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Friday, January 24, 2020

Is Obama growing a backbone on Syria?

by Linda S. Heard

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Too much analysis brings paralysis, a saying that reflects the Obama administration’s stance on the Syrian conflict even as the involvement of Iranian Revolutionary guards and Hezbollah’s military wing is tipping the balance in Bashar Al Assad’s favour. In recent weeks, the Syrian President has been trumpeting his military success in Qusayr - a city situated between Homs and the Lebanese border - that was battered by Syrian warplanes giving cover to Hezbollah guerrillas on the ground. Clearly, Al Assad believes he has victory in the bag and has no intention of stepping down.

Now that regime forces are emboldened to oust the Free Syrian Army (FSA) from Aleppo and other northern towns that would translate to strategic opposition supply routes from Turkey being closed, US President Obama, has finally announced his readiness to provide weapons to opposition fighters on the grounds that it has proof that the regime has crossed Obama’s red line by its use of chemical weapons. He has hitherto hesitated to take that step, saying he needs to be certain US weapons will reach the right hands.

The US administration has sought to gain Russian President Vladimir Putin’s approval by handing over proof that at least 150 fatalities were caused by Sarin gas; but Russian lawmakers are calling foul, contending the evidence is fabricated. No surprise there! Russia has steadfastly warned foreign powers not to get involved in Syria since the beginning of the conflict despite the expanded intervention of Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah.  Obama has been reluctant to incur a diplomatic fallout with Moscow and is clearly in no mood to take on Iran.

However, the US President is undeserving of kudos for his long overdue decision to intervene in this humanitarian disaster, which according to United Nations’ mid-June statistics, has robbed over 93,000 Syrians of their lives, including 6,000 children. In the first place it’s too little, too late. Sensitive to US public opinion, which is against America embroiling itself in yet another foreign war, Obama has no plans to insert boots on the ground and neither is he considering implementing a no-fly zone at this juncture.

Moreover, according to AP and the New York Times, the FSA will not receive much-needed anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles; only small arms, such as assault rifles, ammunition and shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades. Light weapons will hardly give them a meaningful edge against the Syrian military’s fighter jets and sophisticated arsenal.

There are growing accusations that Obama’s seeming change of tack on arming the FSA, is little more than a public relations exercise, a sop to America’s gung ho European allies - such as the UK and France which were successful in persuading the EU to lift its Syrian arms embargo - and Capitol Hill, where many members of Congress are demanding that Obama adopts a more forceful approach. Leading the charge are Senators Dianne Feinstein, John McCain and Lindsey Graham who are calling for a no-fly zone.

Former US President Bill Clinton has warned the President against being overly cautious in uncharacteristic blunt terms, saying Obama risks a reputation for being “a wuss” or looking “lame” if he continues to do nothing. He’s compared his friend’s dilemma over Syria with his own in Kosovo when in 1999 he supported NATO action. “Suppose I had let a million people, two million people, be refugees out of Kosovo, a couple of hundred thousand people die, and they say, ‘You could have stopped this by dropping a few bombs, why didn’t you do it?’ And I say, ‘because the House of Representatives voted 75 per cent against it’. You would look like a total wuss and you would be,” Clinton said.

It’s doubtful that President Obama seriously thinks that the distribution of guns, bullets and grenades to the rebel army will be a game-changer, especially in light of the fact the opposition is being equipped with light to medium weapons from other sources. The so-called ‘protector of the free world’ needs to do a lot more than dipping its toes in the water in a surrogate war waged on Syrian soil between the Sunni Arab Nation and its Western partners against a brutal regime actively supported by Iran, Hezbollah and Russia. At stake is Iran’s regional domination that would be bolstered should Al Assad triumph. “This is an Iranian fight. It is no longer a Syrian one. The issue is hegemony in the region,” said Mustafa Alani, Director of Security and Defence at the Gulf Research Council, based in Dubai. Keeping Al Assad in power would allow Iran to consolidate its sphere of influence stretching from Tehran to Beirut via Baghdad and Damascus and embolden Hezbollah to enforce the grip of Iran’s mullahs over Lebanon.

Hezbollah’s leader Hassan Nasrallah has hyped the sectarian aspects of the conflict, saying both Lebanon and Syria face a common threat from radical Sunni Islamists. In reality, burgeoning numbers of young Lebanese moderates, both Sunni and Shi’a, are angry that Hezbollah has turned its guns on their Syrian brothers and sisters while igniting simmering sectarian divisions at home.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) is alert to the above repercussions. It has strongly condemned Hezbollah’s involvement, has pledged to take action against Hezbollah loyalists residing in Gulf States – and has placed Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organisations. Bahrain’s Foreign Minister has described Nasrallah as “a terrorist” and a traitor to his own nation, who must be stopped. The GCC has taken a softly-softly approach on the true villain of the peace, Iran, merely demanding a halt to its interference in its “internal affairs”.

In the meantime all eyes are on Geneva 2, an upcoming conference spearheaded by the US and Russia with the attendance of all major players, to debate the prospect of a binding UN Chapter VII ceasefire. Russia’s Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov has ominously warned that in the event the conference is inconclusive, “nothing but one scenario will remain: war and Syria’s complete destruction.” Given the waste of time that previous Friends of Syria meets have proved to be plus the participants’ widely opposing agendas, nobody aside from the chronically optimistic should hold their breath.

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