Color Blind to Red Lines: No 'Best' Worst Options for Syria

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Like the mythical planet Krypton, Syria is breaking up into a million pieces and most of the pieces are increasingly controlled by Islamist terrorists, not by the secular Free Syrian Army.  Sadly, neither no-fly zones, massive humanitarian aid, nor arming the rebels to the teeth will prevent Syria's doomed destiny.  It will now take a miracle to prevent Syria from becoming the next Middle East Yugoslavia riddled with terrorism.  This only polyglot, multireligious nation in the Middle East will soon resemble makeshift armed encampments with flags run by feuding warlords fighting Islamist terrorists. As a Syria-centric observer I am searching for someone who will disabuse me of my fears... no luck so far.

Sorry, we will be hearing in the coming days about lots of options... until they are exposed to the cold, cruel light of day.

Syria's descent into a bloodcurdling fight to the finish between Shiites and their terrorist proxies Hezbollah and Iran on one side and the Sunni radical Islamists on the other makes today's humanitarian catastrophe the equivalent of a dry run before the real battle begins.  And there is nothing the U.S. can or will do to stop it unless Assad and his cronies are handcuffed onto a plane with a one-way ticket to Tehran or Moscow!  Even then, I seriously question whether Assad's departure will prevent the Armageddon about to befall Syria.

A few weeks ago, Sheikh Abu Bakr al Husseini al Quarashi al-Baghdadi -- the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (an Al Qaeda branch) declared the extension of the Islamic State into Al Sham (Syria) by uniting with the Syrian jihadist rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra.  The land grab by Al Qaeda is on.

I am resigned to having the U.S. remain color blind to red lines, largely because the options for credible retaliation are so wretchedly unpalatable. I gave up warning months ago after pleading in these pages for two years to confront the growing crisis facing U.S. interests in the region. It fell on deaf ears.

Sadly, there are no best "worst options," there are only self-serving actions offered with a straight face that Assad "paid" for daring to use chemical weapons.  Who are we going to fool?

Everyone wants to stop the slaughter.  It surely must pain the president and his White House staff that our self-imposed restraints did not chronologically corresponded to the conflagration burning itself out.  Luck is not a policy.

U.S. credibility is already severely damaged among the people that matter most -- Syria's hapless civilian casualties who feel utterly abandoned by us, and the Syrian Free Army.  We have to face the reality that the vast majority of Syrians have given up on the U.S. ... it's our credibility with Iran, Israel and North Korea that the president now has to contend with.

Experts are having a field day tabling every conceivable option.  But what can the U.S. do given how much events on the ground are so beyond our control to influence?  In other words, why are the best-intentioned of options so unrealistic?

Intensive diplomacy?  Pundits sound like a broken record. It's a soothing, non-threatening, yet wholly vacuous response. Mrs. Clinton gave it a half-hearted effort when intensive round-the-clock diplomacy with Syria's sectarian leaders would have mattered.  Perhaps she wanted to do more, such as arming the rebels before the extremists seized so much high ground, but the White House did not want to go out on a limb when it would have mattered.

Her successor, Mr. Kerry, is trying his best to get Moscow to move; he is making a full-court press.  Sure!  Maybe there will be a breakthrough of sorts.  Get the Russians to pull the plug on Assad.  I am all in favor.  What are we offering up in return to Moscow?  Mr. Putin does not seem inclined to stop the slaughter.  He is pouring arms into Syria while feigning interest in a diplomatic settlement.  Putin knows what is about to come if Assad falls... another Sunni extremist failed state incubating his Northern Caucuses Islamic terrorist conflict.  More Islamic extremists streaming from Syria to Chechnya and Dagestan.   How are we going to convince Russia jettisoning Assad is going to prevent that?

Impose a no-fly zone?  That requires a sustained bombing campaign to eliminate Syria's sophisticated air defense system -- the best in the Arab world by far. Will France, the United Kingdom and the air forces of Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Turkey and Qatar risk their planes?  Grounding fixed wing jets and helicopters is not going to do that much (better than nothing, I guess) unless that no-fly zone is extended into a quarantine of all military and civilian shipments by air and sea to Syria so that Assad's forces decay from lack of arms.  That sets up a military confrontation with Russia.  Nor do no fly zones ground SCUD missiles which are pulverizing Syria's civilians.

Before the conflict reached its current intensity, Syria was estimated to have between several hundred and several thousand SCUD-type short-range ballistic missiles, including the SCUD-D variant provided by those friendly North Korean purveyors of missile technology.  The hills extending north from Damascus for about 4 km and flanking the main highway to Homs contain underground military bases.  Some, according to IHS Janes, are suspected SCUD missile storage sites.  The protected entrances to underground storage facilities are clearly visible on Google Earth.  Going after the SCUD sites still requires the U.S. to break the back of Syria's air defense missile system, however,

Remotely rain weapons into the hands of the so-called "good rebels?"  Hah!  Even the two Arab countries most responsible for pouring arms into Syria -- Saudi Arabia and Qatar -- can't agree among themselves who to arm. Qatar has already been accused of directing arms into the hands of the U.S. banned Al Nusra Front -- the cover for al Qaeda in Syria. There is no Arab League coalition of the willing; no Muslim coalition of the willing; no European coalition of the willing; and consequently, no American led coalition of the willing.  There is a real chance we will repeat the same mistake we made pre-9/11 in Afghanistan:  inadvertently empowering Syria's version of al Qaeda.  

A Field Guide to Syria's WMD

Seize the WMD stockpiles?  We don't even know where they all are.  Any search and seizure operation will, by Pentagon estimates, require at least 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground.  Even then, must of the stockpiles would have to be destroyed in place, which is a lengthy, dangerous job, according to the NY Times on November 15, 2012.  The monumental task would require around the clock force protection while every wretched terrorist plots a suicide attack against American troops exposed to attacks on one side, and nerve gas on their other.

Syria boasts the fourth largest stockpile of chemical and biological weapons in the world and for over a year intelligence reports have flared that some of the stockpiles have already fallen into the sticky fingers of Hezbollah and the Islamist terrorist group known as the Al Nusra Front.  The New York Times also reported on November 12, 2012 that Hezbollah had already set up camps next to WMD stockpiles and have been training at a limited number of these sites.  

Syria's preferred agent is sarin, not unwieldy canisters of chlorine or mustard gas.  Sarin is deadly if inhaled even in the minutest of quantities, and there are no gas masks among Syria's population to protect them.  Syria never signed the U.N. Chemical Weapons Convention, and according to the Washington Post's report of August 28, 2011, the CIA had concluded that Syria was also working on developing VX -- a deadlier nerve agent that resists breaking down in the environment.

According to a report published in July by the U.S. James Martin Center for Non-Proliferation Studies, there are five identifiable chemical agent manufacturing plants in Syria: At As-Safir, southeast of the destroyed second city of Aleppo, another near Latakia on the Mediterranean coast, a third near Dumayr, 25 km northeast of Damascus, another at Khan Abu Shamat, 35 km east of Damascus and one at Al-Furqlus in Homs province.  There are also said to be several dozen additional storage sites scattered around the country, some of them in hardened underground bunkers which cannot be seen by satellite photography.

The debate in Washington over what to do is so detached from reality and out of sync with events on the ground that it defies credulity.

Absent an 11th hour massively deployed "boots on the ground" drive to buttress the secular forces struggling to achieve a battleground breakthrough (which I do not support), or a mysterious drone strike that takes out the Assad criminal clique, no microscopically calibrated U.S. intervention will constitute the deserved corporal punishment for Assad's atrocities against his own people.  
Tragically, the arc of this crisis had been set almost a year ago.  All of Washington's fabled red lines and endless hand wringing about arming the so-called "good" Syrian rebels will not prevent a good deal of Syria's vast chemical warfare stockpile from falling into the hands of our mortal terrorist enemies.  And who is to say that the terrorists will not use it against Assad's regime or their secular opponents once they conclude that Washington will not do its dirty work for them?

How ironic that a collapse of the Assad regime could accelerate the breakdown of what remains of "government" control over Syria's WMD.

For a land awash in misery, WMD, and sophisticated missiles, the best we can hope to do is to "contain" the consequences.  Even there, there are very few "best" worst options.  Lebanon, massively infected by Syria's sectarian violence, cannot be stabilized by the U.S.  Turkey has been a Syrian chameleon.  Threatening to take strong military action because of the tide of refugees on its borders, but will do very little if it means, by consequence of action, empowering a Syrian Kurdish autonomy movement.  Jordan cannot cope with the flood of refugees on its borders, and King Abdullah came to Washington pleading for President Obama to do more to alleviate the human suffering and Jordan's inability to cope. Here is where we can help our good friend and ally, Jordan. Israel is bracing itself for the unenviable prospect having Al Nusra and Al Qaeda forces on its Golan Heights border, with Hezbollah having squirreled away Syrian WMD and SCUD missiles, to boot.

Cruelly, we are really bystanders to the chain-reaction Syrian pileup.  Washington's rhetoric did not face up or square with reality.  The best that can be hoped for is that the countries bordering Syria somehow contain the fallout with as much help as Washington can actually provide to make a difference.  And the best Washington can hope for is that all those who with good intentions and motives are urging the White House to engage in massive military intervention in Syria divert their energies to search for better ways to restore our credibility when it comes to the ongoing challenges with North Korea and Iran.
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