In remarks on Monday, Feb 17, Secretary of State John Kerry criticized Russia’s continued support for the Assad regime. In Jakarta, just before flying to Abu Dhabi, UAE, he said, “They’re, in fact, enabling Assad to double down, which is creating an enormous problem.”
US policy has been, for some time now, to push for a “political” solution to the Syrian Civil War, one in which Assad is deposed. In fact, Kerry has flatly said several times that Assad can have no place in Syria’s future. (Rather odd, coming from someone who, as late as 2009, was dining with Assad and his wife, in spite of the Syrian government’s connections with Hezbollah and the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq.) The complaint now is that Russia will not abandon its long-time ally in the region, thus prolonging the war.
Citing “frustration” with Russian support for Assad, the US has reportedly begun talks with the Saudis and Qataris about possible increased support for the Syrian rebels. The administration is insisting that, contrary to Saudi desires, this support will not extend to more advanced and heavier weapons, such as the Chinese man portable SAMs and Russian anti-tank guided missiles the Saudis have been wanting to supply to the rebels. (This is, of course, assuming that such supply is not already being moved into the country by the Saudis and Qataris without the US’ say-so) Instead, the plan is for money, transportation, and intelligence to be funneled to the rebels.
From the above-linked NYT article: Mr. Obama has also been influenced by growing fears that Syria is becoming a training ground for a new generation of terrorists and may become even more of a haven until a political settlement is reached. “That’s one big change from a year ago,” a senior American diplomat said. “And it’s beginning to haunt everyone with memories of Afghanistan.”
It can be argued that, especially with the increasing irrelevance of the FSA and the rise of Jabhaat al Nusra and Jabhaat al Islamiya, not to mention the Islamic State in Iraq and as Sham, it’s already too late. The parallels with Afghanistan are impossible to avoid. Furthermore, the argument about keeping MANPADS out of rebel (and eventually terrorist) hands is moot. The rebels have not only captured Syrian government air defense weapons, but what appears to be Chinese F-6 systems were spotted in Syria over a year ago. They’ve also used them: this video is over a year old.
The idea that the Russians should abandon Assad, mainly because of the West’s say-so, seems predicated on the same sort of naiveté that led to the “reset button” fiasco five years ago. It seems that the administration, in spite of its continued push for Permanent Normal Trade Relations with Russia, is finally starting to realize that Russia is still hostile to the West. That hostility has just taken a more subtle turn since the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Russian state is now run by the chekists, with a continuing record of supporting anti-American regimes, suppressing dissent, and leaning on former satellite states to get back in the Russian orbit whether they want to or not (see the current problems in Ukraine).
Ultimately, much of this is posturing, and increasingly impotent posturing. How the US expects to have any real weight in the situation, especially after the strong threats of intervention after the chemical attack in Damascus last year turned into inaction, is unclear. Given that it seems unlikely that the players are unaware of the irrelevance of many of their “concerns,” it becomes even more of a farce. The danger lies in the possibility that this is actual naiveté to the point of giving more money and support to rebels that winds up in Islamist hands.
Fears of Syria eventually becoming a new Afghanistan are misplaced.
It already is.