The Blog

Seeing Syria Clearly

Does the administration finally know who the good guys are in Syria?

3:00 PM, Jun 15, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

The Wall Street Journal reports that the White House is helping to coordinate logistics for the Free Syrian Army, but not providing arms. “U.S. intelligence operatives and diplomats have stepped up their contacts with Syrian rebels in part to help organize their burgeoning military operations against President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to senior U.S. officials.”

Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office

This would certainly be promising news—except it is the third time in the last month administration officials have put this rumor forward, and on at least one occasions, officials subsequently walked back the story.

On May 15 the Washington Post reported that, “Syrian rebels … have begun receiving significantly more and better weapons in recent weeks, an effort paid for by Persian Gulf nations and coordinated in part by the United States, according to opposition activists and U.S. and foreign officials.” The next day, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland clarified that the administration had no intention of arming the rebels. As for coordinating arms shipments, presumably from Gulf Arab states like Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Nuland described the White House’s role much more vaguely. “This is a loose coordination mechanism,” she said.

Then on May 24, the AP reported that the “Obama administration is preparing a plan that would essentially give U.S. nods of approval to arms transfers from Arab nations to some Syrian opposition fighters.”

So is the administration already playing a logistical role with the FSA, as the Post reported, contemplating playing one, as the AP claimed, or building toward it, as today’s Journal piece argues? Is the White House doing anything at all besides talking on background about doing something?

Part of the confusion is likely intentional. Obama’s Middle East policy is largely one of extricating the United States from the region and withdrawing from traditional commitments. It seems the last thing the president wants to do, especially in an election year, is commit his prestige to a regional civil war.

On the other hand, there’s growing pressure on the Hill, led by Senator John McCain, to arm the Syrian opposition, and in the wake of the Houla massacre, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney called for the same. With the body count in Syria soaring, it is getting more difficult for the White House to keep bobbing and weaving. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks with the administration’s repeated leaks on national security issues, one way around this dilemma is to let on to the press that even if it seems like the administration is stalled, it’s really doing a lot behind the scenes—thanks to the decisive personal direction of Obama.

At the same time, the White House has been saying for more than a year that it doesn’t know who the opposition inside Syria really is. If, as the Journal piece reports, the administration has been meeting with the FSA for six months, why does it still not know who makes up the Syrian opposition? As Tony Badran explains in his column for NOW Lebanon today, “we've heard senior officials in the Obama administration, from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to UN Ambassador Susan Rice, say that arming the opposition could be tantamount to arming al-Qaeda, since we don't know who this opposition really is.”

U.S. intelligence analysts believe that there may be no “suitable recipients of lethal aid” in the opposition, but more than a year into the uprising, not knowing who the good guys are is no longer a matter of faulty intelligence gathering. Rather, it’s a policy decision disguised as doubt. If Obama wanted to back someone in Syria in order to advance American interests, the U.S. intelligence community would have little trouble finding suitable recipients. It hasn’t because the White House isn’t eager to act. The question is, will moral revulsion at Assad's crimes finally force it off the sidelines?

It’s understandable why a conflict that by some estimates has already cost the lives of more than 14,000 would elicit powerful humanitarian concerns. The Obama administration professes to share those concerns, but perversely concludes that it should therefore avoid arming the opposition, because that would only result in more violence. This is of course true in the short term, but from a strategic as well as a moral perspective what should matter is whether the violence would have the effect of bringing down Assad. In the name of "stopping the violence," the administration threw its weight behind a U.N. ceasefire that was unworkable at first glance, thereby actually guaranteeing that the killing would continue. The ultimate way to stop violence in Syria is to overthrow the regime that foments it.

So in this case, a little grand strategy and attention to U.S interests in the region would actually bring greater moral depth to U.S. policy. We know who the “good guys” (relatively speaking) are. We are allied with Sunni states throughout the region against the Islamic Republic of Iran; by extension the Syrian Sunnis who are taking on Assad, an ally of Iran, are our allies. As Badran explains, a shallow moralism, focused on "violence" has clouded American decision-making and made our policy vulnerable to pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian propaganda (i.e., that Assad's enemies are also violent).

A recent report from a German newspaper contends that it was the opposition, rather than Assad’s forces, that was responsible for the massacre at Houla. On this reading, it wasn’t Sunnis who were killed en masse, but Alawites and other minorities.

The facts are otherwise. As this list of casualties from the Houla killings shows, the dead were Sunnis, with the majority of them coming from one family, Abd el-Razzaq.

An article yesterday at National Review Online helps set the record straight, explaining how the German report is part of a larger information campaign on behalf of the regime, engineered in part by Syria’s Christian community with a very ugly assist by the Vatican’s news agency.

The purpose of this propaganda is obvious. If the White House can’t tell the good guys from the bad guys, here’s information to confuse them further: The really vicious murderers aren’t from the regime but the opposition. It’s worth noting that this particular information operation, claiming that Sunni radicals in the opposition are targeting minorities, comports perfectly with many of the concerns put forth by an administration that says it can’t tell the good guys from the bad.

Most significantly, the White House has been very public about its fear that the opposition may now be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, and that backing the opposition might empower Sunni radicals, including elements of al Qaeda. Subsequently, there’s worry that the Sunnis will target the Christian community and take their vengeance against the Alawites, from whom the ruling Assad regime is drawn. The idea then, now corroborated by this Syrian disinformation campaign, is that the opposition is made up of very bad people. Hence, the White House is confused.

If the Obama administration fears that al Qaeda and other Sunni extremists will dominate the post-Assad political process, then the report that White House intends to coordinate allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to make sure money and arms gets into the right hands is welcome news. The problem is that the administration’s puppet show—the series of stories reporting the same White House plans to coordinate, and then the administration statements walking these plans back—has further obscured the issue when what is needed is clarity.

The United States should be playing the role of the great clarifier—whether its instruments are diplomacy or military support. So far, the Obama administration has only muddied the waters. The other possibility of course is that the administration is just pretending, that it’s not confused, but that it just isn’t going to do anything. If that’s the case, the peculiar result is that the White House has indeed made a strategic decision. In refusing to arm the FSA, Obama has identified who he perceives to be the good guys: compared to the opposition, the Assad regime is preferable.

Recent Blog Posts