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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Who Do We Arm In Syria?

"People crushed by laws, have no hope but to evade power. If the laws are their enemies, they will be enemies to the law; and those who have most to hope and nothing to lose will always be dangerous." — Edmund Burke

With the IRS and now the NSA scandals dominating the news it appears the civil war in Syria has taken a back seat in the media.

After a three-week siege, the combined forces of Hezbollah and the Assad regime have taken the important crossroads town of Qusayr, which is just south of the even more important city of Homs in east-central Syria. “Whoever controls Qusayr controls the center of the country, and whoever controls the center of the country controls all of Syria,” crowed Syrian brigadier general Yalya Suleiman.

While that boast is as much propaganda as military fact, the capture of Qusayr is a happy moment for Bashar al-Assad — who has had few of them in recent years—and for Iran and its proxy Hezbollah, whose heavy investments in propping up the Syrian dictator appear to be paying off. Indeed, the Iranians “felicitated” Assad on the gain. As well they might, since the Syrian regime is becoming ever more dependent on Tehran; Assad’s army on its own had been unable to retake Qusayr. The specter that looms is nothing less than the near-complete collapse of the U.S. position in the Middle East.

This ought to be a further signal that, despite the predictions of some of the closest students of Arab politics, there is nothing inevitable about the fall ofMideast Syria the House of Assad. Indeed, it may well be that the morale effects of retaking Qusayr prove more important than any tactical gain—although the deployment of large-scale and well-trained Hezbollah forces is also making a difference elsewhere in Syria. If they retake Aleppo, the effect on the Syrian opposition could be crushing. And strategically speaking, the momentum is with Iran. As former Obama State Department adviser Vali Nasr writes:

“[E]vents in Syria are spinning in Iran’s favor. Assad’s regime is winning ground, the war has made Iran more comfortable in its nuclear pursuits, and Iran’s gains have embarrassed U.S. allies that support the Syrian uprising. What’s more, Iran has strengthened its relationship with Russia, which may prove to be the most important strategic consequence of the Syrian conflict, should the U.S. continue to sit it out.”

As top Obama administration officials huddle this week to possibly decide whether to lethally arm Syrian rebels trying to overthrow that country's government, they also must deal with the issue of whether any of the opposition forces can be trusted.

“That’s the $64,000 question,” says Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon official and Middle East expert with the American Enterprise Institute.

The United States has talked for months about the possibility of arming the opposition in Syria’s two-year-old civil war.

However, officials have been reluctant to do so because they don’t want the weapons to get into the hands of Al Qaeda linked fighters or other extremists battling President Bashar Assad’s forces, who now appear to be winning.

Rubin points out the perils the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies face when trying to get information about the players in a multi-front, Middle East war, which occasionally means paying the “bad guys” to vet the good guys.

“They’ll say one thing to your face and do another,” he said.

A Fox News report published on June 10th states:

“The Free Syrian Army has emerged as the group most likely to receive lethal aid. The group, which consists largely of volunteers and defectors from Assad’s military forces, says its only goal is to topple the regime, with no political or religious agenda.

Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain visited Syria a few weeks ago and talked with Free Syrian leaders. But even that effort underscored the challenges faced in arming rebels, as allegations surfaced that a militant had infiltrated the visit.

“It’s a mosaic of religious and ethnic sects,” Jim Phillips, a Middle Eastern affairs expert with the Heritage Foundation, said recently. “As the so-called Arab Spring continues, the groups that rise up and try to overthrow governments in the region are also divided by ideological differences.”

Secretary of State John Kerry postponed a planned trip Monday to Israel and three other Mideast countries to participate in the White House discussions, said officials who demanded anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly on the matter.

The meetings now take on a heightened sense of urgency as Assad's forces are apparently poised for an attack on the key city of Homs, which could cut off Syria's armed opposition from the south of the country.

As many as 5,000 Hezbollah fighters are now in Syria, officials believe, helping the regime press on with its campaign after capturing the town of Qusair near the Lebanese border last week.

While nothing has been concretely decided, U.S. officials said President Obama is leaning closer to signing off on sending weapons to vetted, moderate rebel units, if possible.

Obama already has ruled out any intervention that would require U.S. forces on the ground. Other options such as deploying American air power to ground the regime's jets, gunships and other aerial assets are now being more seriously debated, the officials said, while cautioning that a no-fly zone or any other action involving U.S. military deployments in Syria were far less likely right now.

Such U.S. allies as Britain, France and Israel show no immediate desire to provide lethal aid. But if there is a consensus about who not to arm, it would be the Al-Nusra Front.

Though experienced in guerilla warfare and effective against Assad forces, Al-Nusra is a known terrorist group that the United Nations Security Council recently declared a front for Al Qaeda in Iraq.

Obama also has declared chemical weapons use by the Assad regime a "red line" for more forceful U.S. action. American allies including France and Britain have said they've determined with near certainty that Syrian forces have used low levels of sarin in several attacks, but the administration is still studying the evidence. The U.S. officials said responses that will be mulled over in this week's meetings concern the deteriorating situation on the ground in Syria, independent of final confirmation of possible chemical weapons use.

White House spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan said Obama's advisers were considering all options to hasten a transition in Syria.”

Any intervention could have wide-reaching ramifications for the United States and the region. It would bring the U.S. closer to a conflict that has killed almost 80,000 people since Assad cracked down on protesters inspired by the Arab Spring in March 2011 and sparked a war that has since been increasingly defined by sectarian clashes between the Sunni-led rebellion and Assad's Alawite-dominated regime.”

“But Assad's military successes appear to have rendered peace efforts largely meaningless in the short term. While Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov have been trying to rally support for the planned conference in Geneva -- first envisioned for May and since postponed until July at the earliest -- even America's allies in the Syrian opposition leadership have questioned the wisdom of sitting down for talks while they are ceding territory all over the country to Assad's forces.

Beyond weapons support for the rebels, administration officials harbor deep reservations about other options.

They note that a no-fly zone, championed by hawks in Congress such as McCain, would require the U.S. to first neutralize Syrian air defense systems that have been reinforced with Russian technology and are far stronger than those that Libyan dictator Muammar al-Qaddafi had before he was overthrown in 2011.

And Washington has no clear international mandate for authorizing any strikes inside Syria, a point Obama administration officials have cited since late 2011 to explain U.S. reticence about more forceful action.”

It has gone unreported on the mainstream media that we now have 5,000 Marines in Lebanon. The Pentagon totally pinky-swears that this has nothing to do with Syria. It just happens to have sent 5,000 troops to neighboring Jordan to participate in a nine-day “air defense, disaster relief and humanitarian assistance exercise”, dubbed Eager Lion.

While the Pentagon says this round of the annual exercise — involving thousands of participants from 19 countries — has been in the works for years, the timing is awfully convenient. The fighting in Syria has started to spill over that nation's borders into Lebanon and Israel. Meanwhile, Congress is continuing to pressure the White House to do something to aid the Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime who has been helped by a recent influx of fighters from Hezbollah.

Earlier this spring, the Pentagon sent several hundred "headquarters" troops from the 1stArmored Division at Fort Bliss, Texas, to Jordan to assist U.S. and other NATO troops there in trying to figure out how to secure the Assad regime's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons should they fall out of the Syrian government's hands.

These headquarters troops are now joined in the desert by members of theeagerlionlcac 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit, a host of U.S. Navy amphibious warfare ships, Patriot air defense missile batteries — also from Fort Bliss — and F-16 fighter jets from the Colorado Air National Guard.

All of these troops are in Jordan to demonstrate the U.S.'s commitment "to the Kingdom of Jordan and regional partners and the combined efforts to sustain regional security and stability," reads a Pentagon press release on the exercise.

"Eager Lion is an excellent example of teamwork that brings together military forces and inter-agency partners from around the world," said Maj. Gen. Robert Catalanotti, Director, USCENTCOM Exercises and Training in the announcement. "This exercise challenges the participants to respond to realistic, modern-day security scenarios by integrating a variety of disciplines in the air, on land and at sea. Our relationship with Jordan and the 19 partner nations involved in the exercise is built on a foundation of interoperability that brings us closer together and enhances regional stability."

So yeah, this exercise is focused on maintaining stability — just what the war in Syria threatens.

This air defense and humanitarian relief exercise features units that could make life difficult for Assad's air force. The 2,200 Marine-strong 26th MEU, like the six other MEUs in the Marine Corps is basically a self-contained, seagoing crisis response force equipped with everything from an infantry battalion to MV-22 Osprey tilt-rotors and the support staff to back them up. A Patriot missile launcher system is pictured at a Turkish military base in Gaziantep on February 5, 2013. The United States, Germany and the Netherlands committed to send two missile batteries each and up to 400 soldiers to operate them after Ankara asked for help to bolster its air defences against possible missile attack from Syria. AFP PHOTO/BULENT KILICBULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty ImagesMeanwhile, those F-16s from the Colorado Air Guard's 120th Fighter Squadron specialize in keeping enemy aircraft and missiles on the ground — during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the 120th dropped hundreds of smart bombs knocking out Saddam Hussein's ballistic missiles.  While the Marines may simply be passing through Jordan, for the exercise that's supposed to last from June 9 through the 20th, the Patriot missiles and fighters may stick around for a while, providing a hedge against increased aggression by the Syrian government's air force.

This is the most recent in a series of multinational exercises that started in 2011, and while I believe that a broad range of capabilities are tested during this protracted training exercise, it's hard not to conclude that at least some aspects of the exercise (particular those focusing on humanitarian assistance, chemical warfare mitigation, and missile defense) were written into the script because of ongoing developments in Syria."

On the other side of the issue two suicide bombings hit central Damascus during rush hour today, killing 14 people and wounding at least 30 others. According to Syrian state media, the explosions hit near a police station in the commercial district of Marjeh Square. However, the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that one suicide bomber detonated the explosive device inside the police station. The square has been the site of several attacks since the beginning of the uprisings, including a bombing six weeks ago that killed 13 people. However, residents of the area say the city center has been quieter since Assad's forces overtook Qusayr and began a counteroffensive pushing rebel forces from the Damascus suburbs. Meanwhile, the Syrian Army launched several attacks on opposition positions in the northern Aleppo province today two days after announcements that the regime was planning an offensive against rebel strongholds in the region. Syrian forces reportedly shelled parts of the Mannagh air base a day after opposition fighters took its radar tower. The recently weakened opposition position has added challenges for the United States as officials again consider military options on Syria. The United States has been working with Russia to plan a peace conference in Geneva. However, the head of the Syrian opposition's military wing, General Salim Idris said in an interview on Friday that the opposition had been so weakened that it would have minimal leverage in peace talks. Because of that, he said opposition representatives wouldn't attend a conference unless they were provided with additional weapons and ammunition.


The question is has Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed terror organization, bitten off more than it can chew in Syria? Could the transnational terror group have fond its own Viet Nam in backing Alawite dictator Assad? Michael Young, writing in Now, makes the case:

“Hezbollah’s deepening involvement in the Syrian war is a high-risk venture. Many see this as a mistake by the party, and it may well be. Qusayr will be small change compared to Aleppo, where the rebels are well entrenched and benefit from supply lines leading to Turkey. In the larger regional rivalry between Iran and Turkey, the Turkish army and intelligence services have an interest in helping make things very difficult for Hezbollah and the Syrian army in northern Syria, particularly after the car-bomb attack in Reyhanli in May.

Many will be watching closely to see how the current crisis in Turkey affects Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ability to react to the Syrian situation, particularly if the epicenter of the fighting shifts to Aleppo. Erdogan has faced the displeasure among many in Turkey’s southern border areas with their government’s policy in Syria. At the same time, a defeat of the Syrian rebels in and around Aleppo is not something that Turkey can easily swallow so near to its borders, particularly if Hezbollah is instrumental in the fighting.

Hezbollah is willing to take heavy casualties in Syria, if this allows it to rescue the Assad regime. The real question is what time frame we are talking about, and how this affects the party’s vital interests elsewhere. For now, Hezbollah has entered Syria with no exit strategy. The way in which Hassan Nasrallah framed the intervention indicates that it is open-ended. This will prompt other parties to take actions and decisions they might otherwise have avoided for as long as the Syrian conflict was primarily one between Syrians.

Hezbollah is already a magnet for individuals and groups in Syria keen to take the air out of the region’s leading Shiite political-military organization - or simply to protect their towns and villages. As Qusayr showed, the presence of Hezbollah only induces its enemies to fight twice as hard against the party. As a proxy of Iran, Hezbollah will prompt governments to do the same, and they will see an opportunity to wear down the party and trap it in a grinding, no-win situation.

Playing in the favor of Hezbollah’s enemies is that the party has little latitude to alter its strategy in Syria. It must go all the way, predisposing it to sink ever-deeper into the Syrian quagmire, or until the point where the Syrian regime and pro-regime militias can capture and control territory on their own. That is not easy in a guerrilla war in which rebels have often out-matched the army.”

Hezbollah is also taking fire from one of its former leaders as reported in the Jerusalem Post:

“Former Hezbollah Secretary-General Subhi al-Tufayli criticized the Lebanese organization's military intervention in the Syrian civil war in an interview with Al Arabiya News aired on Friday.

"Hezbollah’s project as a resistance party that works to unify the Islamic world has fallen," Tufayli lamented, criticizing current Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah's decision to challenge Sunni Muslims to fight against the Shi'ite militia group.

Tufayli noted that Hezbollah has "provoked the whole world" and started a sectarian war that "opened the door for a ferocious period of sedition.”  

I am sure with 5,000 U.S. military assets stationed in Jordan Samantha Power, Obama’s appointee as Ambassador to the UN and architect of our intervention into Libya, will be chaffing at the bit to get the UN and United States involved in the Syrian civil war.

Power, a former Harvard professor known for lecturing U.S. government officials to do more to stop international violence, ran the White House’s Office of Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights until March of 2013. She was also appointed in April 2012 by the president to chair a newly-formed Atrocities Prevention Board. Power’s book “A Problem from Hell, America and the Age of Genocide” even won a Pulitzer Prize.

Now the Obama administration is considering resettling some refugees who have escaped war-torn Syria in the United States, a development first reported by the Los Angeles Times on Sunday and later confirmed by the State Department.

According to the Times, the resettlement of the refugees would be “part of an international effort that could bring thousands of Syrians to American cities and towns.”

The Times reports [emphasis added]:

“A resettlement plan under discussion in Washington and other capitals is aimed at relieving pressure on Middle Eastern countries straining to support 1.6 million refugees, as well as assisting hard-hit Syrian families.

The State Department is “ready to consider the idea,” an official from the department said, if the administration receives a formal request from the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Refugees, which is the usual procedure.

The United States usually accepts about half the refugees that the U.N. agency proposes for resettlement. California has historically taken the largest share, but Illinois, Florida, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia are also popular destinations.”

UN, government and non-governmental representatives are meeting this week in Geneva to discuss the resettlement options, according to the Times.

State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked for details about the resettlement plan at the department’s Monday briefing.

“Well, let me first say the preferred solution for the vast majority of refugees is to return home once it is safe. We are in close contact with the UN on the need for resettlement of refugees from countries of first asylum throughout the world,” Psaki said.

According to Reuters the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR said today it was talking to Germany about resettling up to 10,000 Syrian refugees.

“The United States accepts more UN-referred refugees than all other countries combined, and we are aware, and we would — and the UN is aware that the U.S. would consider any individuals referred to us to have been determined to be in need of resettlement. So we are prepared to respond if asked, and will encourage other resettlement countries to do the same,” she added.Syrian-Refugees-Lebanon-AP-620x411

While she wouldn’t specify the number of Syrian refugees the U.S. would be willing to resettle, she explained that Congress caps the number of refugees at 70,000 in total.

Though the refugee problem is a serious humanitarian issue – with most having fled to neighboring Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey — moving some of them to the U.S. would create challenges. First, how to vet applicants from a country where so many jihadi and al Qaeda activists are present. Secondly, would the lure of possible entry to the U.S. encourage other Syrians to leave their country, further straining their neighbors’ generosity and resources?

As the L.A. Times reports, “Two resettled Iraqis were convicted of trying to send arms to Al Qaeda from their home in Bowling Green, Ky.”

The L.A. Times describes political challenges as well:

“Congress strongly resisted accepting Iraqi refugees, including interpreters who had worked with U.S. forces, after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Most lawmakers share White House caution about getting more engaged in Syria and may have little appetite for a major influx.

But Susan Rice, President Obama’s new national security advisor, and Samantha Power, Obama’s nominee for U.S. ambassador to the U.N., both have been strong advocates for refugees. They may make the White House more receptive to at least a partial opening.”

The L.A. Times points out that the Department of Homeland Security requires “careful vetting of refugees, with multiple interviews and background checks before they are allowed to enter the country.” That process, “under normal circumstances,” can take a year or more.

By now it is a pretty well-known fact that Ambassador Chris Stevens was involved in a gun-running program to the Syrian rebels. With the pressure of 80,000 dead in the Syrian civil war, advisors like Samantha Power, and the scandals involving the IRS, DOJ and NSA Obama will be more inclined to change the focus to Syria. After all he has the support on John McCain.

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