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Liberal Calls for US to Arm Syrian Rebels Escalate After Israeli Strikes

Free Syrian Army rebels (Creative-Commons licensed photo on Flickr taken in December 2012 by Freedom House)

Since Israel launched air strikes in Syria last week, more and more liberal supporters of greater United States intervention are presenting arguments they have developed to support advocacy for arming rebel groups.

New York Times columnist and former executive editor, Bill Keller, argues President Barack Obama needs to “get over” the Iraq invasion that did not uncover any weapons of mass destruction. “I fear prudence has become fatalism, and our caution has been the father of missed opportunities, diminished credibility and enlarged tragedy,” Keller writes.

…[O]ur reluctance to arm the rebels or defend the civilians being slaughtered in their homes has convinced the Assad regime (and the world) that we are not serious. Our fear that arms supplied to the rebels would fall into the hands of jihadis has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, because instead of dealing directly with the rebels we left the arming to fundamentalist monarchies, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, and they are predictably using lethal aid to appease the more radical Islamists…

In arguing that “Syria is not Iraq,” he makes a neoconservative argument, that the US should be “funneling weapons” to the “rebel Supreme Military Council” or else Iran, North Korea and China may get the idea that America has become “The Dispensable Nation.”

America doesn’t have to worry about “unleashing” a “sectarian war” because that is already ongoing in Syria. There is no reason for the US to worry about being responsible for wrecking another country because Keller’s argument is, how could the US possibly make it worse?

There are options that do not require US troops—another way this is not Iraq. Bush had to send in US troops to prosecute his military adventure. And, finally, the US had to “cajole and bamboozle the world into joining our cause.” So, his arguments are not good arguments for “humanitarian intervention” at all. They are lousy arguments for why one should not be afraid involvement in Syria will lead to another nine years of US war and occupation in another Middle Eastern country that appear to have been fashioned because Keller has grown tired with how the Obama administration has not been more aggressive.

Thomas Friedman, typically nauseating columnist for the New York Times, presented his neoliberal fantasy for Syria:

I believe if you want to end the Syrian civil war and tilt Syria onto a democratic path, you need an international force to occupy the entire country, secure the borders, disarm all the militias and midwife a transition to democracy. It would be staggeringly costly and take a long time, with the outcome still not guaranteed. But without a homegrown Syrian leader who can be a healer, not a divider, for all its communities, my view is that anything short of an external force that rebuilds Syria from the bottom up will fail. Since there are no countries volunteering for that role (and I am certainly not nominating the U.S.), my guess is that the fighting in Syria will continue until the parties get exhausted.

Friedman alludes to the need for an “external midwife to act as a referee between all their constituent communities (who never developed trust in one another) as they try to replace sectarianism, Islamism and tribalism with a spirit of democratic citizenship or they need their own Nelson Mandela. That is, a homegrown figure who can lead, inspire and navigate a democratic transition that is inclusive of all communities.

The idea that an individual savior will come along and then there will be democracy is but another aspect of Friedman’s delusions central to spreading democracy in the Middle East. He likely looks at American history through the lens of “heroes” and thinks singular characters were responsible for freedom in America. Having that view of history leads him to get into the mindset where he recommends the US “strengthen the “good” rebels and “redouble” diplomatic efforts to “foster a more credible opposition leadership of reconciliation-minded Syrians who can reassure all of Syria’s communities that they will have an equitable place at a new cabinet table.”

Just over a week ago, liberal professor and former State Department official, Anne Marie-Slaughter, argued in an editorial for the Washington Post that Obama’s restraint was like President Bill Clinton’s restraint, which allowed a genocide to occur in Rwanda. She believes Obama has months now to review evidence that chemical weapons were used because the first allegation of their use came in December.

She contends this is about “US credibility”—not simply increasing death toll in Syria—and vividly excoriates the administration for not stepping up to arm the rebels:

The distrust, cynicism and hatred with which the United States is regarded in much of the world, particularly among Muslims across the Middle East and North Africa, is already a cancer. Standing by while Assad gasses his people will guarantee that, whatever else Obama may achieve, he will be remembered as a president who proclaimed a new beginning with the Muslim world but presided over a deadly chapter in the same old story.

The world does not see the complex calculations inside the White House — the difficulty of achieving any positive outcomes in Syria even with intervention, the possible harm to Obama’s domestic agenda if he plunges into the morass of another conflict in the Middle East. The world would see Syrian civilians rolling on the ground, foaming at the mouth, dying by the thousands while the United States stands by. [emphasis added]

On Fareed Zakaria’s CNN program, May 5, she declared, “The next thing that we could do is we could take out their air force, right, through cruise missiles, through air. We could actually make it much much harder for him to use chemical weapons.”

There is no concrete evidence yet that Assad has used chemical weapons. Moreover, these colorful descriptions of what atrocity could befall Syria if America does not act neglect to consider the possibility that Assad uses chemical weapons if the US begins to arm the rebels. If there is reason to believe Assad will use chemical weapons now, there is just as much reason to believe he could use them to send a message to the rebels that they should not have accepted arms from the US.


For people like Friedman, Keller and Marie-Slaughter, the common view is that the chief concern over arming the rebels is how to guarantee the weapons provided are only used by moderate groups and not “jihadist” groups. The “jihadist” groups are the ones that weapons from Saudi Arabia and Qatar have gone to, and the CIA has been in and around Syria working to track weapons shipments from different countries to hopefully ensure they get to groups the US might support arming. And, as much as providing weapons could create a nightmare, the greater nightmare should be transforming the Syrian civil war into bigger proxy wars between Israel and Iran or Israel and Lebanon.

On “Morning Joe,” MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski characterized strikes from Israel as “an apparent attempt to keep sophisticated weapons made in Iran from being transferred to Hezbollah in Lebanon.” Brzezinski added Israel may have used US intelligence to carry out the attacks.

President Obama endorsed the strikes, “Israelis justifiably have to guard against the transfer of advanced weaponry to terrorist organizations like Hezbollah. We coordinate with the Israelis recognziing they are very close to Syria. They are very close to Lebanon. Hezbollah has repeatedly said they would be willing to attack as far as Tel Aviv. So, the Israelis have to be vigilant and concerned.”

Haaretz, an Israeli-based media organization, highlight in an editorial on Syria published on May 6:

An important component of Israel’s operational policy is coordination with Washington. The United States in recent decades has been sucked into the region and has deepened its military involvement here. Its leadership must know what Israel is planning so that it can be prepared. Since the policy of contained, undeclared operations has been consistently implemented over many years, one can assume that it is acceptable to Washington, and that it represents a continuous line of decision-making that is void of internal politics and based solely on security considerations.

Columnist for Haaretz, Gideon Levy, believes Israel wants the US to intervene in Syria “in the name of Israel’s interests.”

…Israel is prodding U.S. President Barack Obama, catching him in his use of the words “red line,” challenging and provoking him to reach the real thing: bombing Iran. Israel wants to reveal the president’s nakedness on the Syrian matter in order to present him as naked on the Iranian issue. Perhaps he won’t bomb Syria, as Israel requested; The key thing is that he should bomb Iran. This policy of manipulating the American president, at the expense of Syrians’ blood, perhaps will pan out in the short run. But it will also make Israel even more loathed in Washington…

In the array of issues and dilemmas facing the US as it decides whether to do more than provide the “non-lethal aid” already being given to rebel groups and do more than have the CIA “steer” weapons shipments (which is what is publicly known about US involvement right now), there exists the reality that whatever the US ultimately does in Syria will be with attention to what Israel wants to get out of greater US intervention in Syria.

And, Friedman, Keller, Marie-Slaughter and others championing “humanitarian intervention” or “responsibility to protect” may not care that the US policy would likely be designed, as recommended by Israel. If that is the case, their arguments are even more grossly naive, because doing Israel’s bidding would only serve to further inflame tensions among countries, escalate violence by extremist groups and increase civilian deaths and bloodshed.

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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."