Crossing the Syrian Red Line Rubicon

Friday, June 14, 2013

Even the legendary Houdini can't get the U.S. out of its Syrian straightjacket. For over three agonizing years the Obama administration has twisted itself into diplomatic contortions in vain attempts to downplay Syria's infectious civil war as a policy and humanitarian challenge to American national security. Instead, avoiding any game-changing involvement in Syria became the vital national security interest for a White House determined to prove to itself it will not get entangled in another Middle East conflict.

For a White House that has warily considered the Syrian crisis in pure black and white terms, tonight's tardy admission of crossed chemical weapons red lines is, well, a very inconvenient truth.

So now, the president has stumbled into the worst of all worlds. He is being dragged kicking and screaming into providing the Syrian rebels with pea shooters when the besieged Free Syrian Army desperately needs anti-aircraft weapons to avoid more consequential battlefield setbacks. To add insult to injury, the White House made sure to highlight a long list of "no's" when it comes to providing arms that could make the difference against Assad: no no-fly zone, no anti aircraft weapons, no air strikes against chemical weapons bases, no drone strikes against Hezbollah and Iranian supply lines.

In other words, we have hoisted ourselves on our own policy petard: haphazard, ineffective, tepid involvement in a conflict where the U.S., in spite of its own escalation, is destined to suffer a major diplomatic and military defeat. That passes as the best foreign policy we can muster! So for Americans wary of getting involved in Syria, the White House, by its own admission, is now militarily involved in Syria on its own terms lock, stock and barrel, yet in a way that ironically will yield no possible positive outcome.

For all the ballyhooed determination to stand up for democratic change in the Middle East and pledges to never stand by when tens of thousands of innocent people are being massacred, Syria will regretably prove to be a major policy reversal on both counts.    

What exactly then is the strategy behind belatedly delivering arms that can have no real impact on the tide of battle? The only reason I can think of is to silence critics of its Syria policy. If the White House thinks that its about-face against providing ineffective "lethal" weapons to the rebels is going to restore its collapsed credibility on Syria with the Syrian people or our allies in the region, memo to the White House: Save the taxpayer's money and stick to your original guns.

The tide of battle has so turned against the rebels we are purportedly now supporting, that the tokenism of this policy reversal is even more glaring.

I have consistently opposed boots on the ground in Syria. But it is so hard to watch this avoidable policy debacle unfold under the backdrop of a massive humanitarian catastrophe and loss of vital American prestige. Day in and day out, the callowness of our Syria policy is on full display. We could have done so much more had we recognized from the start of the conflict that there were so many legitimate actions the U.S. could have taken, avoiding the very slippery slope we have tripped onto:

1. The U.S. could have provided more consistent and rapid humanitarian support to Syria's refugees. The truth is that it took over two years for USAID to take effective action to alleviate Syrian suffering. At least we could have earned the thanks of thousands of Syrians who now detest the U.S. inaction and indifference no matter how much aid has belatedly poured in.

2. The U.S. naively assumed that Qatar was going to play the good guy and funnel weapons into the hands of the "good rebels." Instead, Qatar has played us like a fiddle as it funneled weapons to the Al Nusra front -- the radical Al Qaeda affiliate. Did we ever "demarche" Doha?

3. Long before we became ensnared into the quibbling, ineffective Syrian National Council, the U.S. should have mounted a full court diplomatic initiative to meld the Syrian domestic anti-Assad sectarian leadership into a united political opposition.

4. Instead of pretentiously relying on the good graces of Iraq's Iranian proxy Prime Minister Maliki to cease his facilitation of Iranian arms transfers to Syria, the U.S. should have imposed an embargo on any further foreign economic and military assistance to Iraq until Maliki relented.

5. The U.S. with the support of France and Britain, along with the Arab League should have imposed a defacto no-fly zone on Assad's air force by providing air defense support for the  deployment of Red Crescent-flagged Arab cargo aircraft airlifting humanitarian relief supplies to besieged Syrian towns and villages by creating Berlin-airlift like humanitarian corridors, punishing Syrian ground to air defenses in the name of humanitarian relief supply delivery.

6. Read my previous HuffPost blogs for many more recommendations that are far too numerous to repeat here.

For over three agonizing years I have appealed privately and yes, on these pages, to my colleagues in the administration to avoid placing themselves in the very no win Syrian predicament in which they now find themselves. With its inconsequential red line policy reversal, America's Syrian policy has finally reached its nadir: too little, too late, and to no avail.

It appears more likely than ever that Assad will now hang on longer, courtesy of the overwhelming military and diplomatic support provided by Russia, Iran and Hezbollah. The civil war consequently will drag on powered on an insatiable thirst for vengeance. The Al Nusra Front will turn their guns on the so-called good rebels. They will also declare "Syrian Islamic emirates" a la Al Qaeda, and massacre more and more innocent Syrians caught in the crossfire, as will the goon squads allied with Assad. A battle-hardened Hezbollah will then turn on Assad's Lebanese opponents to avoid unpleasant reaction to their Syrian adventure, and set the stage for the next proxy war Iran wants it to wage against Israel to forestall an attack on its nuclear programs. And the U.S. will find itself further isolated.

That is quite an unpalatable consolation prize for lurching more deeply into the Syrian quagmire.
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