A man reacts in front of houses destroyed during a recent Syrian Air Force air strike (REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic)
The people who brought you the war in Iraq (and the 2008 surge) are trying their best to start one in Syria, too. Not that there isn’t already violence in Syria, where a civil war in raging. So far, however, President Obama has refrained from escalating the conflict by providing arms, especially heavy weapons and missiles, to the rebels. But the hawks, neoconservatives and right-wing military types are demanding war. Unfortunately, a heck of a lot of Democrats are joining the war cries, too.
Writing in The Wall Street Journal, two über-hawks—Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute and General Jack Keane—call for outright bombing of Syria, targeting its airfields.
A cleaner and more decisive option is to strike Syrian aircraft and the regime’s key airfields through which Iranian and Russian weapons are flowing to government forces. If American forces use standoff cruise missiles and B-2 stealth bombers for these strikes, they will be out of the enemy’s reach.
The airfields are Assad’s lifeline of support from Iran and Russia, and without them he’s in real trouble. Syria’s air force will be severely degraded if the U.S. pursues this option, but Syrian planes won’t be entirely grounded because airfields can be repaired. As a result, these operations would need to be sustained for a period of time to preclude repairs.
Pletka and Keane also support the idea of giving Manpads, those high-tech, portable and shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles to “moderate” rebels, though how exactly they propose to make sure that only moderates, and not Al Qaeda, get them is beyond me:
To successfully target Assad’s air power, one option is to outfit moderate rebel units vetted by the CIA with man-portable antiaircraft missiles, otherwise known as Manpads. Providing more moderate rebels with Manpads is a reasonable choice, though unlikely to be decisive because time is on Assad’s side. There is also a risk that the weapons could be diverted to al Qaeda-related groups. Despite that risk, however, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus recommended this strategy last summer.
That’s the suggestion, from Petraeus and Clinton, that the White House overruled.
The hawks, naturally, are up in arms over the proposed peace conference on Syria that is being organized jointly, under United Nations auspices, by the United States and Russia. Secretary of State John Kerry is having a devil of a time corralling the fractious rebels into attending the conference. Meanwhile, as I reported earlier this week, the government of President Bashar al-Assad is making significant military gains on the ground.
Weirdly, Kerry nearly sabotaged his own peace conference efforts by saying that if the conference fails, the United States will step up its aid to the rebels:
“In the event that we can’t find that way forward, in the event that the Assad regime is unwilling to negotiate in good faith, we will also talk about our continued support and growing support for the opposition in order to permit them to continue to fight for the freedom of their country.”
By saying that, Kerry nearly provides the rebel opposition with all the reason it needs to boycott the conference, thus guaranteeing its failure. Indeed, the macho general and semi-moderate who heads the military wing of the opposition, General Salim Idriss—who met with Kerry and a rump “Friends of Syria” group in Amman, Jordan, yesterday—is widely pooh-poohing the peace efforts, saying that “Assad, Russia and Iran” can attend the conference by themselves. According to Foreign Policy’s The Cable, Idriss and the rebels are demanding heavy weapons before they’ll commit even to go to Geneva. In a letter obtained by The Cable, Idriss says: “For the negotiations to be of any substance, we must reach a strategic military balance.”
But the rebels will never have the sort of weapons and training that the Syrian armed forces has. Kerry, in Amman, dismissed reports that Syria is making important gains in seizing control of rebel-held territory, sounding like a playground bully: “Yeah, he’s made a few gains in the last days, but this has gone up and down in a seesaw.”
Let’s give Kerry credit for working with the Russians on a diplomatic solution. In his remarks yesterday, he suggested that the talks, when they happen, are likely to be protracted. If so, Obama will have to resist the pressure from the hawks, and their allies in Congress, and it mean that the first order of business must be a ceasefire to halt the killing.
In a very worrying development, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, including most of its Democratic members, are trying to pass legislation to force Obama’s hand on Syria. It’s not likely that the legislative strategy will work, but it’s ugly. Key Democrats, such as Senators Robert Menendez and Bob Casey, are yelping about war against Syria.
The Editors of The Nation still think that arming the Syrian rebels is a bad idea.