By Barry Rubin
U.S. policy toward Syria is turning into a scandal on both strategic and humanitarian grounds. The next three months will be wasted in a toothless observer effort during which time the Syrian regime will go on massacring people and mopping up the rebellion. In addition, U.S. policymakers admit that they have no real back-up policy and do not know what to do next.
The Muslim Brotherhood has been gaining more power in large part because instead of financing and helping the moderate opposition, U.S. policy has combined being soft on the regime with helping the Islamists, especially in the absurd exercise in which an American initiative produced an anti-American, Brotherhood-dominated Syrian opposition leadership in exile.
And then to show how ridiculous the whole thing is, Syrian troops opened fire at oppositionists trying to talk to the UN monitors, forcing the observers to flee for their lives and injuring eight demonstrators. The UN responds by proposing a few dozen more, equally helpless, observers.
This is the same UN that in 2006 promised Israel that it would intercept Syrian weapons being smuggled to Hizballah in Lebanon and stop that radical group from reoccupying its pre-war positions in the south of the country. In six years, not a single weapon has been intercepted and not a single Hizballah terrorist stopped. On the contrary, with Syrian backing, Hizballah has terrorized the thousands of soldiers in the UN forces in Lebanon.
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There should be no question as to what should be done. The Syrian regime is among the most anti-American government in the world. It has done everything possible to sabotage U.S. interests, to sponsor terrorism, and to block peace. That regime is also Iran’s main ally.
Any conceivable president who cared about or understood U.S. interests would make the overthrow of the Syrian regime a top priority for the United States. I’m not talking about sending troops or going to war but about every conceivable other means. This should be blindingly obvious.
In addition, any competent president would work hard to help the moderate pro-democratic forces in the Syrian opposition so that they can gain power in the country. Instead, the Obama Administration that subcontracted dealing with the Syrian regime to the UN has subcontracted dealing with the Syrian opposition to the Islamist regime in Turkey. Not surprisingly, the Turkish regime has pushed Muslim Brothers and other Islamists and their clients into the "official" leadership of the Syrian opposition, the Syrian National Council. This has led to a fracturing of opposition leadership.
And the Syrian regime is being rewarded with no more pressure and being given the ability to stall for time even though it has already violated the ceasefire. This is not merely a bad U.S. and Western policy; it is the worst possible policy, lacking any strategy to undermine the radicals and help the moderates.
Regarding Syria itself I suppose the basic strategic assessment looks like this:
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After 2.5 years of the Obama Administration treating this enemy as a friend we have seen almost a year of dithering over the opportunity to get rid of that regime. It is like when the administration ignored the stealing of the election in Iran and the opposition movement there, as if it wanted to coddle, not confound, the Tehran regime. It also came to the rescue of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip, pressing Israel to minimize sanctions.
In contrast, the administration has not hesitated to overthrow an ally in Egypt and come close to doing that in Bahrain.
The pattern is that the radical side breaks every agreement, rejects compromise, and escalates aggression and the Obama Administration takes it all with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.
But back to Syria. Even the pro-Obama CNN network is amazed by U.S. policy. It admits the UN mission will fail, agrees that the Syrian government is the aggressor in shredding the ceasefire--using heavy weapons aimed at civilian targets, and adds:
“Monitoring missions can only work when the parties to a conflict have had enough of fighting or can be coerced into negotiation by outside powers. The Arab League mission members in Syria earlier this year were little more than bystanders, unable or unwilling to operate amid the government crackdown….The [Syrian] government has made it clear that the observers won't have free rein.”
Ahmad Fawzi, spokesman for the UN envoy Kofi Annan, whose past record hardly inspires confidence, says two truly shocking things;
"The United States is leaving it in the hands of Kofi Annan, as is the rest of the world.…We're the only path in town. There is no alternative."
But why should the United States turn over its policy to the UN, especially since a number of members are pro-Syrian regime and blocking any serious action? And have we really reached a point in time when the UN can present itself as the only channel for international action?
In other words it is assumed that the United States can have no independent policy. CNN accepts that view, adding, “That in itself illustrates how few options there are for the West to influence events in Syria.”
That’s nonsense. There are many other options. But how can there be hope for any alternative when a U.S. official actually admits:
"Our allies were coming back to us and saying, ‘What's your next move?,' and we were forced to admit we didn't have one.'"
The U.S. economy is merely hopelessly in debt, but U.S. foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, is hopelessly bankrupt.
For a brilliant and devastating critique of U.S. policy, see Tony Badran's analysis.
A version of this article was published in the Jerusalem Post.