Picking sides in Syria’s civil war

This morning NPR had an extraordinary story about how Robert Ford, the US Ambassador to Syria who had left that country because of the deteriorating security situation there, had sneaked back into the rebel-held northern part of country to meet with and provide aid to one of the many factions that is fighting the Syrian government. So it looks like the US government has come down firmly on one side in the civil war that is raging in that country and causing immense hardship.

But that was not what was extraordinary. It was how the NPR news anchor and correspondent treated this somewhat matter-of-factly and spoke mostly about the nature of the aid being sent to Syria. They missed the real story and that was that a US ambassador to a country with which it still has full diplomatic relations and whose government it officially still recognizes, was sneaking illegally into that same country in order to aid a faction that was seeking to overthrow that government. This bland reporting is a testament to how behavior by the US government that flagrantly violates diplomatic protocol is now seen as not even worth commenting on.

We know of course that the US meddles in the internal affairs of other countries all the time, from open invasion to covert actions via the CIA and other agencies. But to have the official US government representative to a country be involved in such things is to raise it to another level.

If the roles were changed and (say) the Iranian ambassador to a country that is a US ally were to be so blatantly involved is supporting groups that sought to overthrow that government, you can imagine the massive outpouring of outrage from the US government and the media.


  1. trucreep says

    I heard that yesterday too and couldn’t help but feeling sad that even my beloved NPR is victim to this shit :[

  2. slc1 says

    Actually, the administration is getting a boatload of grief for not taking sides in the Syrian Civil War. The fact is that the US and Israel have tacitly supported the Assad kleptocracy for nearly 40 years because it kept a low profile on the Golan Highths and on the grounds that the enemy you know is better then the enemy you know not. We now have Turkish Premier Erdogan calling for a no-fly zone to be installed over Northern Syria.

    The claim is that while the US twiddled iits thumbs for the last 2 years, the opposition is being taken over by the Islamists. At this point, all the options are bad, the only issue is to come up with an option, if any, that’s better then doing nothing. In fact, it may be too late to prevent the dismemberment of the country and the takeover of parts of it by the Islamists, if the Assad kleptocracy falls suddenly. I have to give the Obama Administration credit for showing great caution about getting involved bur I don’t think they can hold out much longer.

  3. says

    @2: Name any opposition movement that was not taken over by Islamists.

    That’s the problem with that region. There are precisely zero right answers. Support the corrupt regime? Wrong answer. Support the opposition? Wrong answer. Do nothing? Wrong answer. Do a little bit but not much? Wrong answer.

    Installing a US-style democracy is frankly crazy in a region of the world where the culture and self-identity is based on a religion that would kill every one of the rest of us in its honor.

  4. lorn says

    As I understand it, so far, the only aid given has been food and medical supplies. Much/most of it ostensibly intended to be used to help refugees and displaced persons. There is clearly a tacit understanding that rebel troops will also be eating and using those medical supplies. There is no practical method of preventing them from using some or all of them as they see fit because the rebels come form the same communities as the majority of the refugees, and physically control those areas. Given that reality it makes sense that if you wish to get supplies to those who most need it you will need to talk to the rebel group/s.

    A study of the history of warfare shows that it often benefits all sides to communicate and negotiate. You talk to friends, enemies and neutral parties alike. Generally, but not always, the agreements serve to limit bloodshed and suffering. Refugees, noncombatants, and captured and/or injured combatants are problematic for all sides.

    As I understand it the US still has diplomatic relations with Syria through third parties. Unfortunately there is no set diplomatic structure for the rebels. If we want to talk we have to send a diplomat into the area. Having done so doesn’t imply anything more than that we want to talk. They might be swapping spit and taking long hot showers together, in addition to formulating battle plans and coordinating close air support but, based on the evidence provided, it is just as likely that they are just coordinating delivery of food and medical supplies.

    Of course the US hasn’t made any secret that the US thinks that, for the good of all involved, to limit disruption and bloodshed, Assad should step down and implement a process for the orderly transfer of power, and certain weapons, but this hasn’t advanced very far. I understand that there were negotiations under way to find Assad a suitable residence in a neutral nation. Assad, backed by sizable ethic and religious communities likely to suffer greatly if Islamist take over, hasn’t given up yet. He still thinks he might win or force a more acceptable diplomatic solution.

    We are talking to both sides. We lean toward Assad leaving but, not so much, an Islamist take over. We lean toward refugees being fed and cared for but, not so much, taking up semi-permanent residence in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. It is complicated. Diplomacy usually is.

  5. slc1 says

    A good assessment of the problem. It should be pointed out that there are still nearly 1/2 million refugees from the Iraq war living in Syria who, apparently, are in no hurry to return to Iraq. The number of Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan is approaching 1 million.

    There is another problem that I have not seen addressed, namely what the result would be if the Assad regime suddenly collapsed. Aside from issue involving chemical weapons, there is every likelihood of a bloodbath taking place that would make the current situation look almost benign. The Sunni Muslims, who constitute some 75% of the population, have much to get even for and the reprisals against the regime supporters, mainly some 2+ million Alawites, for 40 years of oppression have every likelihood of being massive.

    I agree with Lorn, the best solution which might lead to a soft landing, is for the West to force the Assad regime to abdicate, while preparing a peacekeeping force to impose order and security. This was the big mistake that was made in Iraq, provision was made after Saddam was deposed to impose order and security.

  6. says

    The administration has already said it’s providing arms via CIA through Turkey. And that it’s not providing arms, but rather only intelligence support. And that it’s thinking about providing arms, gosh oh gee, it sounds like they don’t know what the fuck they are doing.

  7. says

    Why is it unacceptable for a country to be taken over by islamists? Is it as bad as when a country is taken over by christians?

    Joking aside: anyone in that area, that forms a government reflecting the people’s beliefs, is going to be islamic. What they are really saying is not that they’re islamist, it’s that they’re not likely to be nice US puppets. What a surprise! People in the middle east are tired of being treated as colonies of Europe, or buffer-zone puppets in the new “great game”. What a fucking shock.

  8. says

    It depends who you believe – which means, surprise, that someone is playing hide the definition. I’ve heard various terms for “support” ranging from logistical, to non-military, to medical aid, to helping locate targets and assess troop movements. Telling someone when they are about to be attacked, courtesy of a US spy satellite, is not exactly “logistical” support but that’s some of the information that has apparently been laundered to the rebels through third parties.

    The NYT has some stuff about it, but it’s probably a pile of lies:


    With help from the C.I.A., Arab governments and Turkey have sharply increased their military aid to Syria’s opposition fighters in recent months, expanding a secret airlift of arms and equipment for the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad, according to air traffic data, interviews with officials in several countries and the accounts of rebel commanders.

    The airlift, which began on a small scale in early 2012 and continued intermittently through last fall, expanded into a steady and much heavier flow late last year, the data shows. It has grown to include more than 160 military cargo flights by Jordanian, Saudi and Qatari military-style cargo planes landing at Esenboga Airport near Ankara, and, to a lesser degree, at other Turkish and Jordanian airports.

    I believe I posted something around that time, here, saying to look for CIA to try to run the same playbook in Syria as Libya (the Libyan “rebels” materialized with weapons fairly suddenly, compared to the Syrian opposition, though. Probably because, as slc1 points out, Syria was not a long-term target for “regime change”)

  9. says

    the culture and self-identity is based on a religion that would kill every one of the rest of us in its honor.

    That diet of propaganda sure is nourishing and yummy isn’t it? But it rots your brain.

  10. slc1 says

    I suppose it’s also propaganda and lies that Iran is supporting the Syrian government with weapons and even some limited boots on the ground. Or that the Hizbollah terrorist organization is supporting the Syrian Government with a considerable number of boots on the ground. The fact is that the US and Israel said nothing about the events in Hama in 1982, perhaps even envious about Assad Pere’s success in suppressing Islamic terrorists, and said nothing about the current civil war until fairly recently. Now that the atrocities have become impossible to ignore, the administration, under fire from the Rethuglicans in Congress and the neocons is edging toward at least a cautious intervention, probably a no-fly zone in Northern Syria as recommended by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan. People who criticize the no-fly zone in Northern Iraq during the 1990s should be aware that, in actuality, it was extremely effective in preventing Saddam from exterminating the Kurds there.

    I must say that Ranum’s conspiracy theories almost equal those proposed by Don Williams a few weeks ago.

  11. Vote for Pedro says

    Seems perfectly in our national interest to obfuscate this as much as possible. What can be gained from being clear? I believe NPR had a story bemoaning the fact we weren’t open in our support for the rebels, so they didn’t know to appreciate our efforts. But in terms of geopolitics, they aren’t the ones the US needs to worry about the reactions of.

    (The geopolitical implications are different than the humanitarian implications, of course.)

  12. bmiller says

    Marcus: I certainly agree with you that “the west” has no “right” and no ability to swoop in and impose ineffective, corrupt, and dictatorial neocolonial governments . I also have no fear that “Islam” is “taking over” the United States. AND, slc1 is certainly living in a glass house, given the growing role of religious nuts in his favorite colonial settler garrison state, but…

    Islamic theocracies may not scare you, as a white, affluent, heterosexual male. But ISLAM IS a toxic religion (as is fundamentalist Christianity!) and I am much less sanguine. Some of the “propaganda” you blithely dismiss comes from the fervid rantings of Salafi clerics themselves. It’s not all Pamela Geller and Frank Gaffney.

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