The Blog

Total Collapse

The administration’s Syria policy represents a total collapse of the declared U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and should leave power.

5:10 PM, Mar 1, 2012 • By LEE SMITH
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

For some reason, all of this appears lost on the president’s staff, now seemingly surprised to find al Qaeda operating on ground that the regime made safe for Sunni terrorism. The White House has not presented evidence that the organization is responsible for recent attacks in Damascus and Aleppo, but only contends that they bear, in Clapper's words, the "earmarks" of al Qaeda operations. What neither Clapper nor Clinton has noted is that the attacks also bear a resemblance to past al Qaeda efforts inside Syria that were likely managed by Syrian security services. The purpose of these operations was to show that Syria and the United States shared the same problem—i.e., Sunni extremists—and therefore Washington should embrace the Assad regime as a valued ally.

For instance, the 2006 attack on the U.S. embassy in Damascus, which ended in a shootout between Syrian security forces and militants from Jund al-Sham, is virtually inconceivable without the complicity of Syrian intelligence. The embassy is located in a highly secure area with limited access to large vehicles like the one that transported Jund al-Sham fighters to the entrance of the embassy compound.

The same tight security regime applies to the two sites, the state security administration building and a military security complex, targeted in a twin suicide bombing attack on December 23 in the Damascus district of Kafarsouseh. As Michael Weiss points out in a timely study, “Is Al-Qaida in Syria?”: “In order to reach either of these locations,” Weiss explains, “one has to pass through multiple checkpoints and, if one is driving, mandatory vehicle searches. One also requires security clearance and the relevant permits.”

It’s quite possible that al Qaeda is operating in Syria independently of the Assad regime and at war with it. However, in claiming without evidence that al Qaeda has infiltrated the Free Syrian Army, the Obama administration is advancing the Assad regime’s propaganda campaign.

2. Strength of the Syrian army

Israeli analyst Eyal Zisser concurs with Clinton that the opposition is overmatched in terms of firepower. “The Syrian army,” he writes, “which still stands behind al-Assad, could fight back. It is a strong and powerful army.”

With 600,000 men under arms and a fairly formidable, mostly Russian-supplied arsenal, the Syrian army seems to impress American policymakers as well as analysts. However, the Syrian opposition refers to this ragtag band of Assad loyalists as jaysh abu shahhata— or the “army of the sandals,” referring to its shoddy equipment and lack of discipline.

Like Zisser, many analysts, and presumably administration staffers, see the state of the Syrian army as one of the telltale signs of the state of the uprising. They note that since there have been relatively few defections, not least because deserters are being shot, the army is still relatively whole. The reality is that the Syrian army units that the regime can still trust represent a tiny fraction of 600,000.

The key statistic here is not men under arms, but the sectarian composition of the country itself. Roughly 12 percent is Alawite while the majority of the country, upwards of 60 percent, is Sunni Arab. Some analysts have added other minority sects to the strength of the regime, including Christians, another 10 percent of the population, as well as other heterodox Shia sects, like the Ismailis and Druze, but not all of them are fighting on behalf of Assad.

For instance, back in January Lebanese Druze leader Walid Jumblatt advised Syrian Druze soldiers not to participate any longer in the regime’s repression of their fellow Syrians. “We must avoid being part of an axis against the majority,” Jumblatt said, “in order to avoid future political repercussions.” In other words, it is foolish for a minority population to take up arms on behalf of a losing cause against the Sunni majority. “Popular memory,” Jumblatt warned his co-religionists across the border, “has no mercy.”

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 19 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers