As Barack Obama prepares to send lethal arms to a Syria opposition that the New York Times reports has no secular armed forces within it, another terrorist group made their plans to get involved explicit. Hezbollah had been quietly assisting their sponsor, Bashar al-Assad, in reasserting control in areas adjacent to their Lebanon positions. Last night, their commander issued a public statement that Hezbollah would enter the Syrian civil war to prevent Assad from being removed in a military coup:
The leader of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militant group said Tuesday that Syrian rebels will not be able to defeat President Bashar Assad’s regime militarily, warning that Syria’s “real friends,” including his Iranian-backed militant group, were ready to intervene on the government’s side. …
Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite Muslim group, is known to back Syrian regime fighters in Shiite villages near the Lebanon border against the mostly Sunni rebels fighting to topple Assad. The comments by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah were the strongest indication yet that his group was ready to get far more involved to rescue Assad’s embattled regime.
“You will not be able to take Damascus by force and you will not be able to topple the regime militarily. This is a long battle,” Nasrallah said, addressing the Syrian opposition.
“Syria has real friends in the region and in the world who will not allow Syria to fall into the hands of America or Israel.”
Hezbollah and Iran are close allies of Assad. Rebels have accused them of sending fighters to assist Syrian troops trying to crush the 2-year-old anti-Assad uprising, which the U.N. says has killed more than 70,000 people.
Meanwhile, the rise of radical Sunni Islamist fighters has another American ally alarmed:
The growing power of Islamist fighters in southern Syria is causing alarm in neighboring Jordan, which backs rebels battling President Bashar al-Assad but fears those linked to al Qaeda.
Jordan has allowed limited U.S. military training of rebels on its territory. Some other fighters have crossed from the kingdom into Syria, although others, especially Islamists, have been intercepted and even put on trial.
Eighteen months ago, Jordan’s King Abdullah was the first Arab leader to urge Assad to step aside, but he used a visit to Washington last week to voice Jordan’s concern over “militant terrorist organizations” gaining ground along Syria’s southern frontier with the kingdom.
His comments in the Oval Office alongside U.S. President Barack Obamaunderline fears that Jordan’s national security is now threatened by Islamists in Syria whose hatred of Assad is matched only by their hostility to the pro-Western monarchy.
It’s almost impossible to overstate how foolish and destructive it will be for the US to replicate what it did in Libya by assisting the rebels in Syria. Let’s try to game this out by looking at the possible arguments for American interest in this conflict.
- We need to protect the civilians of Syria. The “R2P” argument was the rationalization behind the Libyan intervention, but it makes even less sense in Syria than it did in Libya. Where the rebellion has taken control, they have imposed brutal shari’a law. The only difference in oppression and brutality is the identities of the oppressors. The fact that the White House can’t definitively determine which side used chemical weapons is rather telling in this case, too.
- We need to contain the fighting to Syria. This one makes no sense at all. If al-Qaeda affiliates like Jabhat al-Nusra end up in control in Syria, their next step won’t be to hold elections and guarantee diversity and tolerance. After consolidating a Talibanish theocracy, their next two projects will be Jordan and Iraq. Nouri al-Maliki wrote in April that he was “mystified” by the notion that any replacement of Assad would be an improvement on the status quo, and expressed amazement that the US would assist AQ affiliates in Syria while trying to fight them in Iraq. They are the same enemy in both places. Our experience with Libya and Mali should make this clear as glass to anyone bothering to look.
- We need to show that international prohibitions on chemical/biological weapons carry consequences. At what cost? As Micah Zenko writes in Foreign Policy, it will take 75,000 troops to take Assad’s chemical weapons away from him, more than we have in Afghanistan now, and that the success of that mission would be iffy at best. Does anyone think that the radical Islamists among the rebels will welcome those troops as liberators? They’ll be shot at from both sides. And is this goal so important that we’re willing to arm the very terrorists with whom we are at war ourselves as a means to achieve it?
- We need to end Iran’s influence in Syria and undercut Hezbollah. Well, those are two worthy goals — but turning Syria into a failed state is a bad way to do it, and putting Sunni Islamist terror networks in charge is the worst possible way to do it. Do we want to allow al-Qaeda access to Mediterranean ports? Give them a staging area to attack the Suez Canal? Even beyond giving AQ a safe haven (another safe haven, now that they have eastern Libya), one look at the map shows the suicidal effects of such a policy.
- America has a vital strategic interest in toppling Assad that trumps the rest of these concerns. Really? It can’t be Iran, which would be delighted to see the US spend the next few years fighting all of the al-Qaeda spinoffs that would find homes on the Mediterranean with Syria under Jabhat al-Nusra control. It can’t be Iraq, where that environment would create a civil war that would cripple any hopes of rational self-government and give Iran even greater influence than it has now with the majority-Shi’ite population. It can’t be Israel, either, which has quietly suggested that the West should stay out of the Syrian civil war. That argument worked at the end of the Cold War, when a Soviet humiliation in Afghanistan eventually resulted in the liberation of hundreds of millions in eastern Europe and the end of an existential threat to the US. There is no corresponding interest that would justify assisting AQ-affiliated terrorists in a civil war against a Ba’athist dictator.
Frankly, there isn’t any American interest for intervention, and the possible alternatives to Assad look much worse than the status quo. We need to stay out of the civil war, quit making threats that undermine our credibility, and focus instead on bolstering our allies bordering on the fight to keep them from being next on the list.