Grim Alternatives in Syria

Assad and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists vie for control of the country -- and its chemical weapons.

0320-syria-chemical-weapons_full_600The crisis in Syria is going from bad to worse. Civilians continue to be killed, injured, detained and abducted every day, including most recently the kidnapping of two prominent clerics in northern Syria. Both sides in the conflict are to blame for the unspeakable carnage. As terrible as the bloodshed is, it is becoming increasingly apparent that the resolution to this scenario rests with two grim alternatives. Although Assad, a reliable Iranian ally, has proven his monstrous capabilities, it is becoming indisputable that al-Qaeda-linked rebel forces stand to usher in an equally unworthy regime. Another erratic Islamist theocracy is certainly something the West can ill afford in the rapidly deteriorating region. 

The Assad regime continues its brutal crackdown with heavy weaponry, while the opposition is increasingly operating under the control of Islamist jihadists and regularly launching terrorist attacks. The latest involved an assault on the convoy of Syrian Prime Minister Wael Al-Halki in Damascus on April 29th, which resulted in at least six deaths as well as injuries. Also, two missiles were reportedly fired at a Russian plane flying over Syrian territory with at least 159 passengers on board. The crew was able to avoid a hit and nobody was injured.

The Obama administration is trying to figure out what to do about the suspected use of chemical weapons in Syria and just how thick President Obama's "red line" is going to have to be before he is backed into taking stronger action, including the possibility of military force.

Our intelligence agencies have assessed "with varying degrees of confidence," the White House said last Thursday, that chemical weapons had been used on a small scale. British Prime Minister David Cameron went a bit further a day later, claiming "there is growing evidence that we've seen too of the use of chemical weapons, probably by the regime. It's extremely serious -- this is a war crime and we should take it very seriously."

Brig. Gen. Itai Brun, the head of research for Israel's military intelligence, has gone further still and accused the Assad regime of using nerve gas against the rebel forces. "There's a huge arsenal of chemical weapons in Syria," he said at a national security conference in Tel Aviv. "Our assessment is that the [Assad] regime has used and is using chemical weapons."

Israel is especially concerned that Assad's large stockpile of chemical weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists - Hezbollah and/or al Qaeda affiliated groups - as well as come under Iran's control. This should be our biggest concern as well.

Meanwhile, notwithstanding the fact that the Syrian government itself had initiated a request for the United Nations to investigate its claim of chemical weapons use by the opposition, the UN is waiting for permission from the Syrian government to send in a special team of experts to determine if, and to what extent, chemical weapons were actually used in Syria. It seems that the Assad regime is not too happy with counter-requests by France and the United Kingdom to investigate other allegations of chemical weapons use by the regime. An advance team is standing by in Cyprus, "ready to deploy to Syria within 24 to 48 hours," according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, who summoned reporters to announce that he was meeting in New York with the head of the UN fact-finding mission he appointed, Dr. Åke Sellström.

President Obama is waiting for more conclusive proof of what actually has happened before deciding what additional steps to take. Absent more conclusive evidence by our intelligence services as to the Assad regime's use of chemical weapons against the Syrian people, Obama may decide to wait for evidence compiled by the UN team, if it ever is able to enter Syria. However, the team's mandate does not extend to determining culpability of one side or the other in the conflict. It has been authorized only to determine that chemical weapons were in fact used at all.

Obama may feel increasing political pressure from hawkish members of Congress and some of our allies to take firmer action against the Assad regime, so as not to make the United States look weak in the eyes of our adversaries if they perceive that our commander-in-chief draws red lines and then makes excuses for not following through on his threats.  However, Obama does not have any good options to pursue.

Russia and China will likely continue using their vetoes in the UN Security Council to block authorization of the use of any collective military force, including the establishment of a no-fly zone over Syria, or even toughened international economic sanctions. Thus, Obama would have to form, or "lead from behind," a coalition of the willing to work around the UN, something he criticized President George W. Bush for doing in Iraq. Moreover, a modest no-fly zone could turn into a broader military intervention to force regime change with unintended consequences, as we see playing out in Libya.

In any case, air power alone would not be enough to achieve even the more limited objective of containing the threat posed by the Assad regime's widely scattered stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. According to Dina Esfandiary, an expert on Syria's WMD program with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the London-based defense and security think-tank, "Airstrikes aren't reliable because they can just release all the chemical agents into the air. Alternatively, they only do half the job and then render a secure site open to looters."

Obama could decide to launch special forces missions to locate and destroy or secure the weapons all over Syria. Ms. Esfandiary does not think much of that option either:

"You would have to first secure the sites and then do a careful analysis of what was there, followed by controlled explosions. It is, frankly, a labour intensive job, and that is why the Pentagon assessed it as requiring 75,000 men. Besides, there may be any number of caches hidden all over the place, and even if you could look for them properly - which is difficult with a civil war going on - you would run the risk of some being left behind."

The Obama administration has already announced an increase in non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition. It is contemplating more open arms transfers, in addition to the covert support it has reportedly provided already to Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Turkey in their arming of rebel forces. However, this also could turn out badly.

The strongest fighting forces in the Syrian opposition are aligned with al Qaeda or other jihadist groups. The al-Nusra Brigade, the jihadist group that recently declared its allegiance to al-Qaeda, has been in the midst of a pitched battle with Syrian government forces near a heavily-guarded military base on the edge of town of al-Safira where, according to a report in The Telegraph, there is "one of Syria's main facilities for producing chemical weapons."

Even the New York Times carried a lead story on April 28th with the headline "Islamist Rebels Create Dilemma On Syria Policy." There is at most a negligible secular fighting presence in rebel-controlled Syria, which means there are "few groups that both share the political vision of the United States and have the military might to push it forward," wrote Ben Hubbard, the author of the New York Times article.

As we have seen elsewhere in the region, the jihadists co-opt rebellions that seemed to begin with hope among more secular elements who are the most likely to support a government based on pluralistic democratic values. This would have been the case regardless of how much, and how early, we supported the rebels. A secular, democratic Syria never had a chance.

Thus, in moving to increase support to the forces fighting the Assad regime, we will most certainly be helping our enemies. Regime change will likely lead to an even worse regime under Islamist control, taking charge of Assad's chemical and biological weapons that the jihadists will be all too happy to use against infidels world-wide.

We need to maintain our focus on the developing Iranian nuclear threat and intervene in Syria with pinpoint air and commando strikes only when we detect the actual or imminent transfer of chemical or biological weapons to terrorist hands. While this may require some covert special forces presence in Syria as well as other means of surveillance, it represents the safest course to prevent the most dangerous outcome of the Syrian conflict to the rest of the world.

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