Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 09:46 | SYDNEY
Friday 30 Sep 2022 | 09:46 | SYDNEY

Syria: How not to cut the Gordian knot


Rodger Shanahan


19 October 2012 09:13

If any more evidence was needed about the difficulty of finding a solution to the ongoing fighting in Syria, then the last few weeks have provided some excellent examples.  For Assad's backers such as Iran, the situation is pretty straightforward.  Provide the core government forces with weapons, expertise and training.

But for the US, things are much more difficult. The Assad regime is repressive and bad so the opposition must be freedom loving and good. But the opposition is so divided, venal, sectarian and brutal that it has made it difficult for anyone to like it, let alone trust it. It truly is a Levantine mess. When opponents of a brutally repressive regime such as the Syrian Ba'thists are unable to capture the public imagination, let alone much international sympathy then things are pretty bad.

An article by The New York Times claims that most of the weapons sent to Syria by the main Gulf backers of the opposition, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are ending up in the hands of jihadists because both countries work through intermediaries and neither truly understands the dynamics of the forces operating in Syria. The reality is that neither is really big on details or cares too much about the second order effects of policy decisions, so that a deep understanding of the dynamics post-fall are of less importance than seeing the Assad regime consigned to the history books.

President Barack Obama has been lukewarm about becoming decisively committed in materiel, let alone military, terms until he is more sure of exactly who is in the opposition, who is influential within it, how popular they are and what the various elements stand for. This is no small task in itself.

Presidential candidate Mitt Romney has been less hawkish than many of his Republican boosters, but has increasingly sought to blur the line between providing 'non-lethal' aid (as if there is such a thing) and assisting other people to provide lethal aid. Confused? Well here is how he reckons it would work:

In Syria, I will work with our partners to identify and organise those members of the opposition who share our values and ensure they obtain the arms they need to defeat Assad's tanks, helicopters and fighter jets. Iran is sending arms to Assad because they know his downfall would be a strategic defeat for them. We should be working no less vigorously with our international partners to support the many Syrians who would deliver that defeat to Iran – rather than sitting on the sidelines. It is essential that we develop influence with those forces in Syria that will one day lead a country that sits at the heart of the Middle East.

 You could, of course, drive a truck through this policy statement.  And this Washington Post article certainly does that. What is most disturbing about this statement, though, is its near complete lack of morality. It speaks of shared values and yet the the partners to whom he refers (read Gulf states) don't actually share Romney's values such as equality, free speech or democracy. And he speaks not of helping to build a democratic state, but simply to develop influence with the opposition forces. In reality, Romney seeks to build relations with states in the Middle East with whom the US shares interests, rather than values. Hence there was no mention of the minority Sunni monarchy in Bahrain needing to share power with its majority Shi'a population, or of Washington's closest Gulf allies needing to democratise.

But of most concern with respect to his approach to Syria was his inability to answer the fundamental question that has stymied his Democratic opponent: how does the US ensure that the arms it wants the rebels to get are used for the purpose for which they are intended? Naturally any rebel is going to parrot whatever his foreign backer wants him to say until such time as he gets the weapons and then he is a free agent. And if The New York Times report is correct, and past records are a good indication, then Saudi Arabia and Qatar are not too fussed who gets US weapons so long as Iran doesn't get them or they are not brought into Saudi Arabia.

Unfortunately, the only way to guarantee that advanced weaponry doesn't get into the wrong hands is to ensure you have control of the supply chain all the way through to the user. And this means US government officials (military or otherwise) being actively involved with the rebels.  Which is why neither side in Washington really wants to arm the Syrian opposition. 

 Photo by Flickr user otolith (oliver roux).