President Obama’s Shift on Syria and Western Strategy

Vol. 13, No. 24    1 September 2013

  • The Syrian regime is far weaker than most observers think. Rebel forces are continuing to gain momentum in all districts. The regime’s dire situation is manifested in its ever-increasing reliance on irregular and volunteer forces from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon (Hizbullah).
  • The Muslim Brotherhood is making a huge effort to establish an organizational infrastructure within Syria that will allow it to lead the opposition and take over after the overthrow of the Assad regime. It has placed its battalions within the Civilian Protection Committee under Free Syrian Army leadership, unlike the organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda, as the Brotherhood strives to take control from within the official groups.
  • If the U.S. attacks, the rebels will not express any gratitude and will view it as an imperial force attempting to promote its own narrow interests in the region and assist Israel. If it fails to attack, it will stand accused of keeping silent in the face of genocide, in practice abetting the Assad regime.
  • A limited military move has advantages. It will allow the Syrian regime to maneuver, yet will provide fresh impetus to the rebel forces to step up their military pressure without the need for foreign intervention.
  • The true test for the U.S. will be in its ability to influence the outcome of the conflict so that a responsible leadership replaces the Assad regime, and prevents chaos and the takeover of chemical weapons stockpiles by terrorist organizations.

The West’s Dilemma in Syria

U.S. President Barack Obama’s decision to seek congressional approval for military action against Syria will delay any punitive military action against the Assad regime at least until mid-September. The American commitment to act in Syria now depends to a large extent on President Obama’s ability to garner broad legitimacy at home, an outcome not to be taken for granted.

U.S. vacillation reflects the West’s dilemma regarding the civil war in Syria between President Assad’s Alawite regime, supported by Shiite Iran, and a coalition of forces dominated by elements affiliated with radical Islam and al-Qaeda.

The Assad regime has committed war crimes and crimes against humanity amounting to genocide, and rebel forces have perpetrated similar crimes, their leaders supporting genocide against the Alawite minority in the aftermath of the eventual toppling of the Assad regime.

The sense of moral obligation to respond to the chemical attack by the Assad regime clashes with a realistic understanding of “the day after,” and the fear that the West will pave the way for radical Islamic rebel forces to take over Syria (including its stockpiles of chemical weapons), thus facilitating their own war crimes. In other words, there is no guarantee that U.S. military action will bring an end to war crimes, but may only shift the balance of power from one despot to another.

Syria Fears U.S. Military Action

The official Syrian response interprets American policy as indecisive and weak. Yet beneath the heavy blanket of propaganda, the Syrian regime fears U.S. military action, understanding that it will focus on incapacitating the Syrian air force, military headquarters, anti-aircraft systems, surface-to-surface rockets, and chemical weapons stockpiles.

An American strike could hasten the disintegration of the Syrian army, which has suffered heavy losses in the past two and a half years, and has witnessed thousands of officers and soldiers defecting to the rebel ranks. The regime’s dire situation is manifested in its ever-increasing reliance on irregular and volunteer forces coming mainly from Iran, Iraq, and Lebanon (Hizbullah).

Assad himself told Le Figaro recently: “I can confidently state that the situation on the ground is much better than it was before.” But is this what the Syrian elites really believe?

The Regime Is Weaker than It Seems

Despite the self-confidence the Assad regime is trying to convey, the situation on the ground is entirely different. Syrian military forces succeeded several months ago in making tactical advances on the battlefield in al-Qusair and Homs, but ever since they have been on the losing side, with rebel forces continuing to gain momentum in all districts. U.S. military force will then be applied against a Syrian regime that is far weaker than most observers think.

In recent weeks the rebels have captured the two strategic villages of Khanser and Ariha in a military move aimed at severing the main supply route to the besieged Syrian army forces in Aleppo and Idlib. At the same time, the rebel military assault is continuing in the Latakia region and in villages in the Damascus area. Video footage from the fighting displays the Syrian soldiers’ low morale and successful rebel attacks against Syrian armor.

Islamists Oppose U.S. Intervention

The radical Islamic groups, including those identified with al-Qaeda, strongly oppose any U.S. attack on Syria, viewing it as a ploy intended to serve Israel’s interests and seeing it as ultimately leading to an American assault against the mujahedeen (radical militant Islamic groups).

In an official announcement, the Muslim Brotherhood explained that it opposed any punitive military action against Syria, as this could have unwanted consequences and strengthen the Assad regime. The Brotherhood supports the imposition of a no-fly zone over Syria, the demarcation of safe zones for the civilian population, and the transfer of qualitative weapons to the rebels.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s Strategy

The Muslim Brotherhood movement, outlawed three decades ago in Syria, is making a huge effort to establish an organizational infrastructure within Syria that will allow it to lead the opposition and take over key positions after the overthrow of the Assad regime.

In August 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood launched its first official bureau in the city of Aleppo, at the same time lending support to the Civilian Protection Committee, described by various elements within Syria (yet officially denied) as the military wing of the Brotherhood. This structure has provided a useful instrument for Islamist penetration of the Free Syrian Army.

Placing its battalions within the Civilian Protection Committee under Free Syrian Army leadership shows the Brotherhood’s strategic thinking. Unlike the organizations affiliated with al-Qaeda, it strives to take control from within the official groups representing the rebels (the Free Syrian Army, the “Coalition,” the “National Council”) in order to mobilize international recognition and advance its political agenda to take over Damascus.

“The Day After” Scenarios

In the absence of significant liberal secular opposition forces, “the day after” scenarios for Syria alternate between genocide of the Alawite minority, chaos and disintegration of the Syrian state into areas controlled along ethnic lines, or a takeover by radical Islamic forces wishing to establish a Muslim religious state (according to al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood).

The American decision to attack in Syria is opposed by the Syrian opposition forces and lacks the backing of the Arab League. The meeting of Arab League foreign ministers on September 1 in Cairo did not give expressed support to an American or Western military assault against Syria, and settled on a more general statement calling on the international community to “take necessary and deterring measures against the perpetrators of the crimes.”

U.S. Interests and Actions

The U.S. may find itself hurt by any of the likely scenarios. If it attacks, the rebels will not express any gratitude and will view it as an imperial force attempting to promote its own narrow interests in the region and assist Israel. If it fails to attack, it will stand accused of keeping silent in the face of genocide, in practice abetting the Assad regime.

Additionally, the U.S. could risk the expansion of the conflict to other regions in the Middle East and beyond by Syria and Iran and its allies. At this stage, this could mean the launching of terrorist attacks and firing long-range missiles at Israel.

The supreme interest of the U.S. administration at present is to ensure control of Syria’s chemical weapon stockpiles, the Assad regime’s last resort. Any military assault will have to give this issue top priority.

Against this backdrop and in the absence of a broad international coalition (Britain has said it will not participate in any attack), and in view of Russia and China’s support for the Assad regime, the U.S. administration may follow the middle ground of sending a message of determined commitment to respond when chemical weapons are used, but will not instigate a large-scale military move to replace the Syrian regime.

A limited military move has many advantages. It will allow the Syrian regime to maneuver, yet will provide fresh impetus to the rebel forces to step up their military pressure without the need for foreign intervention in the decisive stages.

The West needs to approach the use of force in Syria with a well-defined sense of its strategic goals. The true test for the U.S. will not be on the battlefield, where it has an overwhelming advantage, but in its ability to influence the outcome of the conflict so that a responsible and significant leadership replaces the Assad regime, and prevents chaos and the takeover of chemical weapons stockpiles by terrorist organizations.

About Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi

Lt. Col. (ret.) Jonathan D. Halevi is a senior researcher of the Middle East and radical Islam at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs. He is a co-founder of the Orient Research Group Ltd.