Obama’s line in the sand may prove to be a quagmire

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from Ambassador Price’s September 9, 2013 blog post.

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President Barrack Obama in making his case for a military strike against Syria stated that Bashar al-Assad had used deadly nerve agents against his people. Politicos around the world however are not convinced that the U.S. and UN inspectors have pinpointed exactly who used the chemical weapons last August in which over one thousand people died.

Congress is debating a resolution for limited strikes against the rogue regime. The Obama administration is “champing at the bit” to go after Assad without an endgame plan, or considering the collateral damage that could cause many people to die by errant missiles.

The Pentagon wants a three day window for bombing Syria to inflict punitive punishment, while the White House wants sixty days to use cruise missiles, with a possible thirty day extension. All of this spells out a broader conflict and possible retaliation against American interests. U.S. incursions in the past have drawn us into never-ending quagmires.

Saudi Arabia and Qatar may have their own agenda for ousting Assad, having armed opposition rebel groups and the al-Qaeda linked Jabhat al-Nusra Front. An article indicated that Assad stands in the way of a proposed major gas pipeline to Turkey from the Arab states. Russia which controls the European market doesn’t want the competition, hence supports the Assad regime, which opposes the pipeline project. France is a strong proponent of attacks against Assad, and would stand to benefit from this new source of natural gas.

The armed rebels and Islamists fighting the Syrian troops are executing their captives, and killing any civilians that stand in their way. U.S. Representative Mike Rogers from Michigan stated that in supporting the Syrian rebels he isn’t sure who is being armed—the good guys or bad guys.

We have a short memory of the recent failed incursion into Libya to remove Muammar Gaddafi, where rebel groups were armed and destabilized the country. In Egypt Mohamed Morsi was recently deposed after serving less than one year as president, bringing further chaos to the country. Gaddafi had warned if he were ousted Libya would become a base for al-Qaeda. After his downfall the Warfalla tribal clan in the town of Sirte became the target of Islamists who have butchered hundreds of the clan. Bashar al-Assad knows only too well that the same fate awaits him and the minority Alawite tribe, which has added to his intransigence.

The U.S. attack against Syria may not make a difference, since Israel’s airstrikes earlier this year to destroy Iranian missiles bound for the Hezbollah in Lebanon did not moderate Assad’s behavior. Assad has stated that any U.S. strikes will be met with an unfettered military response, which could escalate the conflict into the neighboring countries.

Regime change did not bring about democratic reform in Libya where the new President Mohammed Magerief is being undermined by Islamists, and had to purge several cabinet ministers. President Moncef Marzouki of Tunisia has seen assassination attempts against several government leaders. Abdelaziz Bouteflika Algeria’s ruler faces continual threats to his rule by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 spilled over into Yemen where President Ali Abdullah Saleh had been fighting tribal clans and al-Qaeda for years, and could not bring stability to the country. His successor Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi continues to battle the powerful Ansar al-Sharia Islamists. U.S. Special Ops Forces, CIA operatives and drones are there to help subdue Islamist leaders.

In the Middle East there is growing discontent, which could lead to uprisings in Jordan, Kuwait, Oman, and Bahrain where rulers have already made major concessions to pacify demonstrators; civil unrest continues to fester in Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Mistrust of the U.S in the region goes back to 1951 when Iran’s Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh nationalized the oil industry. The Anglo-Iranian Oil Company lost the oil reserves and the Abadan refinery. In 1953 Mosaddegh was elected democratically as head of state. Shortly thereafter he was deposed, which brought Mohammad Rezā Shāh Pahlavi to power as the new authoritarian leader. The U.S. supported the Shah until he was overthrown 1979 in the Iranian Revolution which brought to power the Shiite fundamentalist Ayatollah Sayyed Ruhollah Musavi Khomeini.

In Africa the U.S. has stood-by for years, as genocide caused millions of people to die in Rwanda, Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, Congo and elsewhere. In Somalia Siad Barre the brutal ruler was overthrown by warlord clans in 1991. Twenty-two years later unstable governments that we supported have failed to bring peace to the country.

In early 1993 the U.S. undertook a humanitarian mission in Somalia which was attacked by the warlord Mohamed Farrah Aidid–twenty-four soldiers were killed. The U.S. went after Aidid, supposedly hiding in a safe house in Mogadishu. Cobra helicopters mistakenly fired missiles into a building where seventy clan elders were meeting to discuss peace solutions for Somalia.

In October 1993 the U.S. again went after Aidid and his Habar Gedir clan. The operation included 160 soldiers, nineteen aircraft, and twelve vehicles. Forewarned Aidid and over 2,000 well-armed Somali and al-Qaeda fighters were waiting. In the ensuing battle two Black Hawk helicopters were shot down and three others were damaged. One crash site was overrun by the Islamists, and eighteen U.S. soldiers died. Angry Somalis dragged several of the dead soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu.

In August 1998 President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack aimed at the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in Khartoum, Sudan. Intelligence sources indicated that chemical weapons were being manufactured there by Osama bin Laden. The attack was in retaliation to the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in which 224 people died. Soil samples gathered from the plant site were never produced as evidence. The German ambassador to Sudan stated the Al-Shifa plant was the primary source of pharmaceuticals for thousands of Sudanese people.

Ambassador Susan Rice, President Clinton’s assistant secretary for African affairs, and now President Obama’s national security advisor in May 2013 warned that the violence in Syria could likely spread to neighboring countries. Last week however she was in concert with cabinet members opting for a strike against Syria. Former national security adviser Zbigniew K. Brzezinski noted that any military attack on Syria could lead to a large-scale disaster for the United States.

A U.S. attack on Syria is fraught with unknown consequences in the chaotic environment that exists. Such attacks would also put Israel at more risk, which has had a forty year semi-peaceful coexistence with Syria. Secretary of State John Kerry said that immediate action was needed so that extremist groups fighting there would not become stronger. Experts argue that bloodshed would continue in any event, since attaining democracy in Syria’s multi-cultural tribal society will be very difficult to achieve.

The endgame plan for Syria will require a political solution, since a military option to remove Assad will not bring about peace. Partitioning of Syria may satisfy the Shiites, Sunnis, Alawites, and Kurdish factions, but will not bring about a lasting peace either. Righteous indignation by the Obama administration should not be the overriding factor in the decision to attack Syria.

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