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COLUMNISTS

US Fast Forwards Plans on Syria

Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR | 30.05.2013 | 00:00
 

The American lawmakers are a law-abiding lot and they do not travel abroad without valid visa. Indeed, since they are statesmen of standing, before traveling abroad on business, they consult and take guidance from the state department. For the local American embassy in the countries in their itinerary too, it is no small matter if a senator were to arrive on a visit. America is a functioning democracy and takes its lawmakers very seriously. 

Even the famous exploits of Charlie Wilson in the 1980s were no exception – he is on record that he was on official business even while consorting with belly dancers in Cairo – arranging arms deals for supplying the Afghan Mujahideen. As George Crile details in the riveting book Charlie Wilson’s Wars, the colorful Congressman from Texas virtually formed part of the CIA’s Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, which ensured that a steady supply of sophisticated weapons such as the deadly Stinger missiles reached the Mujahideen fighting the Soviet Army. Indeed, the CIA later conferred on Charlie Wilson the Honored Colleague Award for his stellar role. 

Therefore, eyebrows will be raised that on Monday the 77-year old senator from Arizona John McCain crossed the Turkey-Syria border on a clandestine trip accompanied by «General» Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army. McCain reportedly stayed inside Syria for several hours before returning to Turkey. 

Didn’t the Turks know about McCain’s clandestine trip? One hundred percent, they knew… If so, did they try to stop him at the Syrian border? Obviously they didn’t, because he was on a business trip that is also to Turkey’s advantage. 

Again, not a fly flies without the Turkish intelligence knowing about it in those insecure regions around the Turkish city of Gaziantep on the edges of the Kurdish heartland, where McCain apparently held meetings with Syrian rebel fighters and opposition figures from Homs, Qusayr, Idlib, Damascus, and Aleppo, with Idris in tow, before crossing the border into Syria. By the way, the US keeps a massive air base in the vicinity of Gaziantep. 

So, the Turkish intelligence in Gaziantep did know that a senator from the US was travelling in eastern Turkey. But then, why didn’t they inform the political leadership in Ankara? Of course, there was no need because their instructions had only come from the higher authorities in the spy agency in the Turkish capital. 

How did Ankara know about it? From the American embassy, Stupid! Simply put, Washington had briefed Ankara at the political, diplomatic and intelligence levels that one of their most senior senators and a highly influential and respected lawmaker on foreign and security policies was visiting Turkey on important business. 

Now, juxtapose Gaziantep near the Syrian border with the Pakistani city of Peshawar on the Afghan border and McCain’s visit at once bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Wilson’s mission to increase the CIA budget for the Afghan operation. By the way, Charlie Wilson also toured the former Yugoslavia in January 1993 and he helped build up the case for the Bill Clinton administration to finally make up its mind to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. What Charlie Wilson said after the visit to Bosnia might as well be attributed to McCain: «This is good versus evil and, if we do not want to Americanize this, then what do we want to Americanize? We have to stand for something». 

Very important, very useful

From Idris we have a fair idea of what McCain’s mission was about. Idris has been quoted as saying after the visit by McCain, «What we want from the U.S. government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons. The visit of Senator McCain to Syria is very important and very useful especially at this time. We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation… Of course we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah both inside Lebanon and inside Syria». Idris added the political dimension: «We are with Geneva [peace conference] if it means that [Syrian President] Bashar [al Assad] will resign and leave the country and the military officials of the regime will be brought to justice». 

McCain’s mission synchronizes with the successful the move by Britain (with Washington’s backing) to force the lifting of the European Union [EU] embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. Washington has since commended the EU decision on Monday to lift its arms embargo on Syria. 

It is not difficult to make out that the missions such as Charlie William’s and McCain’s are well-choreographed, high profile events. They are meant to signal far and wide the directions of future US policies. The grandstanding is primarily intended for the domestic audience in the US where opinion needs to be cultivated in favor of what is on the anvil. 

If in the case of the Afghan jihad, the Vietnam syndrome needed to be got over first, in the case of Syria, the memory of the Iraq war still remains so vivid that the American public opinion is opposed to the US involvement in another war in the Middle East. But propaganda is working and the opinion is slowly changing. It is no mean achievement that almost two-thirds of American public opinion, according to the latest CNN opinion poll, believes that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been using chemical weapons in the current fighting. (The rebels who met McCain repeated the allegation.) By coincidence, Le Monde carried a lengthy report on Tuesday based on first hand accounts by its correspondents inside Syria that the Assad’s forces have been repeatedly using chemical weapons against the rebel fighters. 

More advanced than ever

Evidently, all this forms part of a dual-track strategy. The stated pursuit of the political effort in search of an intra-Syrian solution through dialogue is running parallel to the main track preparing for a more direct US military involvement, including authorizing for the first time a plan of multilateral military actions inside Syria. While McCain was in Turkey, there were media «leaks» in Washington that President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to draw up the operational strategy for enforcing a «no-fly zone» in Syria. But at the same time, the official US stance continues to be that no decision on actually using force has yet been made by Obama. 

An unnamed US official has been quoted as saying on Tuesday, «The White House is still in contemplation mode but the planning is moving forward and it’s more advanced than it’s ever been. All this effort to pressure the regime is part of the overall effort to find a political solution, but what happens if Geneva fails? It’s only prudent to plan for other options». [Emphasis added.]

Significantly, at about the same time that the proposed peace conference may take place in Geneva, the US will be holding a set of big military exercises in Jordan called Eager Lion with the participation of more than 15000 troops from 18 Arab and other countries. The US media reports suggest that after the exercises, those US military assets will be retained in Jordan, which might come handy for imposing a «no-fly zone» in Syria, such as F-16 fighter aircraft. 

There is a perception that the Syrian air defence systems will inflict heavy losses on the US and its like-minded allies and partners to impose a «no-fly zone». But in military terms, the experts dispute this. They feel there is no question that the US and its allies have the overwhelming capacity to suppress the Syrian government’s airpower. The Israeli air force has held military exercises with Greece, which has S-300 missiles in its inventory. Suffice to say, the only real question that remains today is whether Obama has the will and resolve to take the path of an overt military intervention in Syria. 

What needs to be factored in is that the proposed Geneva peace conference is an initiative of John Kerry. While going through the motions of the peace conference, it should be quite apparent already to Washington that the odds are heavily stacked against the peace parleys producing any progress toward a political solution. McCain estimated on Monday that the Obama administration probably would not make any decisions about greater intervention in Syria until after the Geneva conference.

But what happens if the conference fails? McCain’s mission to Turkey and Syria on Monday looks past the Geneva conference. It is hard to believe that his mission has been a personal initiative without consultation or coordination with the US administration. 

McCain probably foretold the gathering storm when he told the media, «I think they [US administration] are moving towards the planning because the pressure is so great, but we’re in a full-court stall until this conference in Geneva».

 
Tags: Middle East Syria Turkey US McCain
 

 
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Melkulangara BHADRAKUMAR

Former career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. Devoted much of his 3-decade long career to the Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran desks in the Ministry of External Affairs and in assignments on the territory of the former Soviet Union.  After leaving the diplomatic service, took to writing and contribute to The Asia Times, The Hindu and Deccan Herald. Lives in New Delhi.


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