Secrets of the Syrian War
By Eric S. Margolis
The Polish Zionist ideologue Vladimir Jabotinsky, father of Israelâ€™s right wing, observed nearly a century ago that much of the Arab world was a fragile mosaic. A few sharp blows, he wrote, would cause it to shatter, leaving Israel the regionâ€™s dominant power. Jabotinsky may have been right.
Even if the Bashar al-Assad regime manages to hang on in Syria, that countryâ€™s economy is being wrecked, its people driven into poverty and neighbors tempted to intervene. Israel just threatened to attack Syriaâ€™s modest store of chemical weapons. Turkey is stumbling into the morass, egged on by the Saudis and Gulf Arabs. Russiaâ€™s national prestige is increasingly involved in Syria â€” which is as close to its borders as northern Mexico is to the United States. Iran may yet get involved.
We could be observing the beginning of a twenty-first-century version of the 1930s Spanish Civil War, which became a proxy struggle between Germany, Italy and the Soviet Union. The only thing we know for sure about Syriaâ€™s civil conflict is that it is extremely dangerous to the entire region. Its outcome is entirely unpredictable. Meanwhile, the West keeps fueling the fires.
As a veteran correspondent who has covered fourteen conflicts and closely followed events in Syria since 1975, I have become convinced that thereâ€™s much more to the current situation there than Westerners are being told by their governments or the blinkered media.
Last week, Reuters reported a classified intelligence â€œfindingâ€ signed by President Obama authorizing aid to the Syrian rebels. This may be the tip of an iceberg that eventually reveals an extensive covert campaign by the United States, Britain, France, Saudi Arabia and Turkey to overthrow the Assad government in Damascus. According to this scenario, these U.S. allies would be using Qatar, assorted freelance jihadists and Lebanese rightists as catâ€™s-paws to sustain the uprising. Jihadists, both Syrian and foreign, may also play a spearhead role in the fighting.
In fact, the Assad clan was long a target of jihadist wrath; the family was described as godless tyrants oppressing good Muslims, in bed with the heretical Shia of Iran and too often cooperating with Western powers. Osama Bin Laden himself called on all jihadists to overthrow the Assads. Bin Laden is gone, but the movement he sparked continues to gain momentum.
It is no surprise that revolution has again erupted in Syria: the Assad family and its Alawite power base have brutally ruled for more than forty years. Rebellions by the Sunni majority, led by the underground Muslim Brotherhood, have been ferociously crushed. I was outside the city of Hama in 1982 when government heavy guns and tanks put down a Sunni rebellion there, inflicting an estimated ten thousand casualties.
But until recently, Syria was in our good books. The Assad regime quietly cooperated with Western powers and Israel, jailed or liquidated Islamists, and kept quiet about the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights. The Bush administration even sent Islamist suspects to be imprisoned in Syria. Assad and his henchmen were another of our unsavory allies.
However, that was before war fever over Iran gripped Washington. Overthrowing the Assad government, Iranâ€™s only Arab ally, would be a natural first step in overthrowing Iranâ€™s Islamic government and isolating, then eliminating, Israelâ€™s bitter Lebanese foe, Hezbollah.
If Syria were shattered into weak mini-states and Hezbollah crushed, Lebanon likely would become an Israeli protectorate. Such was the strategic plan of Israelâ€™s General Ariel Sharon in 1982.
Western powers may already be employing the same destabilization methods in Syria that were perfected in Libya. French foreign intelligence cobbled together a group of Libyan exiles to form the â€œNational Forces Coalition,â€ which rallied anti-Gadhafi elements in Benghazi. Britainâ€™s MI-6 intelligence had been active there for decades, stirring up Gadhafi regime opponents.
In Libya, NATO air power intervened on â€œhumanitarianâ€ grounds to halt the killing of civilians. News reports showed only lightly armed civilians battling Gadhafiâ€™s regulars. Not shown were French, British, and some other Western special forces disguised as Libyans; they did much of the fighting and targeted air strikes.
France made use of similar tactics in its brief border war with Libya in 1986 over the disputed Aouzou Strip on the Chadian-Libyan desert border where Chadian troops supposedly routed the Libyans. In reality, the â€œChadiansâ€ were tough French Foreign Legionnaires decked out in Bedouin dress. I actually interviewed some of them.
Fast-forward to todayâ€™s Syria. As a former soldier, I cannot believe that anti-Assad forces in Syria have made such great strides on their own. All armed forces require command and control, specialized training, communications and logistics. How have anti-Assad forces moved so quickly and pushed back Syriaâ€™s capable, well-equipped army? Where does all their ammunition come from? Who is supplying all those modern assault rifles?
How have so many Syrian T-72 tanks and other armored vehicles been knocked out? Not by amateur street fighters. Powerful antitank weapons have been used extensively. You donâ€™t blow up a modern T-72 tank with light handheld RPG rockets. The use of heavy weapons suggests that outside forces are involved in the fighting, as they were in Libya.
Now come reports that the rebels are receiving small numbers of portable antiaircraft missiles. If properly used, they would threaten the Assad regimeâ€™s armed helicopters. Yet using such missiles requires a good deal of training. I saw in Afghanistan in the 1980s how long it took the mujahidin to learn this skill from CIA instructors.
If Syriaâ€™s rebels are being trained, it is probably happening in Turkey (which makes Americaâ€™s Stinger AA missile under license). However, the U.S. has a major campaign under way to prevent jihadist groups from acquiring such portable missiles. If the Taliban received effective antiaircraft missiles, U.S. military operations in Afghanistan would be seriously threatened.
According to Reuters sources, the United States may have worked with Turkish allies to set up a command HQ at Adana, close to its Incirlik airbase in eastern Turkey, near the Syrian border. This is where it would make sense for U.S. intelligence to coordinate the flow of arms, communications gear, medical supplies, food and munitions to the Syrian rebels.
Other unverified reports from the Mideast suggest that the U.S. mercenary firm formerly known as Blackwater (it recently changed its name to Academi) is training Syrian rebels in Turkey, moving veteran mercenaries in from Iraq (where there were once fifty thousand U.S.-paid private soldiers), and sending combat units into Syria.
Anti-regime groups such as the Free Syrian Army would probably be ineffective without some kind of covert Western support. Whether they can grasp power from the jihadis, who now dominate the streets, remains to be seen. This gambit seems to have worked in Libya. Syria, in contrast, is a very complex nation whose modern era has been marked by instability and coups.
After overthrowing one Syrian government in the late 1940s, Washington wisely backed off. Now it may get drawn back into the vortex of one of the Mideastâ€™s most difficult nations.
(Eric S. Margolis is an internationally syndicated columnist whose articles have appeared in the New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Los Angeles Times and others. He is a regular columnist for the Huffington Post, LewRockwell.com, Gulf Times of Qatar, Khaleej Times of Dubai, Nation Pakistan, and Sun Malaysia. He is a member of the Institute for Strategic Studies in London, UK and his latest book is â€œAmerican Raj: Liberation or Domination?â€ published by Key Porter in 2008. This article was slightly edited for the CIC Friday Magazine.)