US President Barack Obama’s commencement address delivered on Wednesday afternoon at West Point military college suggested an intensification of practical US support for the Syrian opposition and a new phase of US involvement in the crisis, writes Abdelbari Atwan.
President Obama spoke of two-pronged support aimed at assisting the armed opposition: first, against the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad; and second, against the Islamic extremist groups who currently constitute more than 50 percent of the armed opposition.
President Obama’s statements do not require much explanation or interpretation; he wants to combat the burgeoning power of the Islamist armies – which the US identify as “terrorists” – without losing a single American soldier, and, ideally, the bill will be picked up by rich Gulf States such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
The Pentagon revealed to the Wall Street Journal on Tuesday that Obama is about to authorize US-led training for the “moderate” opposition; on Wednesday, however, in a National Radio interview, Obama added the caveat that this will take “more time than most folks imagine.” The CIA already has a small training unit in place but this potential widening of US involvement reflects the White House’s concern about the growing strength of radical Islamic groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (Isis) and the more indigenous al-Nusra Front.
Obama described the Islamists as “hardened fighters” while the moderate opposition fighters are “people who were farmers or dentists or maybe some radio reporters who don’t have a lot of experience fighting.”
What we are witnessing is the beginning of a project similar to the “Contras” in South America in the 1980s – in Nicaragua in particular, combined with something like the “Awakening” forces organised by General Petraeus, the former Commander of American forces in Iraq.
In fact, US training already started some time ago – in camps established for the purpose in Jordan, and in newer ones in Qatar. There has also been an influx of modern, quality weapons to armed opposition groups, including American anti-tank missiles.
Mr Ahmad Al-Jarba, Chairman of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), said that more weapons will arrive within three weeks, but did not specify the quality of the weapons or reveal whether they will include the highly effective “Man Pad” anti-aircraft missiles, which could effectively change the balance of power on the ground since the regime is relying mainly on aerial bombardment to maintain its supremacy.
To date, the Obama administration has refused to supply Man Pads, despite pressure from the Syrian opposition, Congress and the Arab States, for fear that they might fall into the hands of Isis or other extremist groups who might use them against Israel.
On Tuesday, PBS broadcast an American documentary by Muslim journalist Mohammed Ali, who has been embedded with the Syrian armed opposition for the past two and a half years. The film revealed that 90 Syrian opposition fighters were transferred from the battlefields to the Turkish capital, Ankara, where they were received by CIA officers who interrogated them for several days about their political and ideological orientation – the purpose being to uncover any radical Islamist sympathies; having been cleared, they were then sent to a training camp in Qatar on the Saudi border, where CIA trainers taught them how to set up ambushes, use modern weapons and finish off wounded Syrian soldiers.
Ratcheting up American military involvement comes at the same time as a diplomatic escalation to sideline the Syrian regime from the international community. Syria’s Ambassador to the UN, Bashar Ja’afari, accused the UN of facilitating a plot against the regime. France, he said, was inciting public opinion against Syria within the UN and had launched a “futile” bid to have the Syrian file investigated at the International Criminal Court (ICC).
The French security council resolution, Jaafari said, was aimed at “piling up political pressure on the Syrian government and throwing into confusion the presidential elections so as to end up in a state of constitutional, political and security vacuum.” According to Jaafari, the final aim is to make Syria a failed state so that the West can intervene under cover of humanitarianism, “the war on terror” or the ICC. He accused the UK of drafting a “more dangerous” resolution under the humanitarian file to follow the report released by the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on the implementation of resolution 2139 that deals with the humanitarian situation in Syria.
Jaafari also suggested that the UN – under pressure from the Gulf States, America, Britain and France – was preparing to replace him with an SNC representative.
My enemy’s enemy
To return to the military aspect of this increasingly complex file: arming the “moderate” Syrian opposition can only further complicate the situation on the ground, prolong the war, and double the number of people killed since the start of the uprising, currently estimated at more than 200,000 people, mostly civilians.
Based on the principle of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” it is not inconceivable that the battle-hardened jihadist groups could join forces against the US-backed “moderate” opposition and “Awakening” forces. What then?
The Awakening did not succeed in eliminating Al-Qaida in Iraq, and the Contras did not achieve the American goal of eliminating Latin American left wing governments hostile to the US agenda.
All that these interventions achieved was a deeper hostility among the populaces of the affected countries towards an arrogant superpower which believes that history should dance to its tune.
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