Michael Weiss

Magical realism

Jihadist rebels train near Aleppo.

According to Arab diplomatic sources consulted by the London-based Saudi newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, Russia has successfully exploited US fears of extremist infiltration of the Syrian opposition and so Washington is more committed than ever to ensuring the continuity of the very state institutions responsible for wrecking Syria in the first place: the mukhabarat and the military. The idea of even halfheartedly supporting this Arab revolution is over, whatever State Department posturing to the contrary; the “bartering phase” has thus begun.


There’s a good chance that this claim, or some variation of it, is accurate. In the diplomatic arena, all signs point to the West’s quiet efforts to try and lower the temperature of the Syrian opposition down from revolution to reform and to deprive it of long-promised and longer-needed material assistance. Strategically, the immediate aim is to ring-fence a national implosion before it becomes regionally explosive, even at the expense of a humanitarian catastrophe whose butcher’s bill is growing at an exponential rate. The fine print of the latest UN statistics shows that around 5,000 have been killed every month since the siege of Homs last February, whereas “only” 5,000 had been killed in aggregate throughout the first nine months of the conflict, and another 5,000 in the subsequent five months. If Assad does hang on for another year, the monthly death toll could rise dramatically.

Yet Andrew Tabler and Bilal Y. Saab wouldn’t have had to demonstrate the futility of a “negotiated settlement” with the cause of such carnage in their latest Foreign Affairs essay if this argument weren’t gaining prominence in the Washington foreign policy establishment, which is to say gaining an audience in the Obama administration. Many Syrians have maintained from the start of the uprising that rapprochement with Bashar al-Assad was in fact the US prerogative all along; it was just the terms of a deal that were being disputed with Russia and China. Many more Syrians believe this today. Even being seen to legitimate one of the most dogged conspiracy theories of the Arab Spring would certainly alter America’s “standing” in the Middle East.


The point of recognizing the Syrian National Coalition as the “sole legitimate representative” of the Syrian people, after all, was to confer the status of a government-in-exile on the organization and prepare for a transitional body to assume control of the country the day after Assad fell. Ditto Britain and France’s posting of Coalition envoys to replace expelled Syrian ambassadors. Reconciliation, in any form, would render these decisions retroactively as cynical gestures designed to cajole Damascus by way of Moscow and Beijing. It would also lead to the loss of confidence from America’s Gulf allies and Turkey, which have been underwriting the Syrian rebellion from early on not as a bargaining chip but as a sectarian and geopolitical investment. Fear of an American volte-face has prompted some Arab analysts, such as Tariq Alomayed, to advocate a regional Syria policy that bypasses the United States altogether. Leading from behind gives way to not factoring at all.


Whatever the thought experiments and trial balloons coming out of pre-inaugural Washington, the simple fact is this: President Obama, having previously encouraged regime change, cannot now count on the collective suicide of the regime changers. This is what any negotiation with a lupine and remorseless tyrant amounts to, and dynamics on the ground provide even fewer incentives. As Radwan Ziadeh has noted, Assad has already lost his sovereignty over Syria. Far from even qualifying as “president” of the country, Ziadeh wrote, Assad “could be more aptly described as the governor of Damascus and some of its suburbs.” The Free Syrian Army (FSA) currently controls four border-crossings in the north, which have been de facto recognized by the Turkish government, as well as vital arms-smuggling corridors out of Iraq. The FSA has also seized Syrian oil fields and made considerable progress in sacking air bases in order to neutralize or slow the regime’s air war on Idleb and Aleppo. The Taftanaz base, long a transport hub for Fourth Division soldiers, their Iranian helpmeets and shabiha, is now said to be 70 percent under rebel control. FSA reign might extend to as high a percentage of all of Syria. These gains would only be permanently reversible if the West eased sanctions on Syria and stopping trying to obstruct shipments of Russian and Iranian materiel to the regime.


As Guardian columnist Simon Tisdall cleverly diagnosed, the West is today as much detached from reality as Assad was in his deranged speech on Sunday, though Tisdall’s prognosis (he thinks Assad might ultimately win) seems misguided. Still, it is becoming harder to dispute his assessment: “The aim now is not to liberate Syria but to isolate it and quarantine it and to contain the contagion.” Nevertheless, Patriot missile batteries in Kilis and an Israeli security fence built straight across the Golan Heights are not going to stop the influx of some 100,000 refugees per month, or eliminate PKK strongholds in Hasakah, or reduce the simmer on Sunni-Shia conflict in Lebanon, or keep mid-range Iranian rockets from straying over even the best IDF barrier, if it comes to that.


Moreover, as the New York Times disclosed this week, the chemical weapons scare a month ago was delivered to the Pentagon courtesy of Israeli intelligence, which found that Assad had loaded sarin gas into a few 500-pound bombs. (He stopped only after Vladimir Putin thought this might finally prompt Western intervention.) One unnamed US official quoted by the Times said that these ready-made WMD are deployable in “less than two hours.” That’s about two to three hours fewer than previously estimated. How long would it take Tel Aviv to alert Washington that one of those bombs was on board a Sukoi fighter jet en route to Homs, much less to Incirlik or Amman? And what if the wrong rebels, unpersuaded by geopolitical bartering, manage to reach a stockpile on their own? Will the US and its allies intervene on Assad’s behalf to stop them?


There’s another problem to which too little attention is being paid. According to a recent report by the London-based Quilliam Foundation, the al-Qaeda-affiliated jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusra has successfully preyed upon Syrian disillusionment with the West to bolster its own credibility for the long-term objective of establishing a caliphate in the Levant. “They also fear that international intervention would subvert their long-term plan for an Islamist state in Syria,” the report reads. (We wouldn’t want to subvert those plans.) Although Nusra’s operational strategy for the moment is to play down politics and focus on military victories against the regime, its contingent of foreign fighters—and there are entire platoons, or serayas, made up exclusively of Tunisian or Chechen jihadists—won’t necessarily sit still for very long. Noman Benotman, the ex-Islamist co-author of the Quilliam report, and Nada Bakos, an ex-CIA officer, both told CNN that there is a strong likelihood that Nusra will export its activities not just to other countries in the Middle East but also, eventually, to Europe. Just in time for NATO’s withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Judging from President Obama’s zealously scrutinized appointments of former Bashar boosters John Kerry and Chuck Hagel—as well as a new CIA director who believes that there is a “moderate” wing to Hezbollah and that military-aged male drone victims cannot be counted as civilians in Pakistan—the warning signs in Syria probably aren’t enough to persuade more aggressive action. Ironically, the lessons that Kerry and Hagel are said to have learned in Vietnam about America’s inability to sway anti-American guerrilla insurgencies with hard power are now being turned inside-out in the hopes that a once philo-American guerrilla insurgency will somehow prove more pliable with the steady application of soft power.


The chief prescription of Obama’s second term is to use a kind of magical realism whereby US enemies will be ambivalently engaged even when they’re known to be immune to compromise. That same Asharq al-Awsat article I cited above suggested that the purpose of Assad’s speech was to tell uber-reconciliationist UN envoy Lakdar Brahimi to go hang with his peace plan. It also stated that the US is willing to forsake the rebels in exchange for Russia’s renewed assistance on Iran’s nuclear threat.


I can understand how disciples of Henry Kissinger consider it no business of theirs that a bare minimum of 60,000 people are now dead, 2.5 million are internally displaced, 600,000 are exiled, and one million are on the verge of starvation, and that main architect for this pandemic misery is, by his own admission, just getting warmed up. What is remarkable, however, is that those meant to take pride in unsentimentally ensuring global “stability” look with equanimity on the prospect of a Congo on the Mediterranean not getting out of hand.


The White House is at a crossroads in a two-year-long conflict it was late in addressing and uninterested in trying to seriously ameliorate. This might be forgiven if there was some evidence emerging that its plan was other than to observe from a distance, urge forbearance on an anxious opposition, and hope that a state that abuts Iraq, Turkey, Israel, Lebanon and Jordan falls to pieces quietly without bothering the neighbors too much.

Jihadist rebels train near Aleppo. Islamist groups are using Syrian disillusionment with the West to bolster credibility. (AFP photo)

Leading from behind gives way to not factoring at all.

  • Hanibaal-Atheos

    I find it laughable for Mr. Weiss to write this verbose rant blaming the Obama Administration for the obstructionist Russian and Chinese positions on Syria. Pundits itching for new wars in which to enmesh the US should have the decency to wait for the adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan to conclude.

    January 9, 2013