The Obama administration’s tactics of military engagement in the Middle East vary between Libya and Syria, although both countries are bedeviled by a strong, destabilizing Al Qaeda presence.
In Libya, the US is working through local militia forces, which are fueled by ideology, cash, or self-interest to fight the radical Islamist elements undermining government.
But in Syria, more than three years into its bloody civil war, the Obama administration is staking nine local rebel militias to do its bidding, including elements of the extremist Jabhat al-Nusra (Al Qaeda in Syria) movement (see enlarged map here).
During the ten-year war in Afghanistan, the US was known to occasionally employ extremist Talibani units with ties to Al Qaeda elements, like the Pakistani Lashkar i-Taiba, to achieve its ends. But now, for the first time since the 9/11 attacks on Washington and DC, the US is supplying a rebel movement, known to include Al Qaeda sympathizers, with arms, intelligence and funding. Some may also be fighting with Islamist recruits from the US and Europe.
And so, Israeli and Jordanian military intelligence experts are helping the CIA weed out Al Qaeda fighters from the US-backed rebel forces and make sure they do not get hold of the heavy weaponry now on tap.
But there is no guarantee that anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles won’t end up in the wrong hands.
A US intelligence foothold in S. Syria and Damascus vicinity
In Libya, the Obama administration – working with the UAE and Egypt – aims to seize control of Tripoli and the government.
In Syria, Washington seeks to wrest control of a broad stretch of southern Syria running from the Jordanian and Israeli borders up to Damascus (see map), while leaving Bashar Assad and his regime in power in the capital.
By its discreet input in the Syrian rebel cause, the Obama administration seeks five gains:
1. Minimizing the threat posed to the Israeli and Jordanian borders by the Syrian Army and its allies, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, the Lebanese Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias.
2. Keeping those hostile forces at bay from US military holdings in Jordan and Israel.
3. Establishing a US military intelligence foothold on the Damascus periphery to challenge Russian and Iranian exclusivity as the only major powers with operational capacity in the Syrian capital.
4. US military intelligence agents on the spot would seek to establish ties with high-ranking Syrian general command officers and the field commanders of units deployed in and around Damascus.
5. Creating a barrier to stave off Al Qaeda encroachments on Damascus or the Syrian borders with Jordan and Israel and so preventing the jihadists from gaining jumping-off positions for attacks on those countries.
Washington’s last chance of a say in Syria
DEBKA Weekly's military and Washington sources report that US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s trip last week to Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, was preceded by a heated debate among American high-ups on the wisdom of direct US involvement in rebel military operations in Syria. Until now, such involvement was left to Jordan and Israel.
The fiercest opponent of a change in strategy was Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He argued that, even if the operation to take over southern Syria succeeds, it would bring the US face to face with the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Hizballah, and even Russian servicemen posted from Moscow.
Dempsey warned that, during the process of its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the US military was in no shape for a full-blown military showdown with the Syrian and Iraqi branches of Al Qaeda – the Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS). These groups would be more than ready to open a new front with the US, if given the chance.
In the end, Washington was won round to a change in approach by Jordanian and Israeli diplomats, generals and intelligence experts. They argued that this was Washington’s last chance to force the Syrian army and its Iranian allies to stay away from their borders, while at the same time planting a strong US presence in position for determining the future course of events in Damascus.
Their consensual view was that Assad had run out of reserve strength for reinforcing his southern defenses against attack, unless he was willing to leave his other fronts dangerously exposed.
Rebel setback places Israeli. Jordanian border units on alert
The clincher for Obama and Hagel was the strategic importance these analysts attached to the Golan town of Quneitra. By conquering this town, the rebels would gain command of the Deraa-Quneitra-Damascus highway, and be in a position to capture the chain of Syrian villages on the eastern slopes of Mt. Hermon. (See attached map.)
This accomplishment would be a game-changer for the rebels’ fortunes. It would enable them to reopen the key supply routes for weapons and fighters which they lost in April, when the Syrian Army and Hizballah seized the Qalamoun Mountains lying athwart central Syria and eastern Lebanon.
The reopening of these vital supply routes would give the rebels a sharp edge over the Syrian and Hizballah forces in the border regions and the east.
However, the rebels are still fighting for Quneitra, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources report. On Wednesday, May 21, their advance was halted by the heavy firepower Assad’s forces directed at them from the air, self-propelled artillery and rockets.
In the face of this tense standoff, Jordan and Israel placed the beefed-up units standing by on their borders with Syria on a high state of preparedness.