A member of a rebel group called the Martyr Al-Abbas throws a handmade weapon in Aleppo June 11, 2013. (Reuters/Muzaffar Salman)
President Obama’s catastrophically bad idea of arming Syria’s rebels is exploding in his face like one of Laurel and Hardy’s cigars.
The rebels are battling each other—including beheadings!—amid growing atrocities by the Islamists and pro–Al Qaeda types among them. President Bashar al-Assad is chortling that the toppling of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt kicks the pins out from under the Muslim Brotherhood–led factions in Syria. Congress, normally a pushover for anything like a covert operation backed by the White House, is fighting back. And now the CIA has been forced to warn Hezbollah—yes, you read that correctly: the CIA is warning Hezbollah—that pro–Al Qaeda Syrian rebel factions are planning attacks on Shiites, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon.
Let’s start with that last piece of shocking news first.
According to McClatchy, the CIA has passed on intelligence to Hezbollah that Sunni extremists—the selfsame radical-right rebels in Syria—are plotting attacks in Hezbollah-controlled areas of Lebanon. Says McClatchy:
The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency warned Lebanese officials last week that al Qaida-linked groups are planning a campaign of bombings that will target Beirut’s Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs as well as other political targets associated with the group or its allies in Syria, Lebanese officials said Monday.
As McClatchy points out, Hezbollah has been put on the US terrorist list, so the United States can’t warn it directly, but the CIA has passed on the warnings through government officials in Lebanon. Make sure you read the whole piece by Mitchell Prothero, but the story notes that the CIA met directly with the officials and that Lebanon has already started to make arrests, after highly specific terrorist warnings were delivered. Astonishingly—just as the CIA is helping Prime Minister Maliki in Iraq battle rebels allied to the Syrian opposition and to Al Qaeda—now the United States is helping Lebanon squash the same fighters it supports against Assad! The best quote in the McClatchy piece is this one, from a Hezbollah commander:
“The Americans are starting to realize how bad their friends in Syria are, so they’re trying to get out of this mistake,” he said. “They also think that if a bomb goes off in Dahiya, we will blame America and target Americans in Lebanon. That will never happen, but they’re scared of this monster they created.”
Of course, the United States says it wants to arm and train only the “good guys” among the anti-Assad forces, although in practice that’s impossible. Meanwhile, the “good guys” (often merely less fanatical Islamists and Muslim Brotherhood types) and the “bad guys” (the Al Qaeda types, allied to the Iraq-based “Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant”) are busily killing each other. It reached a peak with the assassination of a commander of the so-called Syrian Free Army by fighters from the Al Qaeda–linked Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the Los Angeles Times. Said the paper:
The shooting death this week of a rebel commander in northern Syria—apparently at the hands of an Al Qaeda–linked militant faction—has exposed tension between the disparate forces fighting to oust President Bashar Assad.
Competing rebel factions in Syria are increasingly attacking each other in a series of killings, kidnappings and beheadings, undermining the already struggling effort to topple President Bashar al-Assad.
Here’s a highlight:
Last week, members of the Islamic State were accused of beheading two Free Syrian Army fighters and leaving their severed heads beside a garbage can in a square in Dana, a rebel-held town in Idlib Province near the Turkish border. The attack came after clashes broke out at a demonstration against the Islamic State, leaving 13 people dead.
Sure, let’s get into the middle of this. Even worse:
Recently, a fighter from the area, Abu al-Haytham, claimed that the rebel dispute began when a foreign fighter with the Islamic State raped a local boy—“the last straw,” he said—and Free Syrian Army commanders complained.
Meanwhile Congress is getting in the way. In an earlier blog post, I wrote about Congress’s objections to the terrible idea of backing the rebels. Because the operation is planned as a CIA covert op, it gets funneled to the House and Senate intelligence committees, where it’s running into big trouble. Says The New York Times:
The plans call for the C.I.A. to supply only small arms, and to only a limited segment of the opposition—the actual numbers are unclear. In addition, much of the training, which is to take place over months in Jordan and Turkey, has not yet started, partly because of Congressional objections.
“It’s not clear to me that the administration has a workable policy,” says Senator Susan Collins, Republican from Maine. Even the administration is split, with the State Department serving as the hawks:
Many in the administration say they are still seeking to satisfy themselves that they have taken all precautions possible to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic extremists in Syria. To them, the plan carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels in Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere, many of which backfired. There is also fear at the White House that Mr. Obama will be dragged into another war in the Middle East.
But others, particularly many in the State Department, argue that the United States must intervene to prevent a further deterioration of security in the region and to stop a humanitarian crisis that is spiraling out of control, officials said.
The Assad government is making big gains on the ground, and the rebels have begun to express loud concerns that the brutal infighting will allow Assad to make faster gains on the battlefield. As The Washington Post reported:
Syrian rebels said Saturday they fear being sucked into a “side war” with jihadists as claims about an overnight attack on a weapons depot at their Idlib headquarters threatened to push the opposition deeper into a spiral of infighting.
The Wall Street Journal usefully reported that top administration lawyers and other policymakers advised the White House to exercise extreme caution in getting involved in Syria:
Members of the so-called Lawyers Group of top legal advisers from across the administration argued that Mr. Obama risked violating international law and giving Syrian President Bashar al-Assad the legal grounds—and motivation—to retaliate against Americans, said current and former officials.…
A reconstruction of the debate over arming the Syrian opposition shows how much administration lawyers played a cautionary role in the process, parrying calls for more assertive U.S. action by citing the risks of skirting international law, triggering a shooting war and setting legal precedents that could be cited by other countries, such as Russia and China.
Obama, of course, long resisted pressure from the national security establishment to arm the rebels, but he caved in not long ago.
Is there any hope for US-Russia peace talks on Syria?