Inter Press Service
What with rumors from Israel of war on Iran, a major showdown with the Egyptian military over the indictments of government-funded U.S. activists in Cairo, and continuing political paralysis in Iraq, you would think President Barack Obama has enough Middle East crises to deal with.
But in the aftermath of the Russian and Chinese vetoes at the U.N. Security Council of an Arab League-sponsored resolution calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down as part of a transition leading to elections, calls for Washington to take stronger action, including arming rebel forces, have grown much louder.
So far, the administration has resisted the pressure, focusing instead on convening a "Friends of Syria" contact group of anti-Assad Western and Arab states to ensure that whatever support may be provided to the chronically fractious opposition is coordinated to the greatest possible extent.
Washington is particularly eager to coordinate policy with Turkey.
Citing the precedent of last year's U.S. intervention in Libya, three of the Senate's most hawkish members said Wednesday sanctions and the creation of the contact group were not enough.
"In Libya, the threat of imminent atrocities in Benghazi mobilized the world to act," Sens. John McCain, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman said in a joint statement. "Such atrocities are now a reality in Homs and other cities all across Syria. More than 6,000 lives have been lost, and there is no end in sight."
"We must consider, among other actions, providing opposition groups inside Syria, both political and military, with better means to organize their activities …, to defend themselves, and to fight back against Assad's forces," urged the three senators.
Their remarks echoed those of neo-conservatives and other hawks who have been arguing for months that Washington should intervene more forcefully in the ongoing violence in Syria for strategic, as well as humanitarian reasons.
"Syria is the soft underbelly of Iran, Tehran's most important ally, (and a) conduit for arms and cash to terrorists," wrote Danielle Pletka, the vice president for foreign and defence policy studies at the neo-conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), on CNN's website this week in support of arming the Turkey-based Free Syrian Army (FSA), among other steps to help oust Assad from power.
"A unique confluence of American moral purpose and America's strategic interest argue for intervention in Syria," she argued. "It's time to do something tangible."
The hawks, whose advice has been echoed on the campaign trail by three of the four major Republican presidential candidates (Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, and Rick Santorum), have been joined by some prominent “pro-Israel” liberals, including some who supported the 2003 Iraq invasion and last year's use of a U.N.- mandated no-fly zone to achieve regime change in Libya.
"How can the president dine out on Libya if he is not prepared to do the same for Syria?" asked Leon Wieseltier of The New Republic, which this Thursday launched a rolling "symposium" on what to do about Syria. "Assad is perpetrating in Homs, Hama, Dara'a, and elsewhere what Qaddafi only threatened to perpetrate in Benghazi."
"In the case of Syria, our interests accord with our values," he went on, noting that the weakening of Iran's regional position was the greater "strategic prize" to be gained from Assad's downfall. As a first step, he said Washington "should aid and arm the Free Syrian Army…"
The drumbeat to arm the FSA, however, is drawing considerable scepticism from some influential quarters for a variety of reasons, not least the fact that the FSA, insofar as it is a coherent force, does not appear to be responsive to the Syrian National Council (SNC), the umbrella opposition group that has gained a degree of international recognition over the last several months.
Indeed, the FSA's nominal head, Col Riad al-Assaad, denounced the SNC as a group of "traitors" last weekend after it tried to create a higher military council headed by a general who recently defected to the opposition.
In a column published by the Financial Times Monday, Anne-Marie Slaughter, a Princeton University professor who was Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's top policy adviser until last summer, argued that arming the FSA would lead "to certain civil war".
"(T)he more (the FSA) goes on the offence, the more Mr. Assad's supporters will pull together and the more the conflict will divide along sectarian lines," she argued. "This is exactly the scenario the regime is trying to depict."
Similarly, Marc Lynch, a George Washington University professor who has advised the White House throughout the so-called "Arab Spring", warned that arming a very fractious opposition "is more likely to produce a protracted stalemate, increased violence, more regional and international meddling, and eventual calls for direct military intervention."
"The perennial, deep problem of the Syrian opposition," he wrote on his foreignpolicy.com blog, "is that it remains fragmented, disorganized, and highly localized. The 'Free Syrian Army remains something of a fiction, a convenient mailbox for a diverse, unorganized collection of local fighting groups …(that) remain deeply divided."
Moreover, he warned, decisions about how to distribute the weapons would likely create competition within the FSA that, in turn, "could easily exacerbate their divisions", while, as fighting groups become more powerful, "those who have advocated non-violence or who advance political strategies will be marginalized."
Joshua Landis, the director of Middle East studies at the University of Oklahoma whose Syria expertise is often tapped by the government, agreed with much of Lynch's analysis.
"By militarising the conflict, the SNC and other groups the West has spent a lot of time cultivating will lose their leadership of the opposition, because power will go to those who get the guns and the money, and they may not be people who America would find as appealing."
But Landis believes that Washington will eventually arm the opposition, noting that Qatar and others in the Gulf have begun to supply weapons, albeit not yet of the kind and quantity that could seriously threaten the regime.
"Other than the humanitarian outrage, which does play an important role, I think there's going to be a compelling interest to get involved, in part because once somebody starts to arm, then there's a scramble for control of this new method of influence," he told IPS."
"A major purpose of the developing a contact group is to coordinate all this, because the worry is that different countries will support different militias – The Gulfies will support the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups, and the West will support the secular groups – and then, if and when the regime falls, they'd be fighting each other."