A War in Syria?

There have been a number of developments regarding the civil war in Syria. For one thing, the Obama administration has come to the conclusion that the Syrian regime used chemical weapons against Syrian rebels, and now believes that it must arm the rebels against the regime.  It ought to go without saying that the use of chemical weapons is A Bad Thing, but everyone ought to understand that the arming of Syrian rebels may not represent the end of American involvement in Syria. Rather, it may only represent the beginnings of that involvement, and we may not like what comes next. For the moment, as the New York Times story indicates, the Obama administration has ruled out the implementation of a no-fly zone in Syria, which itself would constitute a military action; a no-fly zone is maintained through denying the enemy the ability to fly aircraft in the zone, of course, but it is also maintained by taking out enemy anti-aircraft batteries and missiles, and enemy radar that might undermine the maintenance of a no-fly zone by aircraft flown to enforce the no-fly rule.

The problem with arming the rebels, however, is that we may be arming elements we don’t particularly like. I referenced this danger in the past. Forgive the fact that I am quoting myself immediately below, but I think it might be called for in this case:

There are calls for the administration to send arms to the Syrian opposition, but aiding the Free Syrian Army comes with a significant set of risks. There are allegations that armed opposition groups in Syria have engaged in significant human rights abuses, and offering aid to those groups might inadvertently benefit Islamists who are hostile to the United States and to American interests. Indeed, at least one UN official believes that anti-regime forces have used chemical weapons. The United States should not be eager to jump into bed with the Syrian opposition by giving arms and aid to religious fanatics and egregious violators of the laws of warfare.

I am sorry to report that my concerns on this score may have been justified:

When a 14-year-old boy from the Syrian city of Aleppo named Mohammad Qatta was asked to bring one of his customers some coffee, he reportedly refused, saying, “Even if [Prophet] Mohammed comes back to life, I won’t.”

According to a story reported by two grassroots Syrian opposition groups, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Aleppo Media Center, Qatta’s words got him killed. A group of Islamist rebels, driving by in a black car, reportedly heard the exchange. They stopped the car, grabbed the boy and took him away.

Qatta, in refusing to serve a customer coffee – it’s not clear why – had used a phrase that the Islamist rebels took as an insult toward the Prophet Mohammed, the most important figure in Islam. That offhand comment, made by a boy, was apparently enough for these rebels to warrant a grisly execution and public warning.

The rebels, 
according to ABC News’ reconstruction of the Syrian groups’ reports, appear to have whipped Qatta. When they brought him back to where they’d taken him, his head was wrapped by a shirt.

The rebels waited for a crowd to gather; Qatta’s parents were among them. Speaking in classical Arabic, they announced that Qatta had committed blasphemy and that anyone else who dared insult the Prophet Mohammed would share his fate. Then, the shirt still wrapped around the boy’s head, the rebels shot him in the mouth and neck.

And more:

A Syrian rebel group’s pledge of allegiance to al-Qaeda’s replacement for Osama bin Laden suggests that the terrorist group’s influence is not waning and that it may take a greater role in the Western-backed fight to topple Syrian President Bashar Assad.

The pledge of allegiance by Syrian Jabhat al Nusra Front chief Abou Mohamad al-Joulani to al-Qaeda leader Sheik Ayman al-Zawahri was coupled with an announcement by the al-Qaeda affiliate in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq, that it would work with al Nusra as well.

Lebanese Sheik Omar Bakri, a Salafist who says states must be governed by Muslim religious law, says al-Qaeda has assisted al Nusra for some time.

“They provided them early on with technical, military and financial support , especially when it came to setting up networks of foreign jihadis who were brought into Syria,” Bakri says. “There will certainly be greater coordination between the two groups.”

The United States, which supports the overthrow of Assad, designated al Nusra a terrorist entity in December. The Obama administration has said it wants to support only those insurgent groups that are not terrorist organizations.

As though it will be easy to ensure that money goes only to those rebel segments that the Obama administration happens to like. More:

When the group Jabhat al Nusra first claimed responsibility for car and suicide bombings in Damascus that killed dozens last January, many of Syria’s revolutionaries claimed that the organization was a creation of the Syrian government, designed to discredit those who opposed the regime of President Bashar Assad and to hide the regime’s own brutal tactics.

Nearly a year later, however, Jabhat al Nusra, which U.S. officials believe has links to al Qaida, has become essential to the frontline operations of the rebels fighting to topple Assad.

Not only does the group still conduct suicide bombings that have killed hundreds, but they’ve proved to be critical to the rebels’ military advance. In battle after battle across the country, Nusra and similar groups do the heaviest frontline fighting. Groups who call themselves the Free Syrian Army and report to military councils led by defected Syrian army officers move into the captured territory afterward.

The prominence of Nusra in the rebel cause worries U.S. and other Western officials, who say its operations rely on the same people and tactics that fueled al Qaida in Iraq – an assertion that is borne out by interviews with Nusra members in Syria.

Why are we giving arms to rebel elements when there is no guarantee whatsoever that those arms won’t end up in the hands of terrorists who have professed hostility towards the United States and towards American interests, and who have actually carried out terrorist operations against the United States?

Policymaking is not made any easier by the fact that former president Bill Clinton is double-dog daring the Obama administration to be tough in Syria, lest President Obama look like “a fool” or “a wuss.”  I don’t even pretend to understand the logic here. Surely, Bill Clinton knows that many of the Syrian rebel groups are non-fans of the United States and don’t profess our moral values. Surely, he understands that our willingness to dip our toes into the waters of war in Syria might lead us to wade in those waters further in the future. Surely he realizes that there are no American national security interests at stake here–indeed, from an exceedingly cold realpolitik standpoint, if the United States really wanted to see its interests served, it would do everything within its power to ensure that the civil war in Syria goes on for as long as possible (the better to bleed Iran dry as it seeks to prop up the Assad regime and throws good money after bad in the process). And surely the former president realizes that while the human carnage in Syria is nothing short of horrific, there may be very little that the United States can do about that short of engaging in a full-scale war which would involve boots on the ground–a proposition for which there is no support whatsoever in the United States. Maybe the plan is that Hillary Clinton will eventually embrace all this tough, anti-fool/anti-wuss rhetoric in any run for the presidency, thus making her appear to be strong and resolute in the view of American voters. That may make for great politics, but it would make for a terrible foreign/military policy.