The Obama administration’s decision to directly supply weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up torpedoing the possibility of a political settlement. It will almost certainly accelerate the chaos spreading from the almost three-year old civil war. It will also align Washington with one of the most undemocratic alliances on the planet, and one that looks increasingly unstable.
In short, we are headed into a perfect political storm.
While the rationale behind the White House’s decision to send light arms and ammunition to the rebels is that it will level the playing field and force the Assad regime to the bargaining table, it much more likely to do exactly the opposite. The United States is now a direct participant in the war to bring down the Damascus regime, thus shedding any possibility that, along with Russia, it could act as a neutral force to bring the parties together.
Of course Washington has hardly been a disinterested bystander in the Syrian civil war. For more than two years it has helped facilitate the flow of arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates across the Jordanian and Turkish borders, and the CIA is training insurgents in Jordan. But the White House has always given lip service to a “diplomatic solution,” albeit one whose outcome was preordained: “Assad must go,” President Obama said in August 2011, a precondition that early on turned this into a fight to the death.
As Ramzy Mardini, a former U.S. State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, recently wrote in the New York Times, “What’s the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined?”
A Regional Scourge
It is hard to tell if the administration’s policies around Syria are Machiavellian or just stunningly inept. Take President Obama’s famous “red line” speech warning the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would trigger U.S. military intervention. Didn’t the president realize that his comment was a roadmap for the insurgency: show that chemical weapons were used and in come the Marines? As if on cue, the insurgents began claiming poison gas was used on them, a charge the Damascus regime has denied.
Whether there is any truth to the charge is hard to tell since neither the British, the French, nor the Americans have released any findings. “If you are the opposition and you hear” that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, then “you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used," says Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed up the UN weapons inspections in Iraq. Carla Del Ponte, of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, says it was the insurgents who used poison gas, not the Syrian government.
The French and the British are hardly neutral bystanders, with long and sordid track records in the region. It was Paris and London that secretly divvied up the Middle East in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, and who used divisions between Shiites, Sunnis, and Christians to keep their subject populations at one another’s throats. Both countries just successfully lobbied the European Union to end its arms embargo on the Syrian combatants and are considering supplying weapons to the insurgents.
Besides the growing butcher bill in Syria—according to the UN the death toll is now over 93,000, with a million and a half refugees—the war is going regional, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon. Turkey and Jordan are also being pulled into the maelstrom.
Fighting between Shiites and Saudi-sponsored Sunni extremists in Lebanon’s northern city of Tripoli is drawing in the Lebanese Army, which recently issued a warning that sectarian violence was getting out of control. There is fighting between Assad loyalists, Sunni insurgents, and the Shiite-based organization Hezbollah on both sides of Lebanon’s border with Syria.
In the meantime, Sunni extremists are waging a car-bombing offensive against the central government in Iraq. According to the UN, 1,000 Iraqis were killed in May, and the toll continues to mount. A recent bombing in a Turkish border town killed 51 people and local Turks blamed the insurgents, not the Assad regime.
The war has put economically fragile Jordan on the front lines. Some 8,000 troops from 19 countries just completed war games entitled “Eager Lion” in that country. The 12-day exercise was aimed, according the Independent (UK), at preparing “for possible fighting in Syria.” The United States has deployed Patriot missiles, troops, and F-16 fighter-bombers in Jordan.
While the Syrian civil war started over the Assad regime’s brutal response to demonstrators, it has morphed into a proxy war between Syria, Iran, Russia, and Iraq on one side, and the United States, France, Britain, Israel, Turkey, and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the other. The Council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and new members Morocco and Jordan.
The GCC is playing banker and arms supplier to the insurgency, much the same role it played in Libya’s civil war. Qatar has poured more than $3 billion into the effort to upend Assad, and, along with Saudi Arabia and the United States, helped shift Egypt from its initial support for a diplomatic solution to backing a military overthrow of the Damascus regime.
Egypt is in the midst of a major financial crisis, and Qatar has agreed to invest billions in its economy. Such investments come with strings, however, and Qatar and its Gulf allies are not shy about using their cash to get countries on board with their foreign policy goals. Ahram Online said a major reason for Egypt's diplomatic shift was “the hope of soliciting desperately need financial and fuel aid” from Saudi Arabia.
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According to Ahram, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bucked the advice of his top aides to switch positions. The April 6 Democratic Front Movement accused Morsi of caving in to “Washington” and extremist “Salafist Sheikhs.”
Egypt is also trying to land a loan from the International Monetary Fund, over which the United States wields considerable influence. It is hard to see Egypt’s shift as anything but a quid-pro-quo for a bailout.
The Gulf Council has almost unlimited amounts of cash at its disposal, but how stable are the monarchies that make it up?
Last year Bahrain was forced to use Saudi Arabian troops to quash protests by its Shia majority demanding democratic rights. The United Arab Emirates charged 94 people with conspiracy because they asked for democratic rights. They face 15 years in prison. Qatar recently sentenced a poet to 15 years for writing a “subversive” poem.
The monarchs’ bitter opposition to anything that smacks of democracy or representative government suggests that their crowns do not sit all that firmly on their heads.
Saudi Arabia is a case in point. While it is the world’s biggest oil exporter, it has a growing population—at 30 million, larger than the other Gulf members of the GCC put together—and unemployment among Saudis aged 20 to 24 is around 40 percent. The kingdom is also facing a restive Shia population in its eastern provinces.
The Saudi monarchy has dealt with opposition through a combination of stepped-up repression and a $130-billion spending program. But as Karen House points out in her book On Saudi Arabia, the country’s “High birthrate, poor education…and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards…Many of [the] young feel their future is being stolen from them.”
The other Gulf monarchies are rich—Jordan is the exception—but lack population and rely on imported workers to meet their labor needs. Because there is essentially no public oversight, the monarchies tend to breed corruption. The Saud family has some 7,000 princes, all of whom have special access to the vast wealth of the country.
A generation ago that corruption could be easily covered up, but the Internet makes that increasingly difficult. Twitter and YouTube have a huge following in Saudi Arabia.
Yet it is with these monarchies—the world’s last bastions of feudal power—that the United States and its NATO allies have made common cause.
Reliance on the GCC also means that Washington is essentially part of the Sunni jihad against Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran. However, while the Shiite-Sunni conflict is important and long-standing, the fact that Iran, Syria, and Iraq have very different foreign policies from the GCC has more to do with the Council’s hostility to Tehran than religious differences.
It was Jordan’s King Abdullah who first warned that a “Shiite Crescent”—Hezbollah, Syria, Iraq, and Iran—was a threat to the Middle East, a “warning” that conveniently fit into the Washington's drive to build an alliance against Iran. But elevating sectarian divisions in Islam into an alliance not only helped unleash Sunni extremists—including the al-Qaeda-linked groups in Syria that reportedly worry Washington—it opened a Pandora’s Box of ethnic divisions that the United States and the Gulf monarchies may yet come to regret.
There is still time to halt this looming train wreck.
United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said the U.S. move to arm the rebels was “not helpful,” and reiterated, “There can be no military solution to this conflict, even if the [Syrian] government and the opposition, and their supporters, think there can be.” The Obama administration could use that admonition to call for a ceasefire, hold off sending arms, and instead concentrate—along with Russia—on building a peace conference.
The conference would have to involve all the parties, including the countries currently being destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The United States will also have to step back from its “Assad must go” position and instead seek a way to integrate Syria’s 2014 presidential elections into a formula for peace. But more arms and a tighter embrace of the backward Gulf Council will ensure the war will continue to kill Syrians and destabilize the region.