While the amusingly named and poorly informed Marko Attila Hoare has joined Tony Blair and John McCain in calling for Libyan style regime change in Syria, President Obama does not seem enthusiastic, possibly realising that, as it turned out in Libya, a complete victory for either side would be a bad thing not only for NATO government’s interests but for Syrians too.
The Obama administration has poured cold water on David Cameron’s proposal of a no-fly zone in Syria and said its only providing arms to get Assad to negotiate. Obama may well not want total victory for Syrian rebel Sunni Jihadists who include Al Qa’ida any more than for Assad (1) – (2).
A no-fly zone might not be a bad thing, if it was actually just a no-fly zone only used to stop Assad’s air-force attacking civilians and not used, as in Libya, to let NATO air-forces bomb in support of rebel offensives – and if Syria didn’t have relatively advanced Russian MIG fighters and anti-aircraft missile systems – and if Russia wasn’t hinting at World War Three breaking out if NATO tries it(3).
Obama likely knows that as soon as a no-fly zone is established the hawks (or head-bangers) like Cameron and McCain will then try to use it the way it was used in Libya though.
The US has already been co-operating with the Saudis, Turkey, France, Jordan, Britain and Croatia to arm the rebels by proxy since 2011 and greatly stepped up flights since late 2012, but they've not sent any heavy weapons or hand held anti-aircraft missiles because they know the rebels include Al Nusrah/Al Qa'ida and pretty much all the rebels are Sunni Islamists likely to be hostile to NATO governments if they do manage to overthrow Assad (4) – (6).
Much of the arms and training provided have been conditional on the groups receiving them using them against Al Nusrah and its Iraqi Al Qa'ida allies in Syria (7). While some of the weapons provided by the NATO-Saudi-Jordanian network have got into the hands of Al Nusrah (Al Qa’ida’s Syrian branch) this still suggests Obama is at least as concerned about defeating Al Qa’ida in Syria as defeating Assad (8).
The chances of “moderate” rebels (and that’s a very relative term in Syria) being able to win such a two front war are slim though.
This may be why he opposed sending any direct US military aid until after the full of Qusayr Since then he has authorised only small arms excluding hand held surface to air missiles again.
This is treated by the media as a big change – since the Saudis were already providing small arms and anti-tank weapons with CIA co-ordination, it’s merely a symbolic change.
If he was foolish enough to send hand-held anti-aircraft weapons it wouldn’t be long before Al Qa’ida brought down a US passenger plane with one and the same Republicans (and Democrats) who’d called on him to provide the rebels with them were demanding to know why he had been so irresponsible as to let them get into the hands of Al Qaeda or other Sunni extremists.
It may be that Obama hopes to arm the less extreme rebels to try to defeat both Assad and Al Qa’ida/Nusrah simultaneously. Or it may be that he would prefer a bloody stalemate to either side winning. Or maybe he wants to force Assad to go by arming the rebels and through sanctions. Or he may mean exactly what he says – that he prefers a negotiated political settlement to either side winning by force.
Here in the UK Prime Minister David Cameron first proposed arming the rebels. He successfully prevented a continuation of the EU embargo on arms to either side in Syria.
However his own backbench MPs then demanded a parliamentary vote before any decision by the British government to arm the rebels. He was forced to promise this and it soon became clear that so many of his own Conservative party MPs would vote against it (along with most of the Liberal Democrats and Labour) that he would lose such a vote heavily. That may be why he’s so focused on a no-fly zone, but getting no encouragement from Obama (9).
(1) = VOA News 18 Jun 2013 ‘Obama Skeptical About Syria No-Fly Zone Potential’,
(2) = NYT 14 Jun 2013 ‘Heavy Pressure Led to Decision by Obama on Syrian Arms’, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/15/us/politics/pressure-led-to-obamas-decision-on-syrian-arms.html?pagewanted=all
(3) = See (1)
(4) = NYT 25 Feb 2013 ‘Saudis Step Up Help for Rebels in Syria With Croatian Arms’, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels-in-syria.html
(5) = The American Conservative 19 Dec 2011 ‘NATO Vs Syria’,
(6) = NYT 24 Mar 2013 ‘Arms Airlift to Syria Rebels Expands, With Aid From C.I.A.’, http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/world/middleeast/arms-airlift-to-syrian-rebels-expands-with-cia-aid.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
(7) = Anti-War.com 08 May 2013 ‘US Asked Moderate Syrian Rebels to Fight Al-Nusra’,
http://antiwar.com/blog/2013/05/08/us-asked-moderate-syrian-rebels-to-fight-al-nusra/ (provides main stream sources)
(8) = CBS News /AP 28 Mar 2013 ‘AP: "Master plan" underway to help Syria rebels take Damascus with U.S.-approved airlifts of heavy weapons’, http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-202_162-57576722/ap-master-plan-underway-to-help-syria-rebels-take-damascus-with-u.s.-approved-airlifts-of-heavy-weapons/(9) = FT blogs – world 18 Jun 2013 ‘Why the UK is highly unlikely to arm Syrian rebels’ http://blogs.ft.com/the-world/2013/06/why-the-uk-is-highly-unlikely-to-arm-syrian-rebels/