Obama’s Syria Policy Protects Assad

By Kyle Orton (@KyleWOrton) on February 22, 2015

Kafranbel gets it

Kafranbel gets it

The United States is about to begin training some Syrian rebels, and giving them the ability to call in U.S. airstrikes, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Defense officials said American trainers will be in place March 1 in Jordan, with a second site due to open soon after in Turkey. …

The first training sessions are to last between six and eight weeks. The training will focus on helping the rebel forces hold territory and counter Islamic State fighters …

After that the U.S. will consider introducing what it is calling ‘the new Syrian force’ onto the battlefield in Syria, officials said.

A team of four to six rebels will each be given a Toyota Hi-Lux pickup, outfitted with a machine gun, communications gear and Global Positioning System trackers enabling them to call in airstrikes. The fighters will also be given mortars, but the administration hasn’t decided to provide the teams with more sophisticated antitank weapons.

The Central Intelligence Agency began a covert program to train and arm moderate Syrian rebels in 2013, providing ammunition, small arms and antitank weapons to small groups of trusted fighters. … [T]hat program continues

Since the announcement that the U.S. was training a moderate army was made—againlast May, it is not encouraging that the U.S. has only “begun screening some rebels,” and that this program only begins next month. The calibre of weaponry on offer here is also evidently not meant to change the balance of power. The weaponry also comes with tight regulation: “the U.S. will have some leverage, including ammunition resupply, stipends paid to the fighters and support from airstrikes.”

The U.S. hopes to have trained 3,000 men by the end of the year but nobody is making any promises. In theory, 5,000 men of “the new Syrian force” will be in the field by the spring of 2016—but this has no chance, at all, of altering the course of the war.

The excuse being made is that these men will be given superior training, and in combination with the airstrikes this will overcome the Islamic State’s numerical superiority. The Islamic State? Isn’t the rebellion, you know, rebelling against Bashar al-Assad? Well, yes it is, but this rebel strike force is “not to take on the Syrian army”—that the U.S. levers of influence are going to be used to ensure it.

The Obama administration is enamoured of its success in Kobani—its four-and-a-half month effort in which 1,600 people died and the U.S. conducted a mere 700 airstrikes. The administration believes that it has unlocked the means of success with a force on the ground that can call in 500- and 2,000-pound guided bombs, the typical load for the B-1s. This proxy-with-air-support model actually is likely to be what undoes the Takfiri Caliphate, but in order to have proxy allies, the U.S. needs to be committed to the removal of the Assad/Iran regime, which is pushing moderate Sunnis—which we need to fight the Islamic State—to look for protection within the Islamic State.

But instead of looking for ways to overthrow Assad, the Obama administration is “wrestling with the question of whether American warplanes would have legal authorization to strike [Bashar al-Assad’s] forces, even to support a U.S.-trained rebel force.” This is being presented as a question where the dreaded lawyers are getting in the way: the U.S. is not at war with Assad, for example, despite having as the official policy his ouster, so the U.S. is powerless to act etc. etc.

To be clear, this means, as I wrote last month:

Obama’s real Syrian “red line” … [is] anything that threatens the survival of the Assad regime, providing the Syrian dictator a de facto U.S. security guarantee.

And it quickly becomes apparent this is not a legal trap the Obama administration is caught in; this is policy. First it is being argued by “[o]fficials” that “expanding the war to the Assad forces could fracture the international coalition gathered to fight Islamic State.” This is sheer piffle: what has split the United States’ allies in the region is the Obama administration’s refusal to organise a serious policy to bring down the dictatorship, which is why America’s allies have taken to freelancing in the country—including Israel, which is now wondering whether the way to prevent Iran opening up another front in the Golan is to take out Assad.

And of course it is Iran that is behind the policy debacle where the Obama administration cannot even figure out if it will defend its own proxy:

More important, U.S. officials have said if the U.S. begins attacking Assad’s forces, the uneasy peace between Iran and the U.S. in Iraq will break down and Iranian-backed militias could begin targeting U.S. forces there.

Iranian leaders have told supporters in Iraq not to attack U.S. bases, but that detente could dissolve if the war in Syria expanded to take on Mr. Assad.

“Because we have a common enemy, a common goal, everybody is moving in the same direction,” said the senior military official. “You cross a redline in Syria, you start to infringe on what Iran sees as its long-term interest and those Shia militias could turn in the other direction.”

There it is in plain language: the U.S. has made its forces and diplomatic personnel in Iraq hostages to Iran; what should be an effort to further U.S. interests and contain the forces of ruin in the region—which very much include Iran—has been turned into a reason for keeping the U.S. as the air force of Bashar al-Assad, the greatest generator of Salafi jihadists and regional instability the Middle East has ever seen.

It was easy to see this. In arguing last month that the Obama administration was trying to make Iran a partner in the region, I noted:

The only thing America appears to have gotten out of this partnership with Iran … is that in early October, the Supreme Leader told Iran’s proxies in Iraq to lay off American troops while they were being Iran’s de facto air force. It seems however that this was contingent on that support continuing: now U.S. officials see U.S. troops, and even Embassy staff, inside Iraq as hostages, who could be targeted if the U.S. did anything to check Iran’s imperial ambitions in the Fertile Crescent. (Obama has done this before: when he put troops in Kuwait, supposedly to contain Iran, they were then used to blackmail Israel that if she did anything to disarm Iran, U.S. troops could be attacked. Instead of a tripwire, the U.S. troops were made willing hostages.) 

Since Obama has extended Assad a U.S. security guarantee, it raises an interesting question of what Obama would do if action by U.S. allies in the region—namely Israel, as the only U.S. ally in the region with force-projection capabilities—threatens Assad’s survival. Would Obama blame Israel if Israel struck again into Syria against Assad and Iran took retribution on America in Iraq?

The train-and-equip program for the Syrian rebels seems to have been undertaken mostly to placate the Saudis, who are convinced Obama will eventually see the light and expand the campaign to include Assad. Time will tell, but Obama’s resolute commitment to his Iran policy makes this unlikely. Syria has been ceded to Iran as a sphere of influence, which means there can be no force that threatens Iran’s proxy regime. Obama has tried to square this circle by having the moderate rebel force focus only on the Islamic State, but Assad has already said this force will be “fought like any other illegal militia“.

The crux question in Syria now is what the Obama administration will do if/when Assad attacks the U.S.-trained rebel army. At that moment the contradictions in the policy will make themselves clear—and a side will have to be chosen: either the rebels or Assad.

In the meanwhile, Iran is publicly revealing that it has told the U.S. to restrain Israel. While the world’s focus has been on the flow of Sunni jihadists into Syria, Israel is dealing directly with Iran having orchestrated a Shi’a jihad that has transferred tens of thousands of Shi’ite foreign fighters into Syria, seizing control of the security sector of the State. Rather than the U.S. trying to counter this movement of globally-focussed terrorists—as it did with the “Khorasan Group“—the U.S. has given Iran a pass, a further indication that the U.S. views Syria as Iran’s. Israel cannot afford an Iranian proxy statelet in the Golan, and has taken action repeatedly in Syria—notably only against Iran’s Resistance Axis; the problem of the Sunni jihadists is seen as potential at this stage. Israel, however, has good reason to fear that Iran’s call will be heeded by the Obama administration. Obama is desperate for a deal on Iran’s nuclear-weapons program—and the U.S. has thrown away all leverage, now having to pay to keep Iran at the table, and making concessions to keep the talks going as Iran gets closer to The Bomb—so it seems likely that pressure will be brought on Israel to accept another Iranian colony on another border.

This is the calamitous pass Obama’s pro-Iran tilt has brought the U.S. to: in a straight contest between the interests of allies and the interests of a foe, America is safeguarding the interests of her enemies.

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