4 Ways the U.S. Is Violently Meddling In the Syrian Civil War


As the Syrian civil war grinds on and the brutality that accompanies it mounts, calls for deeper American involvement and armed intervention have increased. The fact that public pressure and a deal with Russia staved off a bombing campaign five months ago hasn’t stopped prominent voices to call for the Obama administration to do something, anything, to stop the bloodshed engulfing Syria and the wider Middle East.  What's frequently missing from these calls to intervene is that the US is already deeply involved in the violence in Syria.

A recent call for intervention was published by the Washington Post on February 14. The author, former Clinton national security adviser Sandy Berger, argued for stopping Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad’s atrocities against civilians by force.

“Hindering Assad’s use of helicopters and jets to kill civilians would enable the moderate Syrian opposition to demonstrate that it has helped deliver some freedom from the constant fear of death from the air,” wrote Berger. “There are many ways to achieve this goal with partners and allies, from working with proxies in the region to airstrikes — actions limited in scope and that do not involve U.S. troops on the ground.”

Calls for more intervention were also aired in the New York Times. On February 10, Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, academics and co-editors of The Syria Dilemma, wrote that Assad’s use of hunger as a weapon of war should prompt action by the international community in the form of organizing Syria’s “democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground” and “air cover.” While Postel and Hashemi are no hawks, their policy prescriptions for Syria echo Berger’s call for force.

But anti-war advocates and writers point out that any further intervention in Syria would be for U.S. interests, like weakening an ally of Iran, and would encourage Assad’s allies to step up their armament shipments. The carnage would continue, and perhaps increase.

In a sharp rejoinder to Postel’s and Hashemi’s op-ed, Foreign Policy in Focus contributor Rob Prince wrote: “Perhaps the sorriest assumption of their argument is that the United States can save the day and end the humanitarian tragedy in Syria by riding in on its white heavenly horse laden with cruise missiles and drones. Are they forgetting Washington’s long record of supporting totalitarian regimes in exchange for oil in the Middle East and elsewhere, and whose involvement in the Syrian tragedy is, incidentally, far from innocent?”

The interventionists have pointed to the bleak reality on the ground as justification for Western action. It is indeed a dark reality.

In parts of cities like Homs and Aleppo, Syrian government sieges have lead to starvation. In Yarmouk, a suburb in Damascus, more than 80 people have reportedly died from starvation. Malnutrition has become a major problem, and some residents have been reduced to eating cats and dogs.  

The Syrian civil war has created millions of refugees, and in recent weeks, some 500,000 civilians were forced to flee Aleppo under heavy, sustained bombardment from Syrian armed forces. Inside the refugee camps set up in Jordan and Lebanon, life is difficult. Some Syrian women have turned to prostitution. Some families have sold off their teenage daughters.

The deaths in Syria continue to increase on both sides. The United Nations has stopped counting the number of dead because on-the-ground information is hard to come by. The last time the UN released figures, it said over 100,000 had been killed. One pro-opposition activist group, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, reported that over 140,000 have been killed.

The Obama administration is well aware of the deteriorating situation and is contemplating more measures to help the Syrian rebels as the Assad government has gained strength in recent months. In the aftermath of failed peace talks in Geneva, the administration has stepped up criticism of Russia, one of Assad’s key backers, and is now reviewing options to do more on Syria.  One of those options could be the use of cyber warfare to cripple the Syrian government's command structure.  The New York Times reported February 24th that plans for using this option were drawn up by the Pentagon, but that President Obama ultimately decided against cyber attacks. And the U.S. has not taken steps to use American soldiers or airstrikes to change the calculus of the war, and the Obama administration said there are no plans to do so.

Perhaps the easiest way for the U.S. to staunch the humanitarian crisis is to take in more Syrian refugees. There, the measure of how much the U S cares is pretty disappointing. Since the start of the civil war, only 90 people have been granted permanent stays in the U.S. The Obama administration has pledged to take in 2,000 over this year, a tiny fraction of the overall number of refugees, numbering in the millions. Recently changed rules to antiterrorism laws could increase the number of refugees allowed in, though Republicans have criticized the moves.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to intervene in Syria by means short of launching airstrikes or putting boots on the ground. Critics of these moves say that even this limited intervention fuels the civil war. Here are four ways the U.S. is currently intervening in Syria.

1. Light Arms to Rebels

The most direct form of American intervention is the flow of small arms to rebels in the south of Syria, where they control some territory. In late January, Reuters revealed that Congress had approved funding for months of further arms deliveries.

The move is a stark contrast to last summer, when reservations about whether the weapons could end up with Islamic fundamentalists caused Congress to dry up the flow of weapons.  

“The Syrian war is a stalemate. The rebels lack the organization and weapons to defeat Assad; the regime lacks the loyal manpower to suppress the rebellion,” Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst who has advised President Obama, told Reuters. “Both sides' external allies... are ready to supply enough money and arms to fuel the stalemate for the foreseeable future.”

In addition to the light arms, the U.S. is paying cash to Syrian rebel groups to pay fighters and for equipment. In recent months, the U.S. has dropped $3 million toward anti-Assad Syrian groups.

These light arms will accompany the heavier arms Saudi Arabia recently announced it would start giving to Syrian opposition forces.

Since the Syrian civil war began, the U.S. has put immense pressure on its ally Saudi Arabia, a key backer of the effort to depose Assad, to refrain from sending sophisticated weapons like anti-aircraft missiles. The Obama administration has worried that the arms would fall into the hands of hardline Islamists allied with Al Qaeda, or that they would be used on Israel or commercial airlines.  

But in the wake of the failed Geneva peace talks, the U.S., Saudi Arabia and other Arab allies met in Jordan to discuss amping up efforts to tilt the battlefield in favor of the Syrian rebel groups. Part of that effort involves Saudi Arabia providing shoulder-fired missiles to the rebels, as the Wall Street Journal first reported. The weapons will be given to the Free Syrian Army, the loosely organized group of anti-Assad fighters considered to be the more moderate forces.

The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. continues to oppose giving the rebels heavy weaponry. But in a follow-up story, the paper reported that “it is unclear to what extent the U.S. would move to block the Saudis if they insisted on going ahead with the deployment of the weapons over Washington's objections.”

Members of the Syrian opposition told the paper they planned to meet with Congress to request more weapons for their fight against Al Qaeda-linked groups that are also fighting against Assad. Recent months have seen fighting break out between hardline Islamic fundamentalists and other Syrian groups who are alienated by the harsh rule the fundamentalists have imposed on areas they control.

2. U.S. Training

One of the first substantial interventionist moves the U.S. made was its decision to train Syrian rebels. Since late 2012, the CIA and U.S. special forces troops stationed in Jordan and Turkey have trained Syrian opposition forces. The training was started months before arms began to flow to the rebels.

The Los Angeles Times reported last year that the training was for using “Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, anti-tank missiles and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons.”

In October 2013, the Washington Post reported the CIA was ramping up its efforts to train a few hundred Syrian fighters every month.

3. Non-Lethal Aid

In early 2013, the Obama administration announced it was sending $60 million in “non-lethal” aid to the Free Syrian Army in the form of food rations and medical supplies. In April 2013, the U.S. said it would double the amount of“non-lethal aid sent to Syria, which is meant in part to allow Syrian opposition forces to provide essential services on the ground in areas they control. This time, the non-lethal aid included things like communications equipment, vehicles and night-vision goggles. In other words, the kind of aid necessary for rebels to be lethal.

In an illustration of the chaotic nature of the war, the U.S. suspended “non-lethal” aid in December 2013 because the aid was seized by a coalition of Islamist fighters. But late last month, the Obama administration announced the aid, which includes useful items for peacetime activity including ambulances, garbage trucks and school supplies, would start flowing again. The State Department said most of the looted material was returned, and the Washington Post reported the resumption was a "reward to the Syrian opposition for participation in peace talks.”

4. Sanctions

Syria has been under some form of Western sanctions for decades. But in the aftermath of Assad’s brutal crackdown on protesters when the uprising began in 2011, more sanctions were imposed.

The Obama administration froze all the assets of the Syrian government as a response to the armed force the government used on demonstrators. The U.S. has also prohibited “all new investment in Syria by a U.S. person, the provision of any U.S. services to Syria, and any transaction in or related to petroleum products of Syrian origin,” as Human Rights First explained. In June 2013, the U.S. announced it was easing the sanctions on rebel-controlled areas of Syria to facilitate the exports of commodities like technology and software, and for items relating to water sanitation, food processing and more.

While the sanctions are targeted at the Assad regime, they have also harmed the population at large. As journalist Nir Rosen told Al Jazeera English in 2012, “the sanctions are having some effect. Credit cards no longer work. The price of the dollar has nearly doubled. Fuel for cooking and heating is harder to come by.” In December 2011, the New York Times quoted a Syrian as saying that the sanctions were not “the solution...This is a way to make us starve to punish the president.”

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