Confronting the Syrian Quandary

The fighting in Syria provides a good example of the law of unintended consequences.  The conflict between President Bashar al Assad and rebel forces has led to more than 80,000 deaths and to an estimated 1.5 million refugees, two thirds of whom have gone to Lebanon and Jordan.  The latter number is expected to rise to 3.5 million.  The World Health Organization has warned that the bombing in Syria may cause outbreaks of disease.

The civil war between the regime of Assad and rebels has been transformed into a regional and international dispute.  This outcome results partly from religious and sectarian allegiances now seen as a peculiar kind of holy war, partly from political national interests, partly from humanitarian concerns, and partly from dependence on external political and military support.

The Obama administration has been slow to appreciate the dimensions of this transformation or to implement in practical terms the metaphor of the "red line," now that the Syrian use of sarin chemical weapons has been detected.  It might heed the words of Margaret Thatcher: "the world has never ceased to be dangerous.  But the West has ceased to be vigilant."

Two consequences, largely unanticipated, of Western passivity are troubling: the emergence of the Shiite, Iran-financed terrorist group Hezb'allah as a significant military supporter of the Assad regime and the more prominent role, both militarily and politically, being played by Russia.  Hezb'allah fighters have augmented government forces, first in the city of Homs and then in the seizure on June 6-7, 2013 of the strategic city of Qusayr, a city of 30,000, and its surrounding region.  Their help was crucial in planning and carrying out the offensive that led to that victory.  The Hezb'allah fighters, with symbolic yellow and green ribbons on their uniforms, triumphantly proclaimed their Shiite allegiance in the predominantly Sunni city.

Russia has been open about its help to Assad.  Russian supplies of weapons to Syria and to the terrorist group Hezb'allah have helped sustain the regime.  Russia has been sending warships to patrol waters near its naval base in Tartus on the Syrian coast.  Until 1962, Russia had ships in the Mediterranean; it may now renew that presence.

Russia has little if any affection for the Assad regime.  Rather, it is anxious to prevent the victory of any form of Islamist extremism, with which it is only too familiar as a result of the uprisings in the Caucasus republics.  It regards Assad and his supporters, Iran and Hezb'allah, as a lesser evil than the Islamist and Salafist groups among the rebels, especially the extreme and disciplined Jabhat al-Nusra (Victory Front) group of 6,000, which is close to and has received money from al-Qaeda and which has even tried to assassinate less extreme Islamists.

Politically, Russia has, together with the United States, announced a future peace conference on Syria, called "Geneva II," in which the fate of Assad and the very existence or territorial integrity of the country may be decided.  Unless present conditions change, however, the balance of power is shifting to the Assad forces, and therefore, it is unlikely that these issues will be resolved at the conference.  An indicator of this was shown on June 1, 2013, when Russia blocked a somewhat mild U.N. Security Council resolution which expressed concern over the situation and the impact on civilians of the ongoing fighting.

A third unforeseen consequence of the fighting is the increasing difficulty for Israel from both sides.  Alarmed by the recent victory of Assad forces and the unexpected military successes of Hezb'allah, which has an arsenal of 60,000 rockets capable of hitting Israel, and the victory of Assad forces, it is simultaneously troubled by possible attacks from the rebel groups, especially the Islamists.  Israel has therefore sent regular soldiers to replace reservists in the Golan Heights because of Syrian fighting both near Quneitra and near a crossing with Israel, only a few hundred yards from frontline Israeli positions.

Linked to this has been the destabilizing impact caused by the violence on the international group the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF), which was set up on May 31, 1974 to supervise the disengagement of Israeli and Syrian forces.  No official border exists between Syria and Israel, but there is a permitted crossing point near Qunetra, and a buffer zone along 50 miles that is inhabited and policed by Syrian authorities.  UNDOF is a force of 1,000 personnel drawn from a changing number of countries manning it.  In June 2013 those countries were Austria, which contributed 377 men, the largest number, the Philippines, India, Morocco, and Moldova.

Until recently, the area patrolled by UNDOF had been largely quiet as the ceasefire between Israel and Syria has essentially held.  However, the situation changed with the fighting in Syria near the area of the Golan Heights resulting in the injury of two U.N. soldiers.  Incidents such as the kidnapping (and subsequent release) of UNDOF personnel by the Islamist rebel group the Martyrs of Yanouk Brigade and the brief capture by the rebels on June 6, 2013 of an UNDOF-monitored checkpoint showed that U.N. personnel were facing serious -- some felt unacceptable -- risks.  On June 7, 2013, Austria announced thta it would withdraw its contingent, and the Philippines was considering doing so as well.  Russian President Putin immediately offered to replace the Austrians by Russian troops; so far, the U.N. has declined the offer.

The United States and European countries are now on an uneven playing field.  They have given the rebels less backing than Iran, Hezb'allah, and Russia have given the Assad regime.  The European Union has given 400 million euros ($523 million) in humanitarian aid and says it plans to give 840 million euros.  The United Nations is asking for $5 billion in humanitarian aid to help those affected by the war.  The objectives of Western countries are undetermined.  Certainly they must ensure that chemical weapons are not deployed in the Middle East.  They have no desire to impose a regime, intervene in colonial fashion, or engage in nation-building.

The U.S. and European countries are not prepared to support the brutal Assad regime, but they are understandingly cautious of the rebel groups.  On the surface, the rebels may appear non-sectarian.  They have established a Syrian National Council whose Greek Orthodox acting president was a leading member of the former Syrian Communist Party.  They have also set up a Supreme Military Council for the Free Syrian Army.  However, the loyalty to these governing bodies by the various groups in the rebel forces is highly conditional, since their allegiance to local war leaders seems to be strong.

In international politics, complete neutrality is not an option.  Great nations decline if they cannot make muscular decisions.  In this uninviting Syrian situation, before it worsens into a wider imbroglio, the U.S. might consider certain steps: proposing a transitional government formed out of the two sides, instituting a no-fly zone, sending some military equipment to those rebel groups it considers moderate, reaffirming its support for Israel, and persuading Russia that it is in the general interest for it to stop sending S-300 air defense missiles to Hezb'allah.