The Syrian Crisis: The Option

By Jeremy Salt – Ankara

While all options are said to be still on the table,  Barack Obama is clearly backing away from any deeper involvement in Syria now it is clear that nothing but   direct intervention is going to bring down the government in Damascus. In the past few months alone the armed groups have lost thousands of men. Although the conflict will grind on for some time yet, the Syrian military is steadily closing down the insurgency.

The sponsors of this adventure are in complete disarray. Like the Syrian National Council before it, the Syrian National Coalition has imploded.  Muadh al Khatib is now a voice from the margins.  Ghassan Hittu is the only person in the world who is the prime minister of a committee.  These people are a completely lost cause.

In the real world and not the world of delusions there is horror at the video showing a ‘rebel’ commander cutting the heart out of the body of a dead soldier and biting into it.  Perhaps it was the lungs or the liver. The media seems to be uncertain but somehow getting the organ right seems to be important. Far from denying this gory act,   its perpetrator owned up to it before boasting of how he had sawn the bodies of captured shabiha into pieces.

Cannibalism appears to be a first but otherwise there is not much that the psychopaths inside the armed groups have not done in Syria. Or are people who can do such things not to be called psychopaths? They are the best people, after all, to fight such a vicious conflict. The self-styled Free Syrian Army says it will hunt down the man who cut out the soldier’s heart. Good.  It can also hunt down the throat-cutters and the ‘rebels’ who have cut people’s heads off.   It can hunt down the men who killed public servants before flinging their bodies from the top of the post office building in Al Bab. It can hunt down their comrades in arms who deliberately target civilians with car bombs.  It can hunt down the murderers of the imam and 50 worshippers in the Damascus mosque and it can hunt down all the rapists and kidnappers, including the Chechens who abducted the two bishops still being held in Aleppo while the Christian leaders of western governments look the other way.   In its hunting for all the individuals who have tainted its glorious reputation,   the FSA won’t have to look far because many come from its own ranks. There is no shortage of evidence.  The media is awash with gory mobile phone and video footage of the handiwork of these men because they take pride in their bravery and want the world to see.  These are the people Saudi Arabia and Qatar have been arming and funding to take over Syria.

This is the reality behind the false narrative spun by the media for the past two years. It has regurgitated  every lie and exaggeration of ‘activists’ and the so-called Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, according to which  the Syrian ‘regime’ was  about to fall any minute  and every atrocity was actually the work of the Syrian military.  With the exception of a few reports filed recently by Robert Fisk, virtually no one in the media mainstream has reported the fighting from the perspective of the Syrian government and army.  Reporters were moved across borders by the armed groups and reported only their version of events.  This is like relying on reporters embedded with the US army for an accurate account of what was happening in Iraq.   And, again like Iraq, the same propaganda is being repeated about chemical weapons.

Finally, reality has had to take hold.  It is not the ‘regime’ or the army which is on the point of collapse but the insurgency. Only direct armed intervention is going to save it and against the successes of the Syrian army and solid Russian support for the Syrian government this is extremely unlikely. Obama is being pushed to ‘do more’ but is showing no inclination to be sucked any deeper into this mess. The others will do nothing without the US taking the lead. Germany is against involvement and Austria has said that supplying arms to the ‘rebels’, which Britain has  wanted to do,   when the EU embargo ends on May 31 would be a violation of international law.

This week the spotlight has been on Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his trip to Washington to discuss Syria with Barack Obama. Turkey’s role in the unfolding of the Syrian conflict has been central.  Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Libya supplied the money and arms but it was Turkey whose territory was opened up to the mobilization of armed men crossing the border to bring down the ‘regime.’ Erdogan has not stepped back an inch from the position he took against Bashar al Assad more than two years ago. The only clear case of a chemical weapons attack has been the chlorine-based compound packed into a warhead and fired at a Syrian army checkpoint at Khan al Assal, killing a number of soldiers and civilians. Erdogan, however, is maintaining that it is the Syrian army that has used chemical weapons and by doing so has crossed Obama’s ‘red line. ’ Asked shortly before he left for Washington whether he would support a no-fly zone he replied:  ‘Right from the beginning we would say yes.’

Last week cars packed with more than one ton of C4 and TNT were exploded in the Hatay province border town of Reyhanli.  At least 51 people were killed.  The destruction was massive. The municipality building and dozens of shops were obliterated.  In the aftermath, cars with Syrian number plates were smashed and Syrian refugees attacked by enraged local people.  As they milled around the destruction they cursed Erdogan. The atrocity followed a pattern that is familiar to Syrians:  one bomb going off and then others exploding after people had gathered around the site of the first one, maximizing the death toll.

Notwithstanding the accusations of the Turkish government that this was the work of a terrorist group collaborating with the Syrian mukhabarat (intelligence),  only the armed groups or one of the governments backing them would have a clear reason for setting up this  outrage. The Syrian army is rolling up the insurgency, the ‘traitors’ council’ based in Doha has imploded and the Americans and Russians are sitting down to talk. The attack was very clearly designed to pull Turkey directly into the conflict across the border.

The attack on Reyhanli came a week after Israel launched a series of savage air attacks on Syria.    This was not a one-off missile strike. Two attacks in three days, lasting for hours and with massive ordinance being dropped around Damascus, suggest that the aim was to provoke a Syrian response, opening the door to a general war in which Iran could be attacked. Israel claimed that the target was a shipment of missiles bound for Hizbullah but while a research station and a military food production plant were hit there was no evidence of any missiles being destroyed.  The attacks appear to have been a strategic and political failure. In the aftermath Putin gave Netanyahu a dressing down and punished him either by supplying or threatening to supply Syria with advanced S300 anti-aircraft missiles. It is a measure of Israel’s arrogance that it insisted that it would launch further attacks if necessary and would destroy the Syrian government if it dared to retaliate.

Obama is now under pressure at home to ‘do more’. In Washington the same people who called for war on Iraq are now calling for widening the conflict in Syria. Senator Bob Menendez, a strong supporter of Israel,  like virtually all congressmen  and women, has introduced a bill  calling on the administration to supply the ‘rebels’ with arms (as if it were not already doing that covertly or through support for arms being supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar). Former New York Times editor Bill Keller supported the war on Iraq and also wants the US to arm the ‘rebels’ and ‘defend the civilians being slaughtered in their homes’ in Syria.  He is not talking about the civilians who have been slaughtered by the armed groups, of course.

The Washington Post has been forced to admit that the Syrian army is winning this conflict but is still nonplussed at the unfavorable turns of events. ‘What if the US doesn’t intervene in Syria?’ it asks, before providing the answers. Syria will fracture along sectarian lines, with Jabhat al Nusra taking over the north and ‘remnants of the regime’ taking strips of the west. Sectarian warfare will spread to Iraq – as if it has not already as a consequence of US intervention – and Lebanon. Chemical weapons would be up for grabs, ‘probably forcing further interventions by Israel in order to prevent their acquisition by Hizbullah or Al Qaida’. If the US does not intervene to prevent all of this Turkey and Saudi Arabia ‘could conclude that the United States is no longer a reliable ally.’

There are other more likely answers to ‘what will happen’. This is that the  Syrian army will eventually drive the surviving ‘rebels’ out of the country and Bashar will come out of this  more popular than ever because he saw off the greatest challenge to the Syrian state in its history.   Elections will be held in 2014 and he will be elected president with 75 per cent of the vote. This at least is what the CIA is predicting.

Erdogan came to Washington also wanting Obama to ‘do more’,  but clearly the US president does not want to do much if anything more. The Turkish media reported that Obama said Assad ‘must’ go but this was not what he said.  He chose his words carefully. In his press conference with Erdogan he did not say that said Assad ‘must’ go but that he ‘needs’ to go and ‘needs’ to transfer power to a transitional body. The difference is all-important. Personally, Obama will not want to end his presidency stuck in an unwinnable and unpopular war, one, furthermore, that could quickly shift from regional to global crisis. A recent Pew poll shows that the American people have had enough of wars in the Middle East and the talks between Kerry and Lavrov indicate that this time, having allowed the Geneva agreement of July, 2012, to fall flat, the US is serious about reaching a negotiated end to this crisis even if others aren’t.  If there is any danger of the US position being derailed, it will mostly likely arise within the ranks of its friends and allies.

– Jeremy Salt is an associate professor of Middle Eastern history and politics at Bilkent University in Ankara, Turkey. He contributed this article to

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1 Comment

  1. Much of Obama’s presidency has been characterized by the things he has not done. He has not closed Guantanamo, he has not supported the Arab struggle for democracy, he has not stood up to Netanyahu nor made any serious contribution to human rights for Palestinians. But by not sending troops into Syria (even if the US planned and allowed the savage catastrophe to play out in that country) and by not attacking Iran perhaps after all Obama has shown more wisdom than some of the more rabid incumbents that have previously resided in the White House. The man is a war criminal and a disgrace to the institution set up Alfred Nobel, but the alternatives might have been worse.

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