Originally published at Rubin Reports.
While far too late, the Obama administration may be adopting a sensible policy on Syria. The strategy, however, is unlikely to succeed. Oh, and there is also a very important clue—I think the key to the puzzle—about what really happened in Benghazi.
Let’s begin with Syria. As U.S. officials became increasingly worried about the visible Islamist domination of the Syrian opposition—which their own policies had helped promote—they have realized the horrible situation of creating still another radical Islamist regime. (Note: This column has been warning of this very point for years.)
So the response is to try to do two things. The first is to train, with Jordanian cooperation, a more moderate force of Free Syrian Army (FSA) units. The idea is to help the non-Islamists compete more effectively with the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafist, and especially al-Qaeda (Jabhat al-Nusra group) affiliated units.
The second is supposedly to create a buffer zone along Syria’s borders with Jordan and perhaps later Israel and even Iraq in order to avoid the conflict spilling over—i.e., cross-border jihad terror attacks—to those countries. According to the Washington Post:
The last thing anyone wants to see is al-Qaeda gaining a foothold in southern Syria next to Israel. That is a doomsday scenario,” said a U.S. diplomat in Jordan who was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject.
Someone has also figured out that it isn’t a great idea to have a border with Iraq controlled by Syrian Sunni Muslim terrorist Islamists allied with the Sunni terrorists in Iraq who killed so many Americans. Well, might someone not have thought about that a year or two ago? Because, while nothing could have been more obvious there was no step taken to prevent this situation happening.
I should point out an important distinction. The problem is not merely al-Qaeda gaining a foothold but also other Salafists or the Muslim Brotherhood doing so. That, however, is not how the Obama administration thinks. For it, al-Qaeda is evil; the other Salafists somewhat bad; and the Muslim Brotherhood good.
What are the problems here? As so often happens with Western-formulated clever ideas to deal with the Middle East, there are lots of them:
–The United States has stood aside or even helped arm the Islamists through Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia. So now the Islamist forces are far stronger than the non-Islamists. That cannot be reversed at this point.
–Might this buffer zone plan be laying the basis for a second Syrian civil war in which the Islamists band together against the FSA? In other words, here is this buffer zone that is backed by the West (imperialism!) to “protect” Israel (the Zionists!), Jordan (traitorous Muslims!), and Iraq (Shia heretics!)
–The training is limited and the FSA is badly divided among different commanders, defected Syrian army officers, and local warlords. The Brotherhood militia is united and disciplined. The result will be worse than Afghanistan because the Islamists would have both the government and the stronger military forces.
–A situation is being set up in which a future Muslim Brotherhood regime in Syria can blackmail the United States. Either it will force Washington to accept whatever it does (including potential massacres) by threatening to unleash Salafist forces on its borders or it will actually create confrontations.
–Why isn’t the United States working full-time to stop the arms flows to the Islamists by pressuring the Saudis and Qataris (perhaps the point of Secretary of State John Kerry’s trip but hardly effective) and to rein in Turkey’s enthusiasm for a Syrian Islamist regime?
Speaking of Turkey, now we see the reason for the attempted Israel-Turkey rapprochement, because on top of everything else there will be a Kurdish-ruled zone not run by moderates but by the Syrian affiliate of the radical PKK, which is at war with Turkey.
–These proposed buffer zones would not receive Western air support or international forces. Israel has the experience of maintaining a buffer zone in southern Lebanon for years by supporting a militia group. It succeeded for a long time by sending in Israeli troops covertly and taking casualties. In the end, rightly or wrongly, the effort was given up. Now Hizballah—the equivalent though not the friend of the Syrian Salafists—is sitting on the border and already one war has been fought. It should be noted that Israel has by far the most defensible border with Syria.
Another question, however, is whether the buffer zone idea is real because it might camouflage something else. Suppose the United States wants to do something else entirely. This could mean to create a moderate, secularist force that might win a second Syrian civil war in which the rebels fought each other for power.
Alternatively, since northern Syria is now dominated by radical Islamists perhaps the U.S. policymakers hope that the southern part of the country could be a non-Islamist enclave. Control over that region might strengthen the hand of the non-Islamists in negotiating the new order in Syria or as a base for waging a second civil war. So this is the likely fruit of the first Syrian civil war, though that conflict is far from over. The old regime is still alive. What U.S. policy has helped to do is to create a big new threat to Turkey, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel. It’s also a threat to Lebanon, but since the Syrian Islamists will target the Iran-backed Hizballah there, Washington doesn’t mind.
What does this have to do with Benghazi? According to the Washington Post:
Obama administration officials have expressed repeated concern that some of about 20,000 of the weapons, called MANPADS, have made their way from the arsenals of former Libyan dictator Moammar (sic) Gaddafi to Syria.
This weapons system might be the most technologically impressive arms ever to fall into the hands of terrorists. Once Libya’s regime fell (another U.S. foreign policy production), these weapons were grabbed by the Libyan rebels and sold to the Saudis and Qataris, who supplied them, respectively, to the Syrian Salafists and the Muslim Brotherhood.
According to reliable sources, Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens was in Benghazi trying to get those MANPADS back and was negotiating with radical militias toward that goal. Stevens was doing something good—trying to take weapons out of the hands of terrorists—and not running weapons to terrorists.
Yet that doesn’t mitigate the mess unleashed by the administration’s policy. At any rate, Stevens and these efforts failed. The money was too good for the Libyan insurgents to pass up, not to mention helping fellow Islamists and anti-Americans. And now thousands of advanced, easily launched anti-aircraft systems are in the hands of anti-Jordanian, anti-Iraqi, anti-Israeli, and possibly anti-Turkish terrorists.
And just imagine the very real possibility of commercial passenger planes being shot at, or even shot down, by terrorists armed with a weapon they obtained because of U.S. government ineptitude or even involvement.
Originally published at Rubin Reports, under the title, “Flash! Threat from Rebel Syria Becomes Clear and What Really Happened in the Benghazi Murders,” April 4, 2013.Barry Rubin
About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.
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