A Tipping Point in Syria Conflict

by | Jun 19, 2013

Syria Child
photo: FreedomHouse

The Guardian newspaper featured on Friday an infinitely sad picture of a Syrian young boy, hardly nine or ten years old, crossing a street holding an old rifle with bayonet. He apparently belongs to the ‘Martyrs of Maaret al-Nuan’ battalion holding control of the southern town of Maaret al-Numan.

Child soldiers in a cradle of the Islamic culture and civilization and in one of the most modern societies in the Arab world – this would have been unthinkable.

The western powers have succeeded in destroying yet another citadel of the Muslim Middle East, which could be even more tragic than the destruction of Iraq.

The decision by the United States President Barack Obama to provide military support to the Syrian rebels after claiming it believes there is concrete evidence of nerve gas attacks by government forces is simply appalling. The reports quoting US officials mention that the weapons might include small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired remote-propelled grenades and other missiles. According to the Associated Press, the Central Intelligence Agency is expected to handle the training of the Syrian rebels on using the arms the White House has agreed to supply. 

There is already growing clamor, as Senator John McCain put it, that Obama “had better understand that just supplying weapons is not going to change the equation on the ground [or] balance of power. He added, “Bashar al-Assad’s air assets have to be taken out and neutralized. We [US] can do that without risking a single American airplane”.

McCain appears to be on the vanguard of the Obama’s administration’s Syria policies. The Wall Street Journal has cited US officials disclosing that the original Pentagon proposal for arming the Syrian rebels also calls for a limited no-fly zone inside Syria that would be enforced from Jordanian territory. It appears that the Obama administration is visualizing that Jordan will be the main staging post for mounting the cover military operations against the Syrian regime. The pretext for the no-fly zone is that it aims at protecting Syrian rebels but it doesn’t need much ingenuity to figure out that the Pentagon’s operational requirement is to dissolve the Syrian-Jordanian border into a zone that is out of the reach of the Syrian government forces. Logistically, this also opens the door for more direct Israeli military involvement inside Syria to accelerate the overthrow of the regime.

The Wall Street Journal report is specific and discloses that the no-fly zone will stretch up to 40 kilometers into Syria and according to the US officials, it will be enforced “using aircraft flown from Jordanian bases and flying inside the kingdom”. The US has already moved Patriot air defence batteries and F-16 fighter planes to Jordan. The US officials said that US planes involved in the no-fly zone would fly from Jordan as well as from the US Navy ships in the Mediterranean or Red Sea. Even the cost of the operation has been worked out – $50 million per day. The US hopes that its “allies” – presumably, Saudi Arabia and Qatar – to pay for the cost of the no-fly zone.

What emerges is that it will take about a month to get a limited no-fly zone “up and running,” which probably explains why Obama administration has deferred an announcement for the present. The WSJ added, “Officials say there may be a limited window to do so [operationalize the no-fly zone]. If Russia decides to provide advanced, long-range S-300 air defense weapons to Syria, it would make such a limited no-fly zone far more risky for US pilots”. There is a hint here than in such an eventuality, the US might have no option but to go for a full no-fly zone covering all of Syria. That might cost more money but, of course, Saudi Arabia and Qatar would gladly loosen their purse strings.

All in all, the tipping point has appeared in the Syrian conflict. The curious part is that the Obama administration is shifting gear on dubious grounds. The White House decision has not been backed up by any conclusive evidence of the Syrian government using chemical weapons – not even as to what evidence it is talking about or how it got hold of it. The statement itself is carefully worded in such a way that it raises many questions so much so that one of America’s best-known security experts Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington feels that the discovery of the chemical weapons is a “political ploy” to justify the US’s direct military intervention in Syria at this juncture for strategic reasons.

The fact that the Obama administration took this step even ahead of its European allies remains puzzling. A degree of unseemly haste is apparent. Many factors could have contributed – growing despair over the military balance tilting increasingly in favor of the Syrian government forces; cascading criticism by the US’s allies in the Middle East over the Obama administration’s wariness in getting involved militarily;the virtual impossibility of shepherding the myriad Syrian opposition groups to the negotiating table at Geneva 2; and a strident bi-partisan opinion building up among the US political elites – goaded no doubt by the pro-Israel Lobby – that Obama should “act” on Syria before it is too late.

Equally, Syria has brusquely shoved away from the centre stage the profound embarrassment faced by the Obama administration from the recent disclosures by the CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden. The international attention has shifted from Snowden’s damaging revelations, which helps the White House.

No matter the motivations at a macro or micro level, Obama administration’s decision queers the pitch for an outright western military intervention in Syria on the pattern of what happened in Libya. There is only a very remote likelihood from now on of the US turning back seriously to the Geneva 2 project. A troubling question arises: was the US ever really serious about Geneva 2 project or was it merely biding time?

Curiously, unlike in Libya where Obama led from the rear, in Syria’s case he is upfront in this case and may even have outstripped his allies for the time being. Obama can be trusted to use the G-8 summit in Northern Ireland to bridge the gap between the US and its allies so that the western alliance system can be brought into the picture to force the regime change in Syria. Russia faces an uphill task to bring about a diplomatic breakthrough at the G8 summit.

The icy exchanges at the press conference of Russian President Vladimir Putin and British Prime Minister David Cameron following their meeting at 10 Downing Street on Sunday underscored the hopelessness of the situation.

Putin asked: “You will not deny that one does not really need to support the people who not only kill their enemies, but open up their bodies, eat their intestines in front of the public and cameras. Are these the people you want to support? Is it them who you want to supply with weapons? Then this probably has little relation to humanitarian values that have been preached in Europe for hundreds of years” Cameron had no answers.

 Reprinted with permission from the Strategic Culture Foundation.


  • Melkulangara Bhadrakumar

    Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union. After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.

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