Wednesday, June 19, 2013

“There was a palpable fear of the [Assad] regime’s triumph.”

'Syrian Army preparing to enter Qusayr' 
MEPGS; Excerpts; 
"Some veteran observers see disarray within the Administration over policy towards Syria.  Others are even more critical, calling the President’s decision to provide arms to rebels fighting the Assad regime as “disingenuous” resulting not from solid evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons [One Middle East diplomat called the drawn out process of obtaining proof of its use, “ a bunch of crap”] but from the realization that Assad and his allies were gaining the upper hand.  “There is no overall strategy,” complained one veteran State Department Middle East analyst, who, to be fair, is no longer directly involved in policy making.  Those who are, not surprisingly, defend what critics are calling “too little, too late.”  As one key official puts it, “As the President has said publicly, this is a very complicated problem.  And what critics are calling a lack of strategy is really a criticism that things are not going our way.”
            Still, no one doubts that the civil war waging in Syria is significant for the future of the entire region.  One analyst calls it a “fight for the Arab soul.”  Others, less dramatically, still consider it profound, one veteran analyst noting that Damascus, not Baghdad stands at the crossroads of Arab politics [Still, to hear it from some of those with intimate experience in Iraq, the Gulf countries’ view of the conflict is deeply rooted in the Iraq war experience where, in the words of one analyst, a “Shia dictatorship replaced a Sunni one.”  In fact, for the overwhelmingly Sunni Middle East, the last decade has been one of repeated Shia triumphs, most notably in Iraq but also leading to the increasing menace, as they see it, of a powerful Iran.  In their view, the rebellion against the Assad regime in Syria, aided and abetted by the Shias of Iran, the Lebanese Shia militia, Hezbollah and to a lesser extent, Iraq, is an opportunity, as one analyst puts it, “…to make the next  decade one of Sunni resurgance.”
            The fall of the key town of Qusayr to Assad’s forces, in which Hezbollah played a major role, led to panic in the Administration, according to well-placed US officials.  When it became clear that the rebels were about to be routed, an emergency “Deputies Meeting” was held at the White House on Sunday June 9.  Three days later a “Principals Meeting” was convened and from that meeting came the decision to begin providing US arms to the rebels.  “It was a political gesture made in the face of fears that the fall of Qusayr would lead to rebel setbacks in Aleppo and Homs,” says this official. “There was a palpable fear of the [Assad] regime’s triumph.” Says another US official, “There is no doubt that Qusayr was a “game changer” for us.”
            The French and British have long warned Washington that, absent strong US involvement, there was no way that a moderate opposition could emerge, let alone dominate the rebellion.  For months, both British Prime Minister Cameron and French President Hollande personally have lobbied President Obama, but to no avail.  As one US official explains, “The Europeans, recognizing that there are extremists on both sides, nevertheless look at [siding militarily with the rebels] as a humanitarian need that protects their strategic position.”  And as this official says, using more colloquial language, “They feel Assad is `sitting pretty’ as Iran, Hezbollah, Russia and China take care of business for him.”  Another US official agrees, saying, “Russia and Syria are running circles around us.”
            Hezbollah’s role, as noted above, has been key to the Assad regime’s recent military successes.  Its leader, Hassan Nasrallah, is now publicly committed to Assad prevailing.  At first, some analysts thought the relatively quiet backing given by Hezbollah was the result of reluctance on their part to becoming publicly identified with a regime so unpopular with Sunni Arabs throughout the region.  And that Hezbollah had gotten involved at the behest of its long time patron, Iran. However, its full blown commitment has now led US analysts to conclude, in the words of one State Department official, “They didn’t need much of a push from Iran.”  Still, some US officials see a silver lining in Hezbollah’s alliance with the Assad regime.  Although Hezbollah represents the Shia of Lebanon, its unexpectedly strong performance against Israel in large scale fighting in 2006, made Nasrallah and his militia heroes of the entire Arab “street.”  “Their image is tarnished, to say the least,” argues one State Department official....
            The election of Hassan Rowhani has done nothing to ease Israel’s discomfort.  They see him as a potentially more acceptable “face” of Iranian radicalism but no less radical, especially on nuclear matters, than others in the regime.  This was a view certainly shared by US officials in the run up to the election with one State Department official calling the candidates “six shades of gray.”  But Rowhani’s election in the first round of voting has shaken that view among US experts..."

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