Cross-posted from Consortium News
The Obama administration, working through the Russian government, has secured an agreement from the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad to permit U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State targets in parts of Syria, according to a source briefed on the secret arrangements.
The reported agreement would clear away one of the chief obstacles to President Barack Obama's plan to authorize U.S. warplanes to cross into Syria to attack Islamic State forces -- the concern that entering Syrian territory might prompt anti-aircraft fire from the Syrian government's missile batteries.
The usual protocol for the U.S. military -- when operating in territory without a government's permission -- is to destroy the air defenses prior to conducting airstrikes so as to protect American pilots and aircraft, as was done with Libya in 2011. However, in other cases, U.S. intelligence agencies have arranged for secret permission from governments for such attacks, creating a public ambiguity usually for the benefit of the foreign leaders while gaining the necessary U.S. military assurances.
In a national address last week, Obama vowed to order U.S. air attacks across Syria's border without any coordination with the Syrian government, a proposition that Damascus denounced as a violation of its sovereignty. So, in this case, Syria's behind-the-scenes acquiescence also might provide some politically useful ambiguity for Obama as well as Assad.
Yet, this secret collaboration may go even further and include Syrian government assistance in the targeting of the U.S. attacks, according to the source who spoke on condition of anonymity. That is another feature of U.S. military protocol in conducting air strikes -- to have some on-the-ground help in pinpointing the attacks.
As part of its public pronouncements about the future Syrian attacks, the Obama administration sought $500 million to train "vetted" Syrian rebels to handle the targeting tasks inside Syria as well as to carry out military ground attacks. But that approach -- while popular on Capitol Hill -- could delay any U.S. airstrikes into Syria for months and could possibly negate Assad's quiet acceptance of the U.S. attacks, since the U.S.-backed rebels share one key goal of the Islamic State, the overthrow of Assad's relatively secular regime.
Just last month, Obama himself termed the strategy of arming supposedly "moderate" Syrian rebels "a fantasy." He told the New York Times' Thomas L. Friedman:
"This idea that we could provide some light arms or even more sophisticated arms to what was essentially an opposition made up of former doctors, farmers, pharmacists and so forth, and that they were going to be able to battle not only a well-armed state but also a well-armed state backed by Russia, backed by Iran, a battle-hardened Hezbollah, that was never in the cards."
Obama's point would seem to apply at least as much to having the "moderate" rebels face down the ruthless Islamic State jihadists who engage in suicide bombings and slaughter their captives without mercy. But this "fantasy" of the "moderate" rebels has a big following in Congress and on the major U.S. op-ed pages, so Obama has included the $500 million in his war plan despite the risk it poses to Assad's acquiescence to American air attacks.
Neocon Wish List
Without Assad's consent, the U.S. airstrikes might require a much wider U.S. bombing campaign to first target Syrian government defenses, a development long sought by Official Washington's influential neoconservatives who have kept "regime change" in Syria near the top of their international wish list.
For the past several years, the Israeli government also has sought the overthrow of Assad, even at the risk of Islamic extremists gaining power. The Israeli thinking had been that Assad, as an ally of Iran, represented a greater threat to Israel because his government was at the center of the so-called Shiite crescent reaching from Tehran through Damascus to Beirut and southern Lebanon, the base for Hezbollah.
The thinking was that if Assad's government could be pulled down, Iran and Hezbollah -- two of Israel's principal "enemies" -- would be badly damaged. A year ago, then-Israeli Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren articulated this geopolitical position in an interview with the Jerusalem Post.
"The greatest danger to Israel is by the strategic arc that extends from Tehran, to Damascus to Beirut. And we saw the Assad regime as the keystone in that arc," Oren said. "We always wanted Bashar Assad to go, we always preferred the bad guys who weren't backed by Iran to the bad guys who were backed by Iran." He said this was the case even if the other "bad guys" were affiliated with al-Qaeda.
More recently, however, with the al-Qaeda-connected Nusra Front having seized Syrian territory adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights -- forcing the withdrawal of UN peacekeepers -- the balance of Israeli interests may be tipping in favor of preferring Assad to having Islamic extremists possibly penetrating directly into Israeli territory.
Direct attacks on Israel would be a temptation to al-Nusra Front, which is competing for the allegiance of young jihadists with the Islamic State. While the Islamic State, known by the acronyms ISIS or ISIL, has captured the imaginations of many youthful extremists by declaring the creation of a "caliphate" with the goal of driving Western interests from the Middle East, al-Nusra could trump that appeal by actually going on the offensive against one of the jihadists' principal targets, Israel.