Friday, September 14, 2012

The Seeds Of This Clandestine Alliance

The Free Syrian Army, The West, Israel and The Gulf Cooperation Council

The seeds of this clandestine alliance go back more than five years, when Seymour Hersh reported in the New Yorker that the Bush administration had “cooperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations” intended to weaken the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon. “The US has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria,” wrote Hersch, “a byproduct of which is “the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups” hostile to the United States and “sympathetic to al-Qaeda.”
He also noted that “the Saudi government, with Washington’s approval, would provide funds and logistical aid to weaken the government of President Bashir Assad, of Syria,” with a view to pressure him to be “more conciliatory and open to negotiations” with Israel. One faction receiving covert U.S. “political and financial support” through the Saudis was the exiled Syrian Muslim Brotherhood.
Such intrigue continued post-Bush. According to Alastair Crooke, a former MI6 officer and Middle East advisor to EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the Saudis have eagerly played the role of proxy partner in a bid to mobilize Islamist extremists in the service of regional U.S. interests: “US officials speculated as to what might be done to block this vital corridor [from Iran to Syria], but it was Prince Bandar of Saudi Arabia who surprised them by saying that the solution was to harness Islamic forces. The Americans were intrigued, but could not deal with such people. Leave that to me, Bandar retorted.” This region-wide strategyinvolves the sponsorship of extremist Salafis in Syria, Libya, Egypt, Lebanon, Yemen, and Iraq “to disrupt and emasculate the awakenings that threaten absolute monarchism.”
No wonder that John Hannah, former national security advisor to Vice President Dick Cheney, remarked early last year that “Bandar working as a partner with Washington against a common Iranian enemy is a major strategic asset.” Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi ambassador to Washington, knew Osama bin Laden well – indeed, the late arch-terrorist thanked Bandar personally for the Prince’s “efforts to bring the Americans... to help us against... the communists” during the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. The same logic still applies. Mobilizing extremist Sunnis “across the region” under “Saudi resources and prestige” can “reinforce US policy and interests,” rejoiced Hannah. They can “weaken the Iranian mullahs; undermine the Assad regime; support a successful transition in Egypt; facilitate Qaddafi’s departure; reintegrate Iraq into the Arab fold; and encourage a negotiated solution in Yemen.”
The strategy is strengthening Islamist terrorists – perhaps deliberately. The wave of suicide bombings in Syria underscores the infiltration of al-Qaeda's ideology into Syria, including an influx of fighters from neighboring Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. “To them,” reports The Globe and Mail, “the real target is Shi’ism, and Iran, and the crescent of Shia forces from Tehran to Beirut.” One former U.S. Army intelligence officer noted the “rapidly evolving prowess” of the FSA, particularly in the “manufacture and use of bombs,” which comes in part from Syrian insurgents “who learned bomb-making while fighting US troops in eastern Iraq.”
According to Israeli intelligence officials, the presence of al-Qaeda fighters in the conflict is not a mere unfortunate accident. NATO and Turkish military authorities have discussed “a campaign to enlist thousands of Muslim volunteers in Middle East countries and the Muslim world to fight alongside the Syrian rebels. The Turkish army would house these volunteers, train them and secure their passage into Syria.”
It is therefore far from clear that the FSA represents the sentiments of Syrian civil society. Even its civilian benefactor, the Syrian National Council (SNC) – an umbrella body for Syrian opposition groups formally recognized by the West as “a legitimate representative of all Syrians” – is merely a “liberal front for the Muslim Brotherhood,” according to Kamal Labwani, who resigned from his SNC post earlier this year. Labwani slammed the Council’s drift away from “democracy and modernity...towards a renewed form of [religious] despotism,” a complaint corroborated by activists on the ground, including the Council’s own Local Coordination Committees. “One day we will wake up to find an armed militia... controlling the country through their weapons,” warned Labwani.
Another SNC member, Randa Kassis, warned of “insurmountable differences” between “Islamist fighters and the majority of the population.” The Islamist groups, he said, “which are superbly financed and equipped by the Gulf states, are ruthlessly seizing decision-making power for themselves.” He warns of the danger that the Islamists will “replace the corrupt terrorism of the Assad regime with a religious tyranny.” Although the puritanism of the Islamists “makes a rapid end to the war unlikely,” unfortunately “the Americans have put their money on the Muslim Brotherhood.”
The continued militarization of the conflict only exacerbates internal friction, with opposition groups fundamentally disagreeing on foreign intervention, dialogue with Assad, and relations with the FSA. Andrew Spath of the Foreign Policy Research Institute warns that “A turn to violent opposition of any kind plays directly into the hands of government as it attempts to divide, and thereby weaken, the opposition.”
Many in the opposition know this. Representatives of a dozen Syrian opposition groups, for instance, convened in Rome earlier this month calling for a ceasefire and an internationally mediated national dialogue to craft a viable political solution, firmly rejecting violence. One delegate, Abdul Aziz Alkhayer of the National Coordination Body – who had been imprisoned by Assad for 14 years – said, “weapons just kill people, destroy things. They cannot build anything.” But continued disagreement has weakened the wider opposition movement dramatically.
How liberal democracy will emerge from this process is difficult to imagine. The Syrian people – the driving force of the peaceful protests against Assad’s regime – are faced with a “choice” between Assad’s brutal dictatorship and U.S.-sponsored Islamist rebels allied with an exiled Muslim Brotherhood-dominated opposition. They have become unwitting pawns on a geopolitical chessboard in which the principal players are fighting a proxy war for strategic influence.
While the West steps up its covert support for the rebels, a fleet of Russian warships is now on the Syrian coast, amassing a contingent of marines in the event that Western or Israeli forces launch a direct assault on Assad’s regime. One of Russia’s growing concerns is Assad’s potential deployment of his chemical and biological weapons arsenal. Israel, Turkey, and Jordan would be first on his hit list, which could precipitate a regional war.
For the United States and United Kingdom, the three main goals are complementary and interlocking: first, to shore up the autocratic regional petroleum order in the Gulf against expanding Iranian power, and to defuse the impact of popular uprisings in the wider region; second, to counter the growing reach of traditional rivals Russia and China into the Middle East and Mediterranean; and third, to protect Israel against Iranian influence in the Levant through Syria.
But just as the West’s Islamist gambit during the Cold War (and after) paved the way for the global acceleration of al-Qaeda’s operations, the implications of this ill-conceived strategy could well be even more devastating. 
Equally, it is clear that Assad – like his contemporaries Mubarak and Gaddafi – is utterly bankrupt, his regime devoid of legitimacy. Unfortunately, foreign powers across the world are exploiting the crisis for their own short-term geopolitical gains. While publicly touting Kofi Annan’s peace plan, they have quietly undermined it by sponsoring violence. In the meantime, the specter of further militarization promises to escalate the bloodshed, empower the most criminal elements of both sides, and alienate the opposition movement’s support base.
The West should also be deeply wary of escalating military support for the rebels, since such intervention will provoke escalating military support to Assad’s regime from Russia, China, and Iran. This “arms race” dynamic suggests that there can be no military solution to the crisis. The Security Council powers should therefore consider coordinating maximum pressure on both sides to cease the use of force and come to the negotiating table through cessation of military and financial assistance, including sanctions on Assad’s regime. But sanctions will lack teeth if they do not also have buy-in from the other members of the Security Council. This is only conceivable if the great powers pull back and recognize that further militarization will thwart their respective geostrategic ambitions by intensifying sectarian conflict, accelerating anti-Western terrorist operations, and potentially destabilizing the whole Levant in a way that could trigger a regional war.
Via: "Foreign Policy In Focus" 

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