May 11, 2012

Syria - we're not even "leading from behind"

Two bombs killed 55 and wounded over 300 in Damascus (SANA)

Despite America's ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice's protestations to the contrary, the Kofi Annan ceasefire plan for Syria has failed. It was doomed to fail from the start - Bashar al-Asad has no reason to step down. He has effectively used his military, intelligence and security forces to suppress the opposition, and is doing so with impunity because he has correctly assessed that foreign military intervention is highly unlikely.

The world is watching to see what happens next. Will there be a Libya-style operation to protect Syrian civilians from the military onslaught being waged in several cities? Will a coalition of Arab and Western nations begin to provide effective covert support to the opposition, providing the three things needed for a successful insurgency - money, weapons and training? Or will there be a series of increasingly harsh economic sanctions imposed on the country - I mean real sanctions, not the laughable European Union cutoff of luxury goods to the al-Asad family? (See my earlier article, EU luxury sanctions against Syria - is the best you can do?) I am not sanguine that anything is in works.

Why not? Simple. The Russians and the Chinese will not support real action against Syria, and the Obama Administration is too focused on its upcoming tight re-election campaign. It has adopted a very passive observer role, hoping that others will solve the problem, much like the role we have seen this Administration take in regards to the Iranian nuclear issue. Ignore it and hope it either goes away when Tehran announces its nuclear weapons capability, or condemn the Israelis when they attempt to destroy the program.

In the case of Syria, the Administration has put its stock in several "other people's solutions." There is the doomed-from-the-start Annan initiative that virtually no one who knows anything about Syria (and I do not include Kofi Annan in that group) thought would succeed. Under that plan, about a third of the 300 unarmed UN military observers are in Syria.

Since the beginning of the Annan "ceasefire," over 1000 Syrians have died, including 55 in a car bomb attack in a section of Damascus that is home to a major intelligence facility. The facility in the al-Qazzaz neighborhood, located at the intersection of the Airport Road and the Southern Bypass, is pretty heavily guarded - I could never get near it. Now we see Syrian crowds demonstrating against the UN observers.

Then there is the hope that at some point new-again Russian President Vladimir Putin will renounce his staunch support for Bashar al-Asad and support tough United Nations measures. It does not appear this is going to happen. Putin just announced that he will forgo the U.S.-hosted Group of Eight meetings - not exactly an indicator of impending cooperation with the leading nations of the world.

If the Administration is hoping that NATO or European nations are about to form a coalition and militarily intervene in Syria, they are going to be disappointed. France, who took the lead in forming a coalition for last year's military operations against Libya's armed forces, has undergone a major political change. A new president, a socialist, will take office in mid-May and has already announced plans to withdraw French troops two years early from its NATO commitment in Afghanistan. To think a President Hollande is going to commit French forces to Syria is a bit naive.

If the Administration is hoping that the Syrian opposition will somehow gel into an organization with the capability to stand up to the al-Asad regime backed by tanks, artillery and air power, I assess that without external assistance, it is only a matter of time before the government forces prevail. That's a polite way of saying that there will be a bloodbath - the Syrian regime is not known for restraint when it comes to its own survival in power.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta stated that the Pentagon has a series of contingency plans to intervene if ordered to do so by the President. The plans reportedly include establishment of safe areas as well as an air assault on Syrian military forces. That's all well and good, but the planning is useless to the Syrian opposition if the President does not give the orders.

The Gulf States, the Europeans and most importantly, the Syrian people are looking for some kind of American leadership. In Libya, we adopted the nonsensical "leading from behind" construct. It Syria, we are not leading at all.