Wednesday, October 3, 2012

NuffSilence on US Policy in Syria: Let 'Em Bleed?

I'm a great admirer of NuffSilence (@NuffSilence), who blogs and tweets about Syria.   He is always principled and insightful, sometimes brilliant, often witty.   I would never question his judgement on Syria, but I am less confident about his judgement on the US.   He believes that the US has not helped the Syrian resistance because it prefers to let it bleed:
As long as the crisis in Syria can attract the funding and the willing Salafi fighters of the region, divert their effort from other crisis areas where they can disturb American interests, why not?

Why not allow this to go on, let the guys have their fight endlessly with ridiculously primitive weapons against the superior but gradually flailing power of the regime. Why not let the crisis go on until it exhausted both the Jihadis and the regime. Let the regime get weaken rather than fall with a knock-down.
I'm disputing this because it may be useful to have an accurate understanding of American non-policy on Syria.  I believe nuffsilence's analysis is doubtful for the following reasons.

First, one must distinguish between the pathetic idiots in the US Congress and the pathetic weaklings in the US executive branch, where foreign policy is conducted.   The policy-makers don't know much, but they do know a little.   They know not only the difference between Islamists and Salafis, but also between Salafis and 'Al Qaeda' in its many incarnations.   Unlike Congress, they know these 'jihadis' are not the Al Qaeda of 9-11, and therefore haven't a strong motive to base their Syria policy on any such assumption.

Second, if they were terribly frightened of the 'Jihadis' or Salafis in Syria, they certainly wouldn't want them armed and financed.   That wouldn't really be to repeat their mistake in Afghanistan in the 1980s, but it would be close enough.  The Obama administration would see a grave domestic disadvantage in countenancing the financing of 'Jihadi terror'.   That would add to their already substantial embarrassment at being allied with the Saudis (notorious for their backing of 'jihad').   And this embarrassment matters more than Syrian lives, more even than their position in the Middle East, because it would hurt their standing with the American electorate.   It can never be over-emphasized:   Americans don't really care about foreign policy and certainly not about foreign countries or their inhabitants.   Saudi financing of 'jihadis' would not be seen in foreign policy terms but as a domestic issue:  is the President tough on terror?   The President cares more about this domestic issue than he does about Syria.

Third, the Americans are highly unlikely to place bets on the 'jihadis' bleeding out.   Why would they?   On the contrary, for America, and perhaps even in reality, fundamentalist terrorism is extremely resilient.   Indeed Americans believe that the Arab or Muslim world harbors literally millions of discontented young men just dying to participate in 'Jihad', not to mention hundreds of billionaire Arabs only too happy to finance them from bottomless coffers.   All this militates against the idea that the US would adopt a bleed-them-out strategy.

Fourth, there is no evidence that the US does or ever has adopted such an approach.   It did not do so in Libya, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, nor anywhere else.   Sure, American policymakers might have a new idea.  But when they do,  at this level of generality, they have never been discrete about it.  Their changes in policy have been accompanied by endless 'analyses'  touting the flavor of the month, be it building democracy or war on terror or neoliberalism or neoconservatism.    Yet bleed-'em-dry is nowhere to be found.

Fifth, supposing the US did want to adopt such an approach, it wouldn't do so in a country that borders Lebanon, Israel and Iraq.  The Americans are far too worried about destabilisation, which in their fevered imagination would provide even more opportunities for 'jihadis', and even more occasion for arms to fall into extremist hands.

Finally, the reasons behind US policy are clear, and depressing.   For anything larger than a Grenada-scale military action, the US has always wanted one of two things - international approval or the invitation of a sovereign government, however illegitimate (e.g., Vietnam).   Until recently, the US has been able to obtain this diplomatic fig leaf virtually on demand.  Even in Kosovo they could claim to be implementing a UN resolution and reacting to events condemned by the UN Security Council.    In Syria, for the first time, the US encountered direct, explicit and decisive opposition to UN involvement.   This means that large-scale intervention, in the air as well as on the ground, is out of the question.   Only if Turkey or Israel invoke defense treaty violations can anything happen.

So all that remains is to supply, semi-covertly, arms.    The US may have some hand in backing GSA supplies of these arms, but this extends only to pretty useless, lightweight stuff, and inadequate supplies of ammunition.   What the US will not countenance, under any circumstances whatever, is giving the FSA what it needs, namely advanced anti-tank and anti-aircraft shoulder-fired missiles (MANPADs).   And the reason is simple:  the US is utterly terrified that such weapons end up being used in attacks on Americans, on Israel, or on any sort of civilian aviation, anywhere.

This is what lies behind all the bogus talk about 'needing to know who we're dealing with' and, more recently, 'unity'.   A few days ago, a news story gave the game away.  It had to do with, allegedly, why the Qataris were not shippng arms to the Syrian opposition:
"They were very clear that we needed to get organised and present a proper plan," said one opposition leader present at the talks, who gave the nom-de-guerre, Abu Mohsin.
"The Qataris were concerned because they had not been able to get back a lot they gave to the Libyan [rebels] and they did not want the same situation to happen in Syria.
"The Qataris said that the Americans were very worried about this happening again."
What this says is that the Qataris are not big fans of unity because they care whether the Syrian opposition lives or dies.   They're fans of unity because they absolutely have to get all the good unused stuff back when it's all over.   The 'unity' ploy, so widely used, is an excuse for doing nothing: Qatar knows damn well that the FSA cannot and will not 'unify' into a conventional force, let alone one so 'trustworthy' that it can guarantee that what will become of its weapons in some indeterminate future.  Nor would this be as wonderful as claimed:  a united movement would have a command detached from all-important local, immediate realities, and its strategic decisions would not necessarily produce a better result than what's happening right now.

One has to conclude that the US is dead set against sending serious weaponry, either directly or indirectly.   Its intention isn't to bleed anyone dry; it is to keep weapons out of the hands of terrorists.   It knows the FSA isn't terrorist and it knows it can, by picking the recipients, have some imperfect assurance that the weapons won't fall into the hands of terrorists.  It doesn't care;. It wants an absolute certainty it knows it can't have.  It goes without saying that the Europeans are too timid to do anything without the US.

The implications of this may be useful.   There really is no point trying to assure the West that the FSA is moderate, scrupulous, or anything else.   There is  no point trying to please the West in any way, much less tailoring strategy to that end.   And perhaps there is some point in making this clear to the West.  Perhaps that will make the West understand to what extent they have alienated and infuriated tbe Syrian opposition.   Maybe, just maybe,  the fears that engenders will outweigh the fears of supporting the FSA.

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