A glimpse of the US quandary in the Syrian conflict was afforded by the announcement Wednesday, Dec. 11, of the suspension of American and British “non-lethal assistance” for the opposition in northern Syria, after a new rebel Islamic Front seized Free Syrian Army (FSA) bases at the Bab al-Hawa border crossing with Turkey.
The Obama administration has reached a moment of decision in its meandering policy for the Syrian conflict, say DEBKA Weekly’s military sources. How can it support the Syrian opposition without also helping the increasingly powerful Islamists, including Al Qaeda?
The answer is it can’t.
Washington can hardly pretend that after sending the Free Syrian Army $167 million worth of food rations, several tonnes of medical supplies, vehicles, communications equipment and night-vision goggles, it suddenly decided to hold back the balance of the promised $250 million in aid, simply over the loss of a border crossing.
The Obama administration must have been building up to this decision as it watched the FSA being virtually wiped out as a fighting force, largely for lack of effective weaponry to fight the Syrian army or match Islamists forces. By now, the FSA is reduced to groups of officers and clerks working out of camps in Turkey and taking charge of the US assistance and funds for rebel units which no longer recognize their authority.
The suspension, even of “non-lethal” items, was described by knowledgeable observers as the last nail in the coffin of the relatively moderate FSA which Washington publicly championed.
Redirecting US assistance to the new southern enclave
It was also inevitable.
For most of the three-year Syrian conflict, the Obama administration and Britain acted as sponsors of the mainstream Syrian rebel movement – without, however, supplying its fighters with the tools of war necessary to prevail and letting them fall behind the radical militias affiliated to Al Qaeda, which were receiving a good flow of weaponry from a variety of sources, such as Saudi and Qatari intelligence agencies which were vying for influence and Al Qaeda’s own sources in Iraq.
The most obvious rule of war, that the side with a regular source of arms will always come out on top, was not applied in the case of the FSA.
More recently, Washington has redirected the bulk of its support to a security enclave taking shape in the South as its new arena of operation. Instead of channeling aid to opposition militias in the north, which sell US items to the highest bidders, the US is now sending it to the pro-American forces manning this enclave.
Furthermore, the US prefers to separate itself firmly from the area of influence Iran is establishing in the North.
(See last DEBKA Weekly 614 of Dec. 6: US Moves in on South Syria from Two War Rooms & Rev Guards arrive to set up Iranian area of influence in Syrian Kurdistan.)
Iran enlists international Shiite legion to fight for Assad
While the Iranians and Americans mark out their zones of influence in northern and southern Syria, President Bashar Assad’s army and allied forces are steadily enlarging their areas of control in the central and Western parts of the country, up to the Lebanese border.
Their conquest of Nabuk in the Qalamoun Mountains on the Lebanese border Sunday, Dec. 8, reopened the Damascus highway to Homs and on to the Mediterranean ports of Tartus and Latakia in the west.
This battle exposed the powerful mélange of fighting forces Iran had mustered to guarantee the Syrian ruler’s success in battle.
It consists of Hizballah’s elite Mahdi Brigade; the Shiite Abul Fadl al-Abbas Brigade imported from Iraq; the brigade-strength Forces for Defense of the Homeland, made up of former Alawite Shabiha militiamen transformed by Iranian instructors into a people’s army – as well a battalion and an artillery unit from the Syrian army’s 14th Brigade.
Assad therefore won the important battle of Nabuk with the help of an international Shiite legion raised by Tehran, rather than by his own army.
That legion is already forming up for the final, decisive battle still impending to retake Syria’s largest city, Aleppo.
Obama has stopped saying Assad must go
In consideration of the Syrian ruler’s war successes and the intense interaction on the Syrian question and Assad’s future going back and forth among Washington, Moscow and Tehran, certain influential voices are heard in Washington these days urging President Obama to take the bull by the horns and enter into direct dialogue with the Syrian president without intermediaries.
There is no sense in talking to him through Russian and Iranian go-betweens, they argue, when the gap between American and Syrian interests is beginning to close.
In any case, they say, Obama has put behind him his insistence that Assad must go as the sine qua non for a political resolution of the Syrian conflict and he no longer berates the Syrian ruler for his brutality against his own people. A new level has been reached.
One of the most prominent advocates of this course is Ryan Crocker, former US Ambassador to Syria. He wrote in a recent New York Times article: “We need to start talking to the Assad regime again… It will have to be done very, very quietly. But bad as Assad is, he is not as bad as the jihadis who would take over in his absence.”
Talking to the regime would carry a political price
The regime, said an editorial writer, “deserves full credit for boldness and bloody-minded determination: it set Syria ablaze, only to present itself as the fire brigade.”
Frederic Hof, who for years acted as secret emissary to Damascus for recent US presidents and is extremely knowledgeable about Syria and its president, posted this comment:
“It is this reality of self-satisfaction that no doubt instructs the views of those who, like Ryan Crocker, know the administration well. Crocker would, no doubt, like to see the senseless slaughter and mass destruction stopped. In terms of speaking with the regime, perhaps there are those who would offer normalization and cooperation against al Qaeda in return for UN access and a humanitarian truce. Yet even here reality might intervene.
“Talking to the regime would entail domestic political consequences for the administration, none of them positive… There is nothing the Assad regime needs from the United States that Washington is able or willing to provide, except perhaps communication itself: the one thing Assad has assured his enablers from the beginning would be forthcoming once the West was defeated and recognized the error of its ways.”