It was brought home to US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in all the conferences leading up to NATO’s Libya operation that the rebels of Benghazi – even with the backing of NATO powers, Qatar and Jordan – would never be able to oust Muammar Qaddafi and defeat his “security brigades” without US military support.
And indeed US military leadership finally tipped the scales in that conflict.
That scenario does not fit Syria.
When Clinton attends the first “Friends of Syria” conference in Tunis Friday, Feb. 24, she will be quite clear that military intervention is not the cure for Syria’s agony, whether to remove President Bashar Assad or to bring stability to his bitterly divided country.
Having spent last weekend and the first half of this week working with visiting Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu on setting up the conference, and keeping up with intelligence updates from Syria, she will be fully apprised that the Libyan scenario cannot be mirrored in Syria.
It was also realized that simply taking Bashar Assad out by such surgical measures as assassination or a coup d’etat will not puncture the balloon of Assad family and Alawite rule in the same way as Qaddafi’s removal turned the tide in Tripoli. On the contrary, his abrupt disappearance would only exacerbate the bloody conflict tearing Syria apart for nearly a year.
At this stage, therefore, Clinton and Duvotuglo ruled out US military intervention.
Arab bloc distanced from US policy-making on Syria
There is another fundamental difference between the Libyan and Syrian revolts.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington and Middle East sources note that, whereas for the Libyan operation last year, the Obama administration worked closely with Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Qatar, for Syria, Washington has placed all its eggs in the Turkish basket – even though Ankara is working against Arab policy.
While keeping the Turkish foreign minister close to US policy-making on Syria this past week, the US Secretary of State deliberately kept the Arab bloc at arm’s length, even though the Arab League foreign ministers held a crisis meeting on the same issue in Cairo Sunday, Feb. 12.
The Arab ministers let it be understood that if Assad fails to put the brakes on his brutal attacks on civilians, Saudi Arabia and Qatar will seriously consider arming his opponents. This license was implicit in Article 9 of the resolution the ministers approved, which urged members “to provide all kinds of political and material support” to the opposition. Arab and Western diplomats present confirmed that this article sanctioned the arming of Assad’s foes.
The ministers also allowed Arab League members “all options” for protecting the Syrian people, a diplomatic euphemism for military intervention.
The Arab leaders, especially Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, firmly hold that nothing but outside military intervention will reverse the evil tide in Syria. They therefore took a further step to solidify their consensus on the arming of rebels by an Arab League application to the United Nations to create some sort of joint UN-Arab mission for pacifying Syria.
Washington opposes Arab-UN force, Moscow shows interest
But they fell out on what to call the force – monitors or peacekeepers – after the Arab League’s own observers mission failed so abjectly to rein in the Syrian bloodbath. The Arab ministers ended up recommending just “a force,” without qualifiers.
Even so, the Americans jumped over what they saw as a door opening to admit Russian and Chinese contingents into Syria as part of this international force. The last thing Washington wants to see is the two powers which vetoed the UN Security Council resolution against Assad taking up position in Syria with UN approval and privileged status in Damascus.
Once in, they tend to stay indefinitely. Few people remember that the United Nations peacekeeping force posted in Lebanon since after the 2006 war – and still there – includes 200 Russian engineers for building roads and bridges and another 200 Chinese as medics and mine-clearing experts.
Not surprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov showed interest in the Arab League proposal and asked for more details. Moscow saw its chance to win not only a presence in Syria under UN auspices, but clout for dictating the force’s shape, functions and terms of reference.
Secretary Clinton and Davutoglu lost no time in shooting down Lavrov’s remarks to this effect Monday, Feb. 13.
Their joint statement endorsed a political solution for Syria but predicated the deployment of international troops there on Damascus government’s consent.
This was a warning to the Arabs and Moscow that Washington would not think twice about slapping down its veto on any Security Council resolution for importing to Syria an international observer or any other force with a Russian or Chinese component.
So why is Obama cultivating Turkey?
Indeed, the Obama administration might even relish an opportunity to take its revenge for Moscow’s veto of the Western-Arab resolution on Friday, February 3. But most conspicuously, the US administration has shown itself to be totally unmoved by Arab concerns about Assad’s treatment of his citizens and not averse even to a falling-out with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf states – if only to keep Russian boots out of Syria.
To this end, the Americans are flaunting their pact with Turkey in the angry faces of Gulf rulers.
The Obama administration’s close bond with Turkey has most Middle East capitals, including Jerusalem, deeply puzzled, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s US sources report.
The “zero problems with neighbors” policy that Davutoglu produced for Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan in 2007 has hardly been a raving success among those neighbors. In Syria and Libya, Turkish efforts to mediate conflicts ran aground. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf emirates maintain correct relations with Turkey but keep a safe distance from its many diplomatic initiatives.
Erdogan himself is seriously ill, suffering from recto-sigmoid cancer (as debkafile first revealed exclusively on Dec. 18, 2011.) On Nov. 26, 2011, he underwent surgery and Friday, Feb. 10, he had a second operation on his digestive system. The fact of the surgical procedure was officially disclosed without word on the stage of his illness.
Although foreign minister is the moving spirit behind the prime minister’s neo-Ottoman political orientation and proactive diplomacy, he is no favorite among Ankara’s political elite. It is not clear where Erdogan’s departure from the Middle East political stage would leave him or the policies he has initiated.
So why is the Obama administration committing itself so completely to its partnership with Ankara in dealing with the intractable Syrian crisis? Why is non-Arab Turkey the blue-eyed boy in Washington and not the Gulf Arabs?
These questions are being asked in many Middle East capitals. Some also offer an answer: President Obama trusts Ankara to provide him with a diplomatic back door to Tehran.