Obama Must Stop Saudi Arabia in Syria

Obama Must Stop Saudi Arabia in Syria

It’s not enough for Washington to stay out. Obama must keep Saudi Arabia and Qatar out, too.


Syria is an ugly mess, and anyone who tells you that they know what’s going to happen there doesn’t know what he or she is talking about. President Assad, having apparently subdued Homs, may succeed in putting down the nationwide rebellion by force, or he may not. If Assad falls, here’s my wild guess about where Syria is headed: the Syrian armed forces, or what’s left of them, will hold a lot of high cards. The opposition, a convoluted bloc of Islamist and secular types, will end up being dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood and its allies. And then, like Egypt, the military and the Muslim Brotherhood will struggle to find some sort of working accord, leaving everyone else, including secular, left and nationalist opposition groups, out in the cold.

But like I said, I don’t know what I’m talking about either.

What I do know is that it’s not enough for the United States not to arm the Syrian rebels. The Obama administration has to oppose plots by Saudi Arabia and Qatar to arm the rebels, too. 

Arming Syria’s rebels—whoever the hell they are—will turn a bloody confrontation into a Lebanese-style, or Iraq-style civil war. It will turn Syria into a battleground between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and between Shiites and Alawites, on one hand, and Sunnis, on the other. Since the start of the Arab Spring, when Saudi Arabia was enraged over the fall of President Mubarak in Egypt, the Saudis have poured billions into Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Bahrain and elsewhere to make sure that reactionary forces come out on top, and they’re doing pretty well. But Syria is a tougher nut to crack.

So far, the Obama administration has declined to aid the rebels, which deserves praise and credit where credit is due. Not that Obama won’t change his mind, especially if the humanitarian intervention crowd that pushed for war in Libya, gets the upper hand. As of now, the support for US intervention in Syria is coming from the usual suspects, the neoconservatives et al. They’re seeking either direct military intervention a la Libya, the creation of militarized “humanitarian aid corridors,” or direct military aid to the so-called Syrian Free Army, which may or may not be based in NATO’s Turkey. Any of these are terrible, terrible ideas.

In today’s Washington Post, Stephen Hadley, Mr. Invade Iraq, writes

The moral case for arming Syrians seeking their freedom has become overwhelming.… Surely few people are more entitled to the means to defend themselves in the face of escalating regime brutality.

And writing in the execrable Weekly Standard, Lee Smith excoriates Hillary Clinton and Obama for explaining the reasons why, so far, the administration hasn’t acted forcefully against Syria, adding:

The administration won’t arm the Free Syrian Army, because backing proxy forces to fight on behalf of American interests, according to administration officials, is just too complicated.… Taken as a whole—the administration’s actions, its peculiar faith in Russia to do the right thing at the Security Council, and now Secretary Clinton’s statements—the administration’s Syria policy represents a total collapse of the declared U.S. position that Assad has lost legitimacy and should leave power.

Too bad the neocons. Israel, and Prime Minister Netanyahu, is too obsessed with Iran to get involved in pressuring Obama to attack Syria, too. But taking up the slack is Saudi Arabia and its sidekick, the thumb-shaped appendix of a nation called Qatar, another kleptocratic, repressive right-wing regime. Both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have declared this week that they intend to supply weapons to the Syrian Free Army and to other Syrian rebels, even though the Syrian opposition is a confused mishmash of Local Coordination Committees, the Free Army, the Syrian National Council and others, none of whom like each other much. But because the Muslim Brotherhood is a reliably anti-Iran, pro-Saudi formation, and because it has strong support from other Muslim Brotherhood branches in Egypt and Jordan, I’d expect that Saudi-Qatari aid will flow primarily to them and to their allies.

Representative Adam Smith, a conservative Democrat who is the ranking member on the House Armed Services Committee, thankfully rejects intervention in Syria, and he also rejects the slippery-slope idea of the so-called “Responsibility to Protect” (RTP), that provides justification when and if necessary for virtually any kind of US intervention. Reports Josh Rogin in Foreign Policy:

Rep. Adam Smith (D-WA) spoke Thursday morning in a breakfast meeting with reporters in Washington, mostly about the defense budget and military acquisitions programs. The Cable asked Smith whether or not the United States has any responsibility to protect civilians in Syria and whether he would support any direct assistance there, be it humanitarian, medical, communications, intelligence, or even military support to the people under attack by the regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Smith said no to both questions. On the issue of "responsibility to protect," the humanitarian doctrine often cited as a rational for foreign intervention, Smith said it’s not a workable policy.

Smith’s on-the-mark quote:

There are a whole lot of people around the world suffering in a variety of different ways and it would be wrong to say that under no circumstances do we bear any responsibility for that.… But there are more people suffering and more problems in the world than we could possibly solve or even come close to attending to. Do we say if there is suffering anywhere we as the United States of America have a responsibility to try and fix it? ‘No,’ is the answer to that question, because it’s a challenge we can’t possibly meet.

In today’s Times, a careful analytical piece by Neil McFarquhar enumerates the reasons why Assad may yet survive the crisis. On Saudi Arabia and Qatar, he writes, encouragingly:

Although both Saudi Arabia and Qatar have voiced support for arming the opposition, there is no sign that they have followed through or that bigger weapons are arriving. In Iraq, for example, when Iran and Syria armed the insurgents, there was a surge in armor-piercing explosive devices and attacks on more prominent targets.

And the Times quotes James Clapper, the top US intelligence official: “Short of a coup or something like that, Assad will hang in there and continue to do as he’s done.”

The Post reports

Saudi Arabia and Qatar have in recent days declared support for arming the Free Syrian Army. But the United States remains opposed, amid concerns about the nature of the deeply divided Syrian opposition and the risk of a regionwide conflagration should a full-scale civil war erupt.

So far, so good. But the United States must make it clear to Saudi Arabia that it won’t tolerate foreign intervention in Syria’s civil war.

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