The Obama administration's decision to directly supply weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up torpedoing the possibility of a political settlement. It will almost certainly accelerate the chaos spreading from the almost three-year old civil war. It will also align the U.S. with one of the most undemocratic alliances on the planet, and one that looks increasingly unstable.
In short, we are headed into a perfect political storm.
While the rationale behind the White House's decision to send light arms and ammunition to the rebels is that it will level the playing field and force the Assad regime to the bargaining table, it much more likely to do exactly the opposite. The US is now a direct participant in the war to bring down the Damascus regime, thus shedding any possibility that, along with Russia, it could act as a neutral force to bring the parties together.
Of course the US has hardly been a disinterested bystander in the Syrian civil war. For more than two years it has helped facilitate the flow of arms from Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates across the Jordanian and Turkish borders, and the CIA is training insurgents in Jordan. But the White House has always given lip service to a "diplomatic solution," albeit one whose outcome was preordained: "Assad must go" the President said in August 2011, a precondition that early on turned this into a fight to the death.
As Ramzy Mardini, a former U.S. State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, recently wrote in the New York Times, "What's the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined?"
It is hard to tell if the administration's policies around Syria are Machiavellian or just stunningly inept. Take President Obama's famous "red line" speech warning the Assad regime that the use of chemical weapons would trigger US military intervention. Didn't the President realize that his comment was a road map for the insurgency: show that chemical weapons were used and in come the Marines? And, as if on cue, the insurgents began claiming poison gas was used on them, a charge the Damascus regime has denied.
Whether there is any truth to the charge is hard to tell since neither the British, French, nor the US have released any findings. "If you are the opposition and you hear... that the White House has drawn a red line on the use of nerve agents, then you have an interest in giving the impression that some chemical weapons have been used," says Rolf Ekeus, a Swedish scientist who headed up the UN weapons inspections in Iraq. Carla Del Ponte, of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, says it was the insurgents who used poison gas, not the Syrian government.
The French and the British are hardly neutral bystanders, with long and sordid track records in the region. It was Paris and London that secretly divvied up the Middle East in the 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement, and who used divisions between Shites, Sunnis, and Christians to keep their subject populations at one another's throats. Both countries just successfully lobbied the European Union to end its arms embargo on the Syrian combatants and are considering supplying weapons to the insurgents.
Besides the growing butcher bill in Syria -- according to the UN the death toll is now over 93,000, with a million and a half refugees -- the war is going regional, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, although Turkey and Jordan are also being pulled into the maelstrom.
Fighting between Shites and Saudi-sponsored Sunni extremists in Lebanon's northern city of Tripoli is drawing in the Lebanese Army, which recently issued a warning that sectarian violence was getting out of control. There is fighting between Assad loyalists, Sunni insurgents, and the Shite-based organization Hezbollah on both sides of Lebanon's border with Syria.
In the meantime, Sunni extremist groups, associated with al-Qaeda, are waging a car-bombing offensive against the central government in Iraq. According to the UN, 1,000 Iraqis were killed in May, and the toll continues to mount. A recent bombing in a Turkish border town killed 51 people and local Turks blamed the insurgents, not the Assad regime.
The war has put economically fragile Jordan on the front lines. Some 8,000 troops from 19 countries just completed war games entitled "Eager Lion" in that country. The 12-day exercise was aimed, according the Independent (UK), at preparing "for possible fighting in Syria." The US has deployed Patriot missiles, troops, and F-16 fighter-bombers in Jordan.
While the Syrian civil war started over the Assad regime's brutal response to demonstrators, it has morphed into a proxy war between Syria, Iran, Russia, and government of Prime Minster Nouri al-Maliki in Iraq on one side, and the US, France, Britain, Israel, Turkey and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the other. The Council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and new members Morocco and Jordan.
The GCC is playing banker and arms supplier to the insurgency, much the same role it played in Libya's civil war. Qatar has poured more than $3 billion into the effort to upend Assad, and, along with Saudi Arabia and the US, helped shift Egypt from its initial support for a diplomatic solution to backing a military overthrow of the Damascus regime.
Egypt is in the midst of a major financial crisis, and Qatar has agreed to invest billions in its economy. Such investments come with strings, however, and Qatar is not shy about using its cash to get countries on board its foreign policy goals. Ahram Online said a major reason for the diplomatic shift was "the hope of soliciting desperately need[ed] financial and fuel aid" from Saudi Arabia.
According to Ahram, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi bucked the advice of his top aides to switch positions. The April 6 Democratic Front Movement accused Morsi of caving in to "Washington" and extremist "Salafist Sheikhs."