28 May 2013

Arming Syria: when two sides go to war

For a year now the Obama administration has been split about Syria.

One camp, which was initially led by Hilary Clinton when she was running the State Department – I am told by a well placed source – favored military intervention or at the very least lifting the arms embargo for the rebels.

The other was opposed to anything that caused an incremental US military presence in the conflict. That camp was led by the president himself and, not surprisingly, it prevailed.

The argument against lifting the arms embargo was that America didn’t know who it was arming, that the battlefield had become too confused and that the danger of escalating a civil war into a regional conflict was too great.

Syria has become a self fulfilling prophecy for the do nothing crowd. Every new low in this civil war proves them right. At the same the pressure to do something increases by the same measure.

President Obama finds himself squeezed between the European Union, who now want to lift the embargo and his own instinctive caution when it comes to America’s foreign military excursions.

What has made his situation even more uncomfortable is that Senator McCain, his former opponent in the 2008 election, is leading the charge for intervention. He even paid a surprise visit to the Syrian rebels during the Memorial Day weekend.

The American public is not craving intervention, but it doesn’t help if the French and Republicans find themselves on the same side of this argument. With Hezbollah getting stuck into Syria and Russia sending more arms to the Assad regime, the next phase of this self-fulfilling prophecy has now begun.

I am convinced that President Obama will be even more reluctant to intervene in what has become the 21st century version of the Great Game. Senator McCain, like the Saudis and the smaller Sunni Gulf states, sees Syria’s civil war as a way of diminishing Shiite Iran.

President Obama wants his gift to the next generation to be America’s long-term disengagement from the witch’s brew of the Middle East. That is one reason why he is so keen to develop America’s energy independence, a feasible goal by 2025. He is intent on pulling troops out not putting more troops in.

Many people in this city compare Syria to Bosnia. I clearly remember how John Major and then Tony Blair brought a reluctant Bill Clinton to the altar of intervention. It took four years and 200,000 dead to get there. But Bosnia never threatened to explode in the same way that Syria might.

The involvement of Saudi Arabia, Iran, Hezbollah, Israel and Russia has the potential to become a nightmare. President Obama is right to be cautious but also needs to be clear about where he would draw a red line.

The danger is that the administration will bow to pressures and become a little bit involved and find itself getting sucked into something it will end up regretting. Then comparisons with Bosnia will replaced by comparison with Vietnam.

But the big difference with both is that Syria sit in a dangerous neighborhood bristling with arms, vested interests and a series of overlapping conflicts.

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