The Syrian Conflict
By: John Hampton
The Syrian conflict is part of the wider Arab Spring – a democratic movement that began early last year and spread throughout the Arab world. Demonstrations and protest (many involving brutal and savage acts perpetrated against innocent bystanders) have already occurred throughout the region. Citizens have used these demonstrations to demand that rulers such as Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Moammar Gadhafi of Libya, and Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen be removed from power. All four men have been deposed and Gadhafi was killed by rebels in the concomitant violence.
So far, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad has resisted all similar demands to relinquish the power that he and his family have held in Syria for the last four decades, even as violence, chaos and blood shed continues to escalate. Several cities are under siege by the Syrian military as evidenced by the fact that they are being shelled by tanks and artillery, while innocent men women and children are tortured and murdered. The al-Assad government claims that armed gangs of rebel forces are to blame for the fervid conditions. The rebel forces, as well as the UN, assert that the government and the military are responsible.
In an attempt to end the hostilities, Arab League envoy Kofi Annan put together a six-point peace plan. Among other things, his plan calls for an end to all violence between government and rebel forces, as well as a dialogue between the two, and access to aid. Unfortunately, violence has once again surged as Annan’s nascent peace plan failed to achieve the desired results.
In addition, there is now growing concern by the U.S. and other countries, that Russia is selling helicopter gunships to the Syrian government. These gunships are being used by the Syrian military to fire on rebel combatants as well as civilians. The UN has reported that government forces have killed more than 10,000 people since the conflict began. At the same time, Syrian officials report that 2,600 military/security members have been killed by foreign backed “Islamist terrorists.”
These events pose a major problem for, and a potential threat to, the United States. How should the Obama administration react? On one hand, the slaughter of innocent civilians cannot be ignored, but on the other hand, just how deeply does the U.S. involve itself in yet another morass? Iran (ally of Syria) is still working toward its goal of a nuclear weapon and Russia is allegedly selling helicopter gunships to Syria. And by the way, when it comes to buying helicopters, the U.S. is also a customer of Russia. Since the 9-11 attacks, the Pentagon has spent more than $1 billion on Russian military helicopters for countries like Afghanistan and Iraq.
The theory behind these purchases is that the rugged and powerful Russian Mi17 helicopter was designed specifically for areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq. Also, the armies of these countries are more familiar with the operation and maintenance of this particular aircraft.
Does that make sense? The United States has given an immeasurable amount of blood and treasure in an attempt to defeat terrorism and bring freedom to Afghanistan and Iraq. Was part of the reason for fighting these battles to provide a market for Russian aviation? Has the U.S. conceded that Russian technology is superior to that of our own? If lucrative contracts are to be awarded, why would they go anywhere other than to U.S. manufacturers?
Back in 2001 and 2003, the Afghans and Iraqis were undoubtedly more familiar with the operation and maintenance of the Mi17. But why were U.S. helicopters and training not provided from the beginning? Had that been the case, it would not be necessary to award quasi obligatory contracts to foreign governments today. The Afghans and the Iraqis would have been well versed in U.S. aircraft operations and procedures by now. Have not Afghan and Iraqi ground troops been trained in U.S. tactics, techniques and procedures from the beginning?
Secretary of State Clinton has called on Russia to stop arming the Syrian military. She warned the situation in Syria is “spiraling towards civil war.” And some U.S. lawmakers have called on the Obama administration to get tougher on Russia. But does the U.S. have any tangible leverage to use against Russia?
In November of last year, a U.S. airstrike against a Pakistani military post along the border with Afghanistan killed 24 Pakistani soldiers. A joint U.S./Afghan operation called in the strike after coming under fire. NATO Secretary General Rasumussen called the incident a “tragic unintended accident”, and Pakistani officials claim the assault was unprovoked. Bottom line is the Pakistani government reacted by shutting down NATO’s main supply line into Afghanistan and suspending military and intelligence cooperation with the United States. This forced NATO and the U.S. to utilize the alternate northern transit route, which runs in part through Russia and of course, requires their cooperation.
And if president Assad is indeed on his way out, it is unlikely that Russian president Vladimir Putin will sit idly by while the Obama administration orchestrates the new government of his ally. So presently, the U.S. needs Russian cooperation to facilitate a land based supply line into Afghanistan, and for that reason, must tread lightly when dealing with Syria.
Pakistan has said it would consider reopening the supply route if the U.S. would apologize for the airstrike and agree to pay a fee of $5,000 per truck. Defense Secretary Panetta said the United States would refrain from such a deal due to budgetary restraints. Secretary Panetta has also said that closure of the Pakistan supply route is costing the U.S. an additional $100 million per month. So one way or another, we pay. Washington has offered its regrets for the airstrike, but has so far refused to apologize.
Remember the repeated apologies that came from the Obama administration after the inadvertent burning of Korans in Afghanistan? It seems odd that this administration is refusing to apologize for an airstrike which killed several of our supposed allies (and is now contributing to an increase of $100 million per month in our military budget), but was more than willing to apologize profusely for the accidental burning of a few Korans. I’m not saying we’re obligated to apologize and pay the fee, I’m just pointing out the irony of the situation.
How will President Obama deal with this intricate and complex situation? Will he arm the rebels? The Russians may view this as an act of aggression against their ally and close the northern transit route. Will he accede to Pakistani demands? They have already proven themselves untrustworthy vis-à-vis the sheltering of Osama bin Laden. Will he put U.S. troops on the ground? This could alienate his constituents and jeopardize his reelection. Will he maintain the status quo? Only time will tell, but if the violence continues, the U.S. will not be able to stay on the sidelines much longer.
John Hampton lives in Tehachapi CA and is quite concerned about the policies and motives of the current Administration. He believes in a system that holds our freedoms sacred, promotes personal responsibility, prudence and high moral standards.