A number of recent articles make the case that the administration’s Syria policy is incoherent. Elliott Abrams says it’s worse than that: The White House’s position on Syria is duplicitous. Abrams looks at a series of recent interviews Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has given to the press about Syria, and identifies what appear to be the administration’s three reasons for not supporting the Syrian opposition.
First is the administration’s concern that, according to Clinton, al Qaeda may have infiltrated the opposition. Second, she contends that arming the opposition is futile because given the regime’s firepower there is no way the opposition can win. Finally, she says that the uprising is limited in scope, and more Syrians need to take to the streets before the White House knows the uprising is serious.
“This is an amazing policy combination,” writes Abrams:
“Clinton appears to argue that our intelligence agencies are so inept they cannot identify terrorists and cannot find any way at all to get arms to Syrians—as opposed to Palestinians from Hamas or other foreigners from al-Qaeda… Second, she suggests that precisely because Assad is using tanks and artillery to attack the population, we cannot aid them because our military assistance would be too limited. They are better off dying, this argument logically holds, than fighting back. Their bravery in fighting for the past year with such limited arms is to be rewarded with the complaint that the odds are just too heavily stacked against them. Then comes the coup de grace: After saying we won’t help, after saying that outside ‘intervention’ would only lead to more violence or ‘civil war,’ after noting the disparity of arms between the citizens and the state, she demands that they rise up.”
Clinton’s statements aren’t just contradictory, they’re also just plain wrong. Let’s look at the three points that Abrams underscores in some more detail.
1. Al Qaeda and the opposition
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper was the first administration official to claim that al Qaeda may have infiltrated the opposition. Since then, in Clinton’s interviews and elsewhere, it’s become one of the administration’s talking points on Syria. But is it true?
Yes, al Qaeda affiliates are on the ground in Syria—thanks largely to the efforts of the Damascus regime itself. The Assads, father and son, have long been in the habit of using terrorist organizations (from Hezbollah and Hamas to the PKK, including al Qaeda affiliates) to serve their interests, at home and in the near abroad, especially Lebanon and Iraq.
Even now a Free Syrian Army official recently confirmed to Now Lebanon: “‘news of the release of Fatah al-Islam and Al-Qaeda members from jail by the regime, which seems willing to take any risk to stay in power, by letting known terrorists onto the streets to stir up trouble so it can blame the conflict on radical elements.” Most notable among these recently released al Qaeda prisoners is Abu Musab al-Suri, the mastermind of the 7/7 attacks on London. Captured by the CIA in 2005 and returned to his native Syria, Suri was freed, according to a press report, “as a warning to the US and Britain about the consequences of turning their backs on President al-Assad’s regime.”
It is the Syrian regime’s use of terror—specifically, the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri—that compelled the Bush administration to withdraw the U.S. ambassador to Damascus. And it was the regime’s logistical support of al Qaeda and other foreign fighters making their way into Iraq to kill Americans that persuaded Bush policymakers to continue to isolate Damascus. It was the Obama administration that decided to embark on a policy of engagement with Syria, despite the evidence showing Assad’s support for terror, including al Qaeda.
For some reason, all of this appears lost on the president’s staff, now seemingly surprised to find al Qaeda operating on ground that the regime made safe for Sunni terrorism. The White House has not presented evidence that the organization is responsible for recent attacks in Damascus and Aleppo, but only contends that they bear, in Clapper’s words, the “earmarks” of al Qaeda operations. What neither Clapper nor Clinton has noted is that the attacks also bear a resemblance to past al Qaeda efforts inside Syria that were likely managed by Syrian security services. The purpose of these operations was to show that Syria and the United States shared the same problem—i.e., Sunni extremists—and therefore Washington should embrace the Assad regime as a valued ally.
For instance, the 2006 attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, which ended in a shootout between Syrian security forces and militants from Jund al-Sham, is virtually inconceivable without the complicity of Syrian intelligence. The embassy is located in a highly secure area with limited access to large vehicles like the one that transported Jund al-Sham fighters to the entrance of the embassy compound.
The same tight security regime applies to the two sites, the state security administration building and a military security complex, targeted in a twin suicide bombing attack on December 23 in the Damascus district of Kafarsouseh. As Michael Weiss points out in a timely study, Is Al-Qaida in Syria?: “In order to reach either of these locations,” Weiss explains, “one has to pass through multiple checkpoints and, if one is driving, mandatory vehicle searches. One also requires security clearance and the relevant permits.”
It’s quite possible that al Qaeda is operating in Syria independently of the Assad regime and at war with it. However, in claiming without evidence that al Qaeda has infiltrated the Free Syrian Army, the Obama administration is advancing the Assad regime’s propaganda campaign.
2. Strength of the Syrian army
Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser concurs with Clinton that the opposition is overmatched in terms of firepower. “The Syrian army,” he writes, “which still stands behind al-Assad, could fight back. It is a strong and powerful army.”
With 600,000 men under arms and a fairly formidable, mostly Russian-supplied arsenal, the Syrian army seems to impress American policymakers as well as analysts. However, the Syrian opposition refers to this ragtag band of Assad loyalists as jaysh abu shahhata or the “army of the sandals,” referring to its shoddy equipment and lack of discipline.
Like Zisser, many analysts, and presumably administration staffers, see the state of the Syrian army as one of the telltale signs of the state of the uprising. They note that since there have been relatively few defections, not least because deserters are being shot, the army is still relatively whole. The reality is that the Syrian army units that the regime can still trust represent a tiny fraction of 600,000.
The key statistic here is not men under arms, but the sectarian composition of the country itself. Roughly 12 percent is Alawite while the majority of the country, upwards of 60 percent, is Sunni Arab. Some analysts have added other minority sects to the strength of the regime, including Christians, another 10 percent of the population, as well as other heterodox Shia sects, like the Ismailis and Druze, but not all of them are fighting on behalf of Assad.
For instance, back in January Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt advised Syrian Druze soldiers not to participate any longer in the regime’s repression of their fellow Syrians. “We must avoid being part of an axis against the majority,” Jumblatt said, “in order to avoid future political repercussions.” In other words, it is foolish for a minority population to take up arms on behalf of a losing cause against the Sunni majority. “Popular memory,” Jumblatt warned his co-religionists across the border, “has no mercy.”
Jumblatt’s call for a soft defection drives home to Assad the fact that the only sect he can count on are the Alawites. Perhaps the army’s most loyal unit, the 4th Armored Division, is under the command of Assad’s younger brother Maher. On Tuesday, Maher al-Assad’s men were sent to the Baba Amr district of Homs, after Syrian forces failed in their three-week long offensive to enter the city. It wasn’t until the army shut off the FSA’s last supply line that it was able to enter Baba Amr—spearheaded by nearly 7000 soldiers from the 4th Armored Division, which is roughly the entire unit.
FSA spokesmen are calling their withdrawal “a tactical retreat,” and presumably FSA fighters will move on to the next city, as they’ve done over the last several months. Then the Syrian army will have yet another fire to put out, while another is starting somewhere else. This all goes to the main questions: Why can’t the regime put down the uprising once and for all? And why did it take 26 days for a vastly superior military force to put the FSA to flight from Baba Amr? Because the regime cannot afford the casualties that it would absorb in storming an urban battlefield that works to the advantage of its defenders.
The Syrian army faced a similar dilemma in the early stages of the Lebanese civil wars, when it surrounded Christian neighborhoods like Achrafieh in 1978. As Tony Badran, a research fellow at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, explains in a recent article: “despite vastly outnumbering the Christian militias in East Beirut—15,000 to 20,000 Syrians to several hundred Christian militiamen defending their neighborhood—the Syrian Arab Army was unable to enter and take the city.”
As Badran explains, the weaponry used against the Christian enclaves three decades ago was the same that the army used at Homs over the last month—“field artillery, tanks, heavy mortars and multiple rocket launchers.” The problem then, as now, is that “the Syrian army was not prepared to risk high casualties. In fact, reports from the period indicate that the Syrians had estimated a potential loss in excess of 3,000 men had they pressed ahead with a full invasion of Achrafieh.”
It’s useful to note that this was the assessment of the Syrian army’s position fighting Christian militias in Lebanon, while today a sectarian sliver of that army is taking on Syria’s Sunni Arab majority. Who knows what, if any, official casualty estimate the Assad regime is working with today? The only assessment that matters is that Assad cannot afford to squander his most limited resource, one which no Russian arms shipment can resupply—those men who are unquestionably willing to kill and die for the regime, Alawites.
The Syrian army, or the only part of the army that figures in the regime’s calculations right now, is essentially a sectarian militia. It doesn’t matter how much firepower it has, how many tanks or pieces of artillery it has at its disposal, if there are not enough Alawites to man them.
3. Magnitude of the uprising
The notion that Syrians haven’t done enough to rise up against the regime is perhaps Clinton’s most vicious argument. Here, the secretary of state explains to one interviewer, Clinton’s waiting on Syria’s two biggest cities to do something:
“what about the people in Damascus, what about the people in Aleppo? Don’t they know that their fellow Syrian men, women, and children are being slaughtered by their government? What are they going to do about it? When are they going to start pulling the props out from under this illegitimate regime?”
Presumably, Clinton is referring to the merchant classes of Aleppo and Damascus whose economic interests have so far prevented them from betting against the regime. If the administration’s only tactic against Damascus so far is to level economic sanctions on regime figures, it should not be blind to the fact that the war in Syria has gone hot. To rise up against the regime means not merely holding on to foreign currency but picking up arms—or having a weapon thrust in your face. America’s top diplomat is apparently unaware of the dimensions of that war.
She told her interviewer: “[Y]ou don’t see uprisings across Syria the way you did in Libya. You don’t see militias forming in places where the Syrian military is not trying to get to Homs.” If Clinton thinks the uprising is limited to Homs, someone at Foggy Bottom should find the secretary a map.
As Jonathan Spyer wrote in TWS two weeks ago, there are FSA units all over Idleb Province, where the regime is now concentrating forces. Deraa, Baniyas, Lattakia, Hama, Deir al-Zour, Zabadani, and Rastan are among the many Syrian cities that have fought against the regime and are still fighting. In Homs earlier this week, 13 opposition activists even shed their blood protecting foreign journalists. But who knows? Given the White House’s position, that was probably just al Qaeda trying to earn bonus points in Western capitals.
The administration won’t arm the Free Syrian Army, because backing proxy forces to fight on behalf of American interests, according to administration officials, is just too complicated. Instead, the White House is going back to the U.N. Security Council, where it’s drafting a new resolution along with France intended to win, finally, Russian support. The draft supports “a peaceful political transition in the country and starting a serious political dialogue between the Syrian government and opposition.”
That is, after a year in which Assad has made war on his own country, the Obama administration still believes he is capable of the reform that would lead to a peaceful political transition and a dialogue with those he’s raped, tortured, and murdered.
Taken as a whole—the administration’s actions, its peculiar faith in Russia to do the right thing at the Security Council, and now Secretary Clinton’s statements—the administration’s Syria policy represents a total collapse of the declared U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and should leave power. It seems that when the president called for Assad to step down in August, he was unprepared not only to lead, but even to follow, for the Syrian opposition has drafted its own position in its own blood.