By Steve Hynd
The CSMonitor's Nicholas Blanford today writes that "diplomats and analysts say Western and Arab officials are mulling an option of military support for the rebel Free Syrian Army," the Sunni main opposition to Assad's Shiite regime. Despite the continued shelling of the Sunni stronghold city of Homs by Syrian government forces, now into its fifth day, the UNSC vetoes of China and Russia as well as military appreciation that Syria is not like Libya seems to have taken a "colaition of the willing" direct intervention off the table. Blanford quotes Andrew Exum of the CNAS think-tank in Washington, a group acknowledged as a primary driver of the Obama administration's foreign and military thinking.
�The Syrians will almost certainly resist any intrusion into their sovereignty, so to execute either a NFZ [no-fly zone] or safe haven would mean a fairly extensive air war to reduce Syrian air defenses,� Exum says. �We should also note that any such air operations would take place in some of the most militarily and politically sensitive air space on Earth.�
Syria has an aging but extensive air defense network provided by Russia, along with the bulk of its other weaponry. It's military is five times larger than Libya's. Both Hillary Clinton and the UK's William Hague have explicitly ruled out direct military action for now.
It may be that the West is already funneling both weapons and trainers to the FSA's rebels. Two days ago Borzou Daragahi, the Middle East and North Africa correspondent for the Financial Times, tweeted: "Wow - Misurata revolutionaries announce combat deaths of three #Libyan fighters in #Syria". That would seem to at least partially substantiate Philip Giraldi's report back in December (well in advance of any UNSC vote) that:
Unmarked NATO warplanes are arriving at Turkish military bases close to Iskenderum on the Syrian border, delivering weapons from the late Muammar Gaddafi�s arsenals as well as volunteers from the Libyan Transitional National Council who are experienced in pitting local volunteers against trained soldiers, a skill they acquired confronting Gaddafi�s army. Iskenderum is also the seat of the Free Syrian Army, the armed wing of the Syrian National Council. French and British special forces trainers are on the ground, assisting the Syrian rebels while the CIA and U.S. Spec Ops are providing communications equipment and intelligence to assist the rebel cause, enabling the fighters to avoid concentrations of Syrian soldiers.
However, Assad has friends that Libya did not have, namely Russian and China, who have interests in Syria that they can exercise, whereas they did not have the ability to project force in Libya nor supply the regime at reasonable costs. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov has said that Assad is ready to negotiate with the rebels but few believe Assad really means it - especially since the shelling of Homs continues - and in any case the rebels are standing firm on their call for regime change. Thus the stage is set for a protracted proxy war between the West and Russia, which has a major naval base in Syria it will not want to give up.
It also sets up a direct confrontation between Shiites and Sunnis in the region, with the neo-whatever eternal bugbear Iran sitting in the background as a clear target. The neocon Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) think tank in particular is being especailly vocal on Syria right now, hoping to drive Western policy towards a showdown with Tehran. They are talking up the FSA:
�I believe the FSA is now one of the drivers of the situation. It is going to shape the outcome,� says Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and author of a new briefing paper on the FSA. �It has changed the nature of the conflict with the regime, is becoming increasingly identified with the popular opposition within Syria, has shown resilience on the battlefield, and is growing in capabilities and numbers.�
turning the FSA into a coherent military force will require �coordinated action by the intelligence services of a coalition of the willing,� says Jeffrey White, a military analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
The FSA, he says, would need an assured supply of arms and ammunition, especially anti-tank missiles, secured means of communication, advice on how to coordinate operations across different regions of Syria, intelligence on Syrian Army operations and vulnerable military infrastructure.
�The intelligence services of the US, the UK, France, Turkey, Jordan, and other states in the region have the know-how and capabilities to do these kinds of things,� Mr. White says. �It would be important to have cooperation from one or more of the states bordering Syria, especially Turkey, in order to establish base facilities, training camps, supply routes and infiltration routes.�
It's a dangerous route to take.
�Syria is already an arena for proxy competition between Saudi Arabia and its allies and [rival] Iran and its allies,� says Aram Nerguizian, a military analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and author of a report published in December on the risks of military intervention in Syria. �Anything that would involve direct Western intervention would be deeply destabilizing at the regional level.�
Of course, destabilizing the region has long been the neocon answer to the Middle East - as long as it doesn't include Israel. Their stated theory is that a shake-up will mean the emergence of democratic states more friendly to the U.S. Thus WINEP and others advocating covert arming of the rebels have both regime change and crippling Iran in mind when they do so.
"In Syria [sectarian identity] is there. All you have to do is scratch the surface," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria specialist with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and author of a book on Syria under the presidency of Mr. Assad. "Until now, I don't think you have seen a tremendous amount of organizing along sectarian lines.... But it is natural that the main divide is going to be between Alawites and other Shiite off-shoots versus Sunnis."
Already US, British and French leaders are busy setting up a new coalition of the willing with their autocratic Saudi and Gulf allies, satirically named "friends of democratic Syria", to build up the opposition and drive Assad from power.
Intervention is in fact already taking place. The Saudis and Qataris are reported to be funding and arming the opposition. The Free Syrian Army has a safe haven in Turkey. Western special forces are said to be giving military support on the ground. And if that fails, the UN can be bypassed by invoking the "responsibility to protect" civilians, along Libyan lines.
But none of that will stop the killing. It will escalate it. That is the clear lesson of last year's Nato intervention in Libya.
...The overthrow of the Syrian regime would be a serious blow to Iran's influence in the Middle East. And as the conflict in Syria has escalated, so has the western-Israeli confrontation with Iran. Even as US defence secretary Leon Panetta and national intelligence director James Clapper acknowledged that Iran isn't after all "trying to build a nuclear weapon", Panetta has let it be known there is a "strong likelihood" Israel will attack Iran as early as April, while Iran faces crippling EU oil sanctions over its nuclear programme.
Western intervention in Syria � and Russia and China's opposition to it � can only be understood in that context: as part of a proxy war against Iran, which disastrously threatens to become a direct one.
To WINEP and many others calling for intervention by proxy in Syria, greater sectarian conflict and a possible confrontation with Iran are features, not bugs. The former head of Mossad took to the NY Times yesterday to proclaim that "Getting Iran booted out of Syria is essential for Israel�s security" and "The current standoff in Syria presents a rare chance to rid the world of the Iranian menace".
There are without doubt some serious and genuine advocates of the "Responsibility to Protect" doctrine who are allying themselves with the regime-changers over Syria, but they are few and far between.