Israeli air strikes hit their targets near Damascus | Credit: - Photo: 2013

Syrian Civil War Likens A Gordian Knot

By Eric Ruder* | IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis

CHICAGO (IDN) – Israel carried out two major rounds of air strikes on Syria in the span of 48 hours in the opening days of May, raising the prospect of a wider war in the Middle East. The second and larger of the two attacks targeted a mountainside military complex that overlooks Damascus, turning the night skies into day, according to witnesses.

Israel claimed it was targeting sophisticated long-range missiles in transit from Iran to its Lebanese allies, the Hezbollah militia. The U.S. quickly pledged full support for Israeli attacks, despite the risks of further inflaming what has become a civil war in Syria, with more than 70,000 people dead and millions more displaced from their homes.

“The Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah,” Barack Obama told reporters during his visit to Latin America “We coordinate closely with the Israelis, recognizing they are very close to Syria, they are very close to Lebanon.”

Obama dispatched Secretary of State John Kerry to Moscow for talks with Russian officials, one of the main international backers for the regime of Bashar al-Assad. According to the Christian Science Monitor.

What, if anything, Secretary Kerry is able to work out with the Russians in terms of international pressure on Syria, and where Israel’s weekend strikes lead in the coming days, are likely to alter the course of U.S. action. In any event, both components are part of a scenario of suddenly expanding pressure on Obama to move decisively on Syria.

Indeed, the pressures are mounting from across the political spectrum in the U.S. Even before the Israeli air strikes, there were calls from Republicans such as Sen. John McCain, as well as Democrats like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, to pursue military options in response to allegations that Assad’s regime used chemical weapons.

But even U.S. intelligence sources acknowledge there isn’t enough evidence to substantiate those allegations. And now the UN’s Carla del Ponte, a leading member of the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on Syria, alleges that a faction opposed to the regime has used sarin gas.

Adding to the chorus of pro-war voices, Anne-Marie Slaughter, Obama’s director of policy planning at the State Department from 2009 to 2011 and a well-known proponent of so-called “humanitarian intervention,” wrote a forceful Washington Post op-ed urging action “Obama must realize the tremendous damage he will do to the United States and to his legacy if he fails to act.”

Slaughter further asserted that “U.S. credibility is on the line” – a disturbing echo of the argument made for the U.S. to continue its slaughter of Vietnamese civilians years after it was clear that its war was lost.

It’s telling that Slaughter’s focus is on U.S. “credibility,” not the horrific suffering caused by Assad’s crackdown – and certainly not the democratic aspirations of the Syrian people.

Kudos for Assad

Just a few years ago, John Kerry, as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was a regular visitor to Damascus, seeking to entice Assad into a more market-oriented, investor-friendly economic policy – at a cost of falling wages and rising food prices for working people in Syria.

Even after the regime’s bloody crackdown began in 2011 as rebellion swept through the Arab world, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Assad as a “reformer”. “There’s a different leader in Syria now,” Clinton said. “Many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he’s a reformer.”

Indeed, the dictatorial character of the Syrian regime was never what bothered Washington. The problem was Syria’s alliance with the former USSR during the Cold War, its rhetorical support for the Palestinians, and its insistence on Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights – Syrian territory occupied by Israel since the 1967 war.

But when Syria signed up with George Bush Sr. for the first U.S. war on Iraq in 1991, Assad’s father, Hafez al-Assad, was rewarded with the virtual annexation of Lebanon.

The question confronting the Republican hawks, the Democratic dove-hawks and the “humanitarian intervention” hawk-doves is what military steps the U.S. would take if it were to intervene–and what results, intended and unintended, might follow.

One course is for the U.S. to impose a no-fly zone over Syria – as it did in Libya in 2011 – to provide cover for rebel forces that are otherwise vulnerable to Syrian air force strikes. But unlike Libya, military analysts believe Syria has significant anti-aircraft capabilities, which would make patrolling any no-fly zone a genuine risk.

The Israeli air strikes may have been designed to test precisely this question. Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont was quick to point out in the aftermath that perhaps Syria’s air defence systems are overrated. “The Russian-supplied air defence systems are not as good as said,” Leahy said on NBC’s Meet the Press. “Keep in mind the Israelis are using weapons supplied by us…They have enormous prowess with those weapons.”

Other observers, such as the New York Times’ Bill Keller, call for arming the rebels in addition to a no-fly zone. Keller dismisses the concerns expressed by Obama administration officials that U.S. weapons could “fall into the hands of jihadis.” Keller points out that by leaving “the arming to fundamentalist monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar…they are predictably using lethal aid to appease the more radical Islamists” among rebel forces.

Keller concludes that “none of the options are risk-free” and all carry the danger of “mission creep”–but he insists that the U.S. must acknowledge “the potentially dire cost of doing nothing.”

CIA vetting rebel groups

But it’s disingenuous to argue that the U.S. is “doing nothing”. CIA operatives have been vetting rebel groups to decide which ones should get weapons – and it’s a foregone conclusion that the “approved groups” don’t include genuine popular and revolutionary forces, which have issued repeated statements that they don’t want the U.S. or other outside powers to dictate Syria’s future.

Perhaps the most daunting obstacle to stepped-up U.S. military intervention is U.S. public opinion. According to the Christian Science Monitor:

[E]ven an intervention with no U.S. soldiers ordered into Syria has only minimal support from Americans. And that presents Obama with a scenario he has sought to avoid: announcing to war-weary Americans yet another Middle East intervention. A new Christian Science Monitor/TIPP poll shows nearly two-thirds of Americans–62 percent–oppose U.S. intervention in Syria, with only a quarter in favour. Those results are in line with other recent polls gauging the U.S. appetite for military intervention in Syria.

For decades, the U.S. has propped up dictators and Israel’s colonial-settler state to safeguard its interests in the oil-rich and geostrategic Middle East – and it has brooked no opposition.

U.S. officials say Washington supports Israel’s strikes because they are aimed at stopping the flow of weapons bound for Hezbollah in Lebanon. But, of course, were Syria to somehow mount an air strike against, say, a U.S. weapons manufacturer to stop the much more substantial shipment of arms to Israel, the Pentagon response would be the annihilation of Syria.

The Iranian-supplied Fateh-100 missiles that Israel supposedly destroyed with its air strikes are primitive compared to the weaponry the U.S. has pumped into the region through its deals with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and other regimes. Plus, this flow of American arms has compelled every other country in the region – as well as the resistance movements that have arisen to challenge U.S.-backed dictators – to do their best to compete in a regional arms race.

It is this dynamic – of U.S. attempts to dominate the region through an uneasy alliance of Israel terror with reactionary despots – that has pushed Iran, Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah closer together. For most of the last 40 years, however, the border between Israel and Syria has been relatively quiet, even if the two countries have been verbally combative.

Now, though, Syria has become a battlefield with multiple overlapping conflicts that threaten to spill over into the region as a whole.

Russia and China have backed Iran and Syria as a counterweight to U.S. influence in the Middle East. The U.S. attempt to maintain its grip on Iraq after its 2003 invasion unleashed a civil war, and its echoes are now being felt in Syria – thus, the Assad regime, whose main base of support is the Alawite sect of Shia Islam, has used fears that Syria’s majority Sunni population would carry out retaliation against regime supporters and other religious groups. Al-Qaeda and other Salafist elements have also inserted themselves into the conflict to advance their own reactionary agendas.

Angry over years of poverty

And underlying all this is the two-year-old revolutionary upsurge of Syrians, angry over years of poverty and repression imposed by the authoritarian Assad regime and inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and other uprisings of the Arab Spring. Elements of the popular mobilizations that have shaken the regime remain. But they have been increasingly pushed to the margins by the militarization of the conflict-driven most of all by the barbaric violence of the regime.

While the Obama administration would like Assad out of the way, it also fears what would replace him, given the many competing currents within the opposition – above all, the threat of anything representing the popular upsurge. The first choice is to find some former stalwart of the regime with enough credibility to lead in a post-Assad Syria, but who wouldn’t threaten the basic structures of repression.

Yet Assad appears ready to destroy Syria – shelling neighbourhoods, universities and the civilian infrastructure – in order to maintain his grip on power. So far, his regime has managed a stalemate with the opposition, at a staggering human cost.

Fearing the loss of its ally, Iran has tried to bolster both the Syrian regime and its other key regional ally, Hezbollah. It’s an open secret that Hezbollah has been sending fighters to Syria to support the Assad regime. But Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah publicly pledged support for Assad recently. If Israel’s claims about weapons headed to Lebanon are true, Nasrallah’s statement could explain Syria’s willingness to part with military hardware despite the regime’s own desperate needs.

Risk of sectarian fragmentation

The longer the war drags on, the greater the risk of sectarian fragmentation and territorial partition that has taken place in Iraq and Lebanon in previous wars. The U.S. wants to avoid such developments in order to maintain “regional stability” – Washington-speak for the continued rule of U.S.-allied strongmen. Thus, the U.S.’s preferred scenario for Syria has been to install a strongman defector from the regime, in alliance with select exiled opposition leaders.

But because that scenario hasn’t materialized, Islamist groups, armed by Saudi Arabia and Qatar, have emerged as the leading wing of the armed resistance, creating big problems for Israel. That’s alarming to Washington, which now has to contemplate whether and how to bend the armed resistance against Assad to its own agenda.

It’s unclear whether the U.S. will undertake direct military intervention. What is certain, however, is that the Obama administration has no interest in seeing the triumph of the revolutionary democratic movement in Syria that is at the heart of the resistance. Any U.S. intervention – though “non-lethal” aid, military supplies or air strikes – will be in the service of an imperial agenda.

That’s why it’s important for antiwar activists to oppose Washington’s meddling in Syria as we give our solidarity to the revolutionary movement.

*Eric Ruder writes for, which published a version of this article on May 8, 2013. [IDN-InDepthNews – May 9, 2013]

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Picture: Israeli air strikes hit their targets near Damascus | Credit:

2013 IDN-InDepthNews | Analysis That Matters

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