Washington's Muddled Syria Policy: Arms Shipments to Rebels Won't Turn Military Tide
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They and others have called for Washington to create “no-fly zones” along Syria’s Turkish and Jordanian borders that would both safe havens for refugees and rebels and permit the latter to be trained, armed and supplied for operations against government forces inside Syria.
Hof has urged that such a zone also be used protect a rebel government that could gain formal recognition from the United States and other allies, request heavier weapons and eventually go to peace talks as diplomatic, as well as military, equals of the Assad government.
While Rhodes told reporters that Obama has “not made any decision to pursue a military operations such as a no-fly zone”, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that a Pentagon proposal still under consideration calls for a limited “no-fighting” zone extending up to 40 kilometres inside Syria that would be enforced by U.S. and allied aircraft operating from Jordanian airspace.
In recent months, Washington has set up Patriot air-defence batteries and sent fighter jets to bases inside Jordan, where it has also been secretly training rebel and Jordanian forces on securing chemical-weapons facilities and weapons in the event the Assad regime collapses, according to some reports.
Some analysts who have opposed escalating U.S. involvement in the civil war agree that directly supplying arms to the rebels would be unlikely to turn the military tide, certainly in the short term, and could carry additional risks.
“Selective arms shipments could [spur] clashes between rival rebel groups. Extremist elements might attack more moderate rebel units receiving better arms, driven by need, resentment or both,” according to Wayne White, the former deputy director of the State Department intelligence unit on the Near East, who noted that this could actually strengthen the regime. Indeed, he added, the “rebel military vanguard” for some time has been the “radical Islamist in character – even Al-Qaeda affiliated”.
He also expressed scepticism about the effectiveness of a no-fly zone, noting that it would risk swift escalation. “The rebels would remain at the mercy of the regime’s other heavy weapons on the ground, thus tempting those establishing any sort of no-fly zone to attack regime ground targets as well.”
“The first step on the slippery slope is always easy, but it’s much harder to actually resolve a conflict or to find a way out of a quagmire,” wrote Marc Lynch, a Middle East expert at George Washington University, on the eve of the White House announcement.
For Lynch, who has long urged Obama to resist calls to escalate Washington’s intervention, the key issue is what U.S. policy ultimately aims to achieve and whether providing military aid or taking more aggressive measures will help achieve them.
“Should Syria be viewed as a front in a broad regional cold war against Iran and its allies or as a humanitarian catastrophe that must be resolved?” he asked, noting that very different strategies should be followed depending on the answer to that question.
At the moment, according to Lynch, “advocates of arming the rebels switch between making the case that it would strike a blow against the Iranians (and Hezbollah) and that it would improve the prospects for a negotiated solution.”
While the White House clearly framed its decision this week in the latter terms, it may nonetheless add momentum to those who tend to view the Syrian conflict more as part of the larger conflict against Tehran the model for which, according to Lynch, “would presumably be the jihad against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan – a long-term insurgency coordinated through neighbouring countries, fuelled by Gulf money, and popularised by Islamist and sectarian propaganda”.