• The Syrian mess
    May 19,2013
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    It is quite clear that in the United States and the rest of the West policymakers are divided on whether the West should invade Syria. American “political realists” have pulled out the stops to show the dangers and stupidity of such an invasion, whereas American supporters of “permanent war” led by the same neocons who got us into Iraq are just itching to get us enmeshed in Syria.

    The “discussion” of this issue has not always been on the up and up. In fact, the potential for inserting disinformation into the equation is endless.

    In a May 9 article, The Times of Israel laid out Israel’s suspicion that Syria is in the process of buying six S-300 missile batteries and 144 missiles from Russia.

    Syria already has a highly advanced air defense system, one that has caused our military planners to be very circumspect about any sort of military adventure in Syria. The addition of a Russian system that is capable of downing both fighter planes and cruise missiles would represent a significant upgrade for Syria’s already highly effective air defenses.

    Clearly, the purpose of the article was to warn the United States that the sale could hamper efforts for international intervention in Syria. Perhaps we should act sooner rather than later?

    This suspicion had previously been reported in The Wall Street Journal. The critical question here is whether any of it is true.

    Then we have the issue of the use of poison gas in Syria. The original accusation was that the Assad regime had been the culprits. Just now, we have learned that the U.N. says the U.S.-backed opposition used the gas, not the regime.

    Of course, the poison gas would not have been a major issue had it not been for the inept and ill-considered presidential “red line” that has reduced U.S. options in Syria and put presidential credibility at stake.

    But we have the allegations of the poison gas and the unfortunate “red line,” so it matters.

    Further, there have been constant allegations of atrocities committed by the government and the rebels since the onset of the Syrian insurrection.

    The Assad regime is 100 percent sectarian. Supported by a smattering of Christians and Sunnis, the Alawites, a branch of Shia Islam, have governed in Syria through fear and repression. That is about all one can do when representing no more than 15 percent of the overall Syrian population. Since the 1970 Assad coup against the Baath regime, the minority Alawites have ruled the majority Sunnis with an iron fist and have allied themselves with Iran and Hezbollah against Israel.

    In short, with the exception of Shia Iran, there are few in the region who support the Syrian Alawites.

    It is likely that Bashar Assad and the Alawites will only leave Syria in coffins. They probably see no alternative but to stand and fight.

    Like everything else in the Middle East, Syria is part of the detritus of colonialism — a “country” formed for the convenience and profit of the old Western colonial powers.

    With America set up as the main enemy for the Syrians, there is little wonder that we are besieged by all manner of horrendous stories about poison gas, missile deliveries and atrocities. But keep in mind that we are looking at a soundly cynical world in which everyone and anyone is prepared to lie to forward their own interests.

    Russia has long had a political stake in Syria and still has a naval base there. The Syrian Sunnis (freedom fighters?) have always chafed under repressive minority Alawite rule. The Alawites, seeing no reasonable alternative to staying in power, will fight on. The Iranians see the Alawites as one of their few allies in a predominantly Sunni world. Hezbollah sees the Alawites as their champions in the Hezbollah fight with Israel. Israel sees the Alawites as a constant irritant.

    So, who really is behind the poison gas, the missile story and the atrocities? To understand that, one has to look at who benefits from what course of action.

    The Israelis, Sunnis, Lebanese, Turks, Saudis, Jordanians and some conservative Americans probably would favor U.S. intervention in Syria if only in the name of stability. These people clearly would try to pin any bad behavior on the Iranians, Shiites, Alawites and Hezbollah, true or not, to encourage U.S. intervention. Then there are the Russians, Iranians and Chinese, who would avoid such an intervention.

    In the end, it will probably be U.S. public opinion that decides, and there is a growing group of Americans who are exhausted by our wars of the past dozen years and understand the very real dangers in direct Syrian involvement.

    With any real luck, they will prevail.

    Haviland Smith is a retired CIA station chief who served in Prague, Berlin, Beirut, Tehran and Washington, and as chief of the counterterrorism staff. He lives in Williston.
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