In a June 13, 2013 article entitled, “US Said to Plan to Send Weapons to Syrian Rebels,” The New York Times reports the Obama administration, having concluded the Syrian Armed Forces used chemical weapons, specifically, sarin gas, on numerous occasions against rebel forces in the Syrian civil war, has decided to begin supplying the rebels for the first time with small arms and ammunition. The New York Times explains this has been a long sought goal of Obama administration policymakers advocating a more aggressive US response to the civil war. The assistance, coordinated by the Central Intelligence Agency could include antitank weapons, but not the anti-aircraft weapons rebels commanders say they badly need. However, while the use of sarin gas shocks the conscience and plans for US weapons deliveries to the rebels seem to be well-considered, the bigger issue is what the US involvement in Syria will really mean for the US beyond the region. As the US steps on the path to greater involvement in Syria, the American people need to know the real stakes at hand for them.
Assad’s Army Is Not Just Waiting Around To Lose
Among some analysts, the simple bean-counting of Syrian Armed Forces and the Syrian opposition’s forces in the field the Free Syrian Army (FSA) under the leadership of the Supreme Military Council (SMC), oddly enough results in the conclusion that they are somehow evenly matched, except the FSA lacks high-tech and heavy weapons. However, the true situation can best be understood when the impact that Russian, Iranian, Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’a militia, and Chinese military assistance has had on the Syrian Armed Forces capabilities is given context. The situation is not balanced at all, but rather, greatly tilted in Assad’s favor. The Syrian Army has considerable size, strength, and capabilities. While official statistics say the Syrian Army had a strength of 220,000 troops when the war began, the International Institute for Strategic Studies believes that number has fallen to 50,000 loyal forces mainly among Allawite Special Forces, the Republican Guard, and the 3rd and 4th Divisions. However, other analysts have also estimated that when the ranks of the security forces are counted as a whole, including the Mukhabarat or Intelligence organizations, the police, and Shabeeha or paramilitaries/street gangs, the number again rises near 200, 000.
The combat power of Assad’s forces has been enhanced on the ground by the presence of allies such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iranian special forces or Quds Force, Hezbollah, the National Defense Forces militia, and Iraqi Shi’a militant brigades. Tons of arms and sophisticated weapon systems from Russia, and additional aid from Iran, and China further enhance the force. The size of the Russian military presence has not been specified, but in 2012, the Guardian concluded it was considerable. It is doubtful that the Russians will contribute ground forces for the fight. However, Russian advisers would unlikely move too far from S-300 or any other advance missile systems it may provide the Syrians. Reports exist of a planned Russian sale of MiG-29 fighters to Syria soon and the Russian aircraft carrier, Admiral Kuznetsov, will soon be stationed in the Mediterranean. Israeli analysts had estimated that 4000 Iranian officers and men from the IRGC, Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and Quds Force were on the ground. The Iranians would certainly be willing to fight alongside the Syrian Army much as they fought alongside and within the Bosnian and Herzegovina Armija from 1994 to 1995. Indeed, what may eventually be observed is Iranian units folding into Syrian Army units and placed under the command of Syrian Army officers. The desertions and defections of Syrian Army soldiers and officers, while actually trimming down the army to its more loyal elements, has also opened the door to folding Iranian forces into Syrian fighting units. The leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, freely admits his fighters are present in Syria. Hezbollah is already in the fight, particularly within the Syrian provinces bordering Lebanon.
The Foreign Forces Have Already Had an Impact
The Syrian Army’s operation in the town of Qusayr demonstrated that the Syrian Army not only could bring superior firepower to bear against the FSA, but it possessed the command and control required for such a military operation. Airstrike and artillery fire degraded FSA positions preceded the assault on the town by armor and infantry units. Rocket and airstrike targeted FSA positions in the depth to disrupt and prevent the reinforcement and resupply of the town. It is reported that armor units of the IRGC and regular forces fought alongside the Syrian militia, the National Defense Force, formed with Shabeeha and trained by the Iranian Quds Force. Hezbollah’s role in Qusayr is well reported. It was part of the main assault, and also given the responsibility of mopping up FSA resistance in the town.
This new force under Assad’s control is lethal and dangerous. Although it has not thrown the full weight of it s combat power upon the FSA, it clearly has the capability to degrade its capabilities. Moreover, since Russian, Iranian, Chinese, Shi’a Iraqi money, men and material flowing into Syria for nearly two years, the point may have been reached when nothing short of direct military intervention by the US, EU, or Arab states could significantly change the situation on the ground in favor of the FSA. Short of direct military intervention, it is unlikely that the training and equipping of the FSA at this point could keep pace with the efforts of Assad’s allies.
A Proxy War Become A Real War With the Russians and Iranians?
With huge concentrations of Russian and Iranian advisers and other military personnel on the ground, US military intervention of any kind might result some contact with them. As Russian advisers are on the ground in Syria, and have been for some time, an attack on Syrian military positions that may result in harming Russia advisers must be avoided. Even a no-fly zone may result in US fighters coming in contact with Russian fighters flying from its aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean or flying out of Syrian with Russian advisers training Syrian pilots on MiGs. This creates a terrible potential for an unwanted exchange with the Russians or Iranians. The US can talk with the Russians. There is no need for a struggle. Any conflict between the US and the Russians raises the spectre of nuclear war. Pragmatic leaders at the US State Department and Defense Department may recognize that there has been a dramatic shift in the situation on the ground in Syria since 2011. The SMC and FSA no longer appear to have any real potential to effect change. While the SMC and FSA may believe that their cause is the only one of real importance and urgency in the world, they need to know that perspective is unrealistic. They would be greatly mistaken if they remotely thought that their situation in Syria warranted placing the security of the US at stake. Maintaining positive relations with Russia within the parameters of their national policies and within reason is in their national interests.
Make no mistake, the Russians and Iranians are well-positioned in Syria. Vali Nasr, dean of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, stated in the Chicago Tribune regarding Iran’s efforts in Syria, “If there was once a realistic hope that Syria’s civil war would isolate Iran, the prospect has dimmed.” On Russia, Nasr goes on to state, “By sticking with Assad, Russia projects the image of a steadfast ally that doesn’t bend to international pressure.” The Russians and Iranians early on recognized the opening to secure its interests in Syria while other states talked. They have raised the bar too high and too fast in the past two years in Syria for the US to do anything too substantial with shipments of high-tech or heavy weapons, even anti-aircraft rockets—a weapon system always on the Al-Qaida wish-list–to the FSA at this point. This is not Libya, where Muammar al-Gaddafi stood alone against the opposition and Western airpower. In Syria, Assad has very powerful allies ready to support him with money and weapons, and fight alongside his forces.
Both new and louder voices in the Obama administration, viewing Syria as a humanitarian crisis worthy of military intervention, likely have the ear of President Obama. Yet, Syria simply does not rise-to-a-level high enough as an issue for any rational policymaker or decision maker in the US to consider clashing with Russia over. That reality must be faced. It is not enough to just assume Putin will back down on Syria. The American people deserve some evidence this will remain a regional issue. Bashar al-Assad’s regime was a concern, particularly for the US policymakers, before the opposition began. The Us and other Western governments can take many other paths beyond working with the opposition to pursue Assad on the sarin gas issue or on any issue it chooses.