanese banks are caught providing more back-door aid to Damascus, the consequences for the Beirut financial system could be severe, a Treasury official said.

A more worrying problem is Russia, which is providing money for Assad’s regime as well as diplomatic cover. U.S. officials hope that when the European Union bans dealings with the Syrian Central Bank this week, that will make it harder for Russia to channel aid. Certainly more sanctions will help, but not if Russia is determined to keep Assad afloat.

Perhaps the answer is to make Moscow part of the solution. That might mean giving Russian leader Vladimir Putin a role in brokering the transition — hosting a conference in Moscow, let’s say, that brings together the Syrian opposition, the Arab League and the Turks. If that got Assad out of the way short of a civil war, it might be a sensible bit of realpolitik.

Second, the issue of sectarian tension: Assad survives in part because Alawites and Christians fear that a bloodbath of reprisal killings would follow his ouster. The U.S. and its key regional allies, Turkey and Saudi Arabia, need to address this issue directly. The message should be that Assad’s days are indeed numbered, and minorities should join Sunnis in the movement for democratic change — with the assurance that, as they do so, they will be protected by international guarantees.

The Muslim Brotherhood, which has emerged as the strongest voice in the Arab Spring, would win new friends if it could join Turkey in sponsoring a dialogue that gathers Syria’s Alawite clan leaders, Christian patriarchs and Muslim democrats.

The world has been inspired by the courage of the Syrian people, and of journalists such as Marie Colvin of the London Sunday Times and Anthony Shadid of The New York Times who died while reporting the resistance to Assad’s tanks and artillery. But precisely because so many lives are at risk, the U.S. and its allies should craft a process that brings democratic change, not mayhem.

— David Ignatius is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.


Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

"Perhaps the answer is to make Moscow part of the solution."

Yes, I am sure that Russia will be very good at that, judging by recent history. By "recent history" I am thinking of the South Ossetia war in August 2008. Although the legality of invading another country and annexing part of its territory might be somewhat legally questionable, Russia did it anyway.

And since Israel wasn't involved, nobody cared very much about it.

Clipped from: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/7548715.stm

"Russian tanks enter South Ossetia"

"Russian tanks have entered Georgia's breakaway region of South Ossetia, says Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili."

"Mr Saakashvili, who has called on reservists to sign up for duty, said: "This is a clear intrusion on another country's territory."

""We have Russian tanks on our territory, jets on our territory in broad daylight," Reuters new agency quoted him as saying."

"Later, Moscow's foreign ministry told media that Russian tanks had reached the northern outskirts of the South Ossetian capital, Tskhinvali."

"The Georgian interior ministry said Russian jets had killed three Georgian soldiers at an airbase outside the capital, Tbilisi, during a bombing raid on Friday, Reuters news agency reported."

Clipped from: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/georgia/2525400/Georgia-Russia-enters-into-war-in-South-Ossetia.html

"Georgia: Russia enters into 'war' in South Ossetia"

"Over 1,300 people are reported dead after Russian forces responded to a Georgian attack on rebels in the breakaway province of South Ossetia by mounting a full scale invasion."

"Reports last night claimed that Russia had started to bomb civil and economic infrastructure, including the Black Sea port of Poti and the military base at Senaki. Between 8 and 11 Russian jets reportedly hit container tanks and a shipbuilding plant at the port."

Yes indeed, Russia will certainly be of great assistance in ending any problems in Syria, if the Russian government wants to be.

They'll just send tanks, fighter jets, and the army. They can take care of everything very quickly, I'm sure.

And no one dares to argue with Russia.

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

But that's not going to happen for two reasons.

The first is that the problems in Syria might be considered to be a humanitarian problem. To my knowledge, Russia has never become involved in any conflict for humanitarian reasons. If anyone can think of any cases of Russia doing so, please inform me of them, and be sure to cite reputable sources.

The other reason is that unlike the Western nations, Russia has always had a very strict policy of not becoming involved in any conflict that did not involve a strategic national interest.

If anyone thinks that Russia's invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 is an exception to that policy, they are simply mistaken. It has always been one of Russia's national interests to secure a warm water port. But, they were not able to suppress Afghanistan enough to control the country and get the warm water port that Russia has wanted since the days of the Czars.

But Russia will not be able to secure a warm water port by taking over Syria, because there is no overland route to it that does not cross other countries, unlike Afghanistan.

So Russia will simply not become involved in the conflict.

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

There is one more issue. Afghanistan does not have a warm water port, it was only a stepping stone to one.

After Afghanistan, it would still have been necessary for Russia to cut a corridor through either Iran or Pakistan in order to secure a warm water port. But assuming complete control of Afghanistan, that should not have been a problem.

After all that, Russia would have had its own warm water port on the Gulf of Oman. From a port on the Gulf of Oman, it would have been smooth sailing for the Russian military, and possibly shipping also, through the Arabian Sea to the Indian Ocean.

With a naval port at that location, Russia's naval power would have been magnificent.

But the Afghan resistance made that impossible.

“Nations have no permanent friends or allies, they only have permanent interests.” - Lord Palmerston (English Statesman, 1784-1865)

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

Oh boy. I'm a bit nervous to see the arguments that will be presented in response to my postings that I wrote after I woke up in the middle of the night.

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

"But precisely because so many lives are at risk, the U.S. and its allies should craft a process that brings democratic change, not mayhem."

How has intervention by the U.S. and its allies worked out in the past?

Of course, it worked out wonderfully for North Korea.

After that, the U.S. overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran and installed the Shah onto the throne in 1953. That lasted until 1979, then things changed a bit.

Next came Vietnam. Finally the U.S. simply gave up and left in 1975. Left to solve their own problems and no longer in the middle of a proxy war between the U.S. and China, things got to be really, really terrible there. In fact, it is so bad now in Vietnam that they build Hewlett Packard laser printers for the citizens of the U.S. and anyone else that might need a laser printer.

Next, Afghanistan. Wonderful, wonderful place now, and all due the much appreciated assistance of the U.S. The Afghans just love every American now.

Iraq. Another success story, of course. It worked out fantastic!

Syria. Yes, they need the U.S. to come help, just the way we have helped out so many other countries.

And of course, Syria will appreciate our help just as much as all those other countries did.

jhawkinsf 3 years, 7 months ago

Why ignore Germany, Japan and Italy? Why mention North Korea and not South Korea? Is Panama better off without Noriega? There are more. The fact is that our attempts at nation building, overthrowing despots and installing better ones has been a mixed bag with some success and some failure? The real question is do we possess the wisdom to know which intervention will produce change for the better and which intervention will not?

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

I restricted my comments to events that occurred after the end of World War 2 because it appears that at that time, there was a major shift in U.S. foreign policy.

Up until the end of World War 2 whenever the U.S. went to war, we went in and did not accept anything other than complete and total surrender. And to get that, we invaded the country if necessary, and used any measures that we had at our disposal. That was very clearly demonstrated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. And then, we installed a government that both we and the population could accept. After that, we poured in assistance.

But the governments of Germany and Japan weren't really popular anyway because the population was tired of having bombs being dropped on them, and so they didn't seem to mind a new government that had one major purpose, and that was peace.

One friend of mine claims that in order to conclusively end a conflict, you have to invade and totally destroy a culture that refuses to make peace. That is the way that wars were fought for hundreds of thousands of years, and that seems to have ended in 1945.

For definitive examples of what he claimed, he used Germany and Japan. Italy is a mixed bag, because Italy is one of very few countries in history that has switched sides in the middle of a war.

But you do have a point, it certainly does appear that we have had much greater successes in North and South America than anywhere else.

Maybe that's because we more clearly understand their culture. It seems to me that the greater the cultural difference between our nation and the nation we are trying to influence, the less successful the outcome is likely to be.

For a response to your last question, I think we really won't ever know. Cultural barriers can be insurmountable.

We don't understand some culture's concepts at all.

Jihad? Endless war? Tribal conflicts in the modern world?

If that's what they want, we should stay out of it and let them happily fight among themselves.

Ron Holzwarth 3 years, 7 months ago

Back up, back up, back up.

I should not have used the term "Jihad". Because for many Muslims, what that means is an internal struggle that a person has within himself in order to cleanse himself from sin, that is, a self purification. It is not a reference to war at all.

At least, that's what I've been led to believe.

But about any intervention in the Middle East, anything we do is going to be wrong.

It's because of our name there. We are known as "The Great Satan". Many people in the Middle East don't ever think of us as anything else, to them that's our name, and that's what we are to them.

So anything we do is going to be wrong. And when everything you do is wrong, you will never win.

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