‘Plan B’ & Bankruptcy of US Syria Policy
EDITOR'S CHOICE | 03.03.2016

‘Plan B’ & Bankruptcy of US Syria Policy

US Secretary of State John Kerry provoked widespread speculation when he referred in testimony before the Senate foreign relations committee last week to “significant discussions” within US President Barack Obama’s administration about a “Plan B” in Syria.

The speculation was further stoked by a “senior official” who told CBS News that options under consideration included “‘military-like’ measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies to continue their assault on civilians and US-backed rebels.”

But “Plan B” is more complicated than that. A report by CNN’s Pentagon correspondent Barbara Starr on 26 February leaves little room for doubt that the administration’s cupboard of policy options is actually bare.

An unnamed “senior US official” at the Pentagon admitted that “Plan B” is actually “more an idea than a specific course of action”. In other words, the administration’s national security policymakers believe something more should be done in Syria, but they are not at all clear what could be done now.

The official said three options were under discussion, none of which is even close to being realistic in the present situation: an increase in US Special Forces on the ground, an increase in arms assistance to fighters opposing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, and a no-fly zone.

The option of adding more Special Forces is only relevant to a counter-terrorism strategy aimed at the Islamic State (IS) group, not at preventing the further weakening of anti-Assad forces. Special Forces are now in Syria to help the one reliable ally against IS – the Kurdish YPG.

Sending them into provinces to fight the Syrian army or Hezbollah would be an overreach of stunning proportions.

Increasing arms to opposition forces is not feasible as long as the Russians are able to cut the line of supply from Turkey to Aleppo – unless the US is prepared to go to war with Russia by trying to airdrop the weapons, which would involve direct military conflict with the Russian Air Force.

As for the no-fly zone option, which Turkey and Saudi Arabia have pressed on Obama for years without success, the senior official made it clear to CNN that the Pentagon still opposes that option – as it has since early 2012 when it was first proposed.

It is even less viable, according to the official, because it would have to destroy Russian air defence radars rather than just Syrian air defences.

“I can’t tell you that’s off the table,” said the official. “It’s at the end of the table, just not off it.” Translation: someone may still be advocating it, but it is not going to be adopted.

Kerry’s invocation of “Plan B”, on the other hand, was an effort to suggest that there is a serious possibility of a more aggressive US posture in Syria and that he was personally behind such a move. Just before his reference to “Plan B” in the testimony, Kerry took the unusual step of declaring, “It is well known that I have advocated strong efforts to support the opposition.”

And he suggested that “Plan B”, if there was one, would be more “confrontational”. But he also acknowledged that there would be many stages before anything dramatically different would be done, and that it would only come when it became clear that there was no way to save the negotiating process.

At the same time that Kerry sent signals that conflict with those of the Pentagon, he was also trying to fend off attacks on his ceasefire and negotiation strategy by Republicans who asserted that the Russians and the Assad government have already essentially won the war against the opposition.

Ever since it became clear that the Russian air offensive in Aleppo and Idlib has been successful in loosening the grip of al-Nusra Front and its “moderate” allies along the route from Aleppo to the Turkish border, the political elite in Washington has been buzzing about what the Washington Post diplomatic correspondent has called the “appearance of allowing Russia to act with impunity” in Syria.

Such language, implying that the United States should be taking action to counter the Russian-Syrian offensive, reflects the distorted image of the Syrian conflict in US political discourse.

The Obama administration helped create that distortion by putting forward the fiction of a powerful “moderate” military force in Syria that could be the basis for a negotiated settlement. The premise of the administration’s argument claims that Russian planes had mainly targeted US-supported “moderate” forces, who the Russians called “terrorists”.

In fact, the Obama administration had been well aware since early 2013 that al-Qaeda’s affiliate al-Nusra Front and its Salafist allies, supported by US regional allies, were already beginning to dominate the secular, pro-democratic forces.

Kerry was well aware in 2015 that the opposition groups in Idlib and Aleppo provinces – to which the United States had been supplying weapons – had not only been coordinating their military operations with al-Nusra, but actually intermingled with them throughout those provinces. Kerry had depended on the power of Salafist forces to gain some leverage on the Syrian government in negotiations.

That unacknowledged Obama administration strategy explains why Kerry tried to get Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to agree that al-Nusra would not be targeted under the ground rules of the ceasefire “at least temporarily until the groups can be sorted out”, according to the Washington Post.

But after Russia rejected that bid, Kerry switched signals, and Syria stories began to refer to US-supported forces that operated in close conjunction with al-Nusra. And on 22 February, State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, even acknowledged publicly the “commingling” of the two supposedly independent moderates with the Salafists.

Apparently Kerry had concluded that he was better off explaining why the rules of the ceasefire were a response to facts on the ground rather than a US concession to the Russians.

Kerry suggested that the US was still a player in the Syrian contest for power. Regarding foreign relations committee chairman Bob Corker’s comment that the Russians had been “accomplishing their ends” in Syria, he argued that the Russians and the Syrian government could take control of Aleppo, but that “holding territory has always been difficult”.

Kerry claimed that the Russians could not prevent the opposition from getting the weapons needed to continue the war, as long as the US and its allies were supporting them. He offered no explanation for that claim.

The “Plan B” episode illuminates another moment in the pattern of failed US policymaking on the Syrian crisis. It reveals a familiar pattern of deep division over Syria in which key players seek to advance their own personal or institutional interests and in which the desire to maintain a US leadership role trumps the realities of the situation on the ground in Syria.

If the US policy were a company doing business in Syria, it would have been bankrupt years ago.

– Gareth Porter is an independent investigative journalist and winner of the 2012 Gellhorn Prize for journalism. He is the author of the newly published Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.

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Kerry’s “Plan B” – Attack Syria From Lebanon – With Saudi and Turkish Help

By Moon Of Alabama

We yesterday described what looks like a Turkish-Saudi plan to raise a Salafi-Sunni militia in north Lebanon to then attack nearby Syrian regions held by the Syrian government. Such a new front of the conflict in Syria would necessarily involve fighting in Lebanon as the Lebanese Shia Hizbollah movement is actively supporting the Syrian government.

The plot would destabilize Lebanon, probably throwing it back into the brutal times of the Lebanese civil war.

There was no confirmation of such a plot yesterday, just several signs for it like the ship with weapons from Turkey that was caught by the Greek coastguard on its way to north Lebanon.

The existence of such a plan was confirmed today. We still can no say for sure that the plot is part of a U.S. “Plan B” to achieve a violent “regime change” in Syria, but we know that the U.S. is informed about the plan.

In his Washington Post column today the unofficial CIA spokesperson David Ignatius writes about the Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman:

The young Saudi has sometimes been more bold than wise, as in his war in Yemen, his decision to break diplomatic relations with Iran and his new effort to destabilize a Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon.

Syria is not mentioned in that part of the Ignatius column but any capable Sunni militia in Lebanon, created from Salafist groups in Tripoli and Syrian Sunni refugees in Lebanese camps, would extend itself into Syria and become a threat to the government held western Syria.

Ignatius, as surely also the U.S. government, was informed by the Saudis themselves. The above quoted paragraph continues:

But his role as a change agent is unmistakable. He “wants to transition Saudi Arabia very quickly,” said Adel al-Toraifi, the Saudi information minister, who’s just 36 himself, in a visit to Washington last week.
My hunch is that this plan is too bold to have grown solely in the minds of the Turkish and Saudi regimes.

The U.S. is likely not only informed about it but deeply involved. The possibility of such a plan to counter the recent Syrian and Russian successes on the battlefield was first mentioned in a piece published in early February by the Washington Institute, a think tank founded and funded by the Israel lobby.

Last week Secretary of State Kerry mentioned a “Plan B” should the recent cessation of hostilities in Syria fail:

US Secretary of State John Kerry provoked widespread speculation when he referred in testimony before the Foreign Relations Committee last week to “significant discussions” within US President Barack Obama’s administration about a “Plan B” in Syria.

The speculation was further stoked by a “senior official” who told CBS News that options under consideration included “‘military-like’ measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies to continue their assault on civilians and US-backed rebels.”

A violent Salafi militia from Lebanon storming into Syria would certainly be a “‘military-like’ measures that would make it harder for the regime and its allies”.

The author of the last linked text, Gareth Porter, dismissed the chance of a real “Plan B” but had not yet included the Lebanon plot scenario in his considerations. He continued:

Kerry suggested that the US was still a player in the Syrian contest for power. Regarding Chairman Bob Corker’s comment that the Russians had been “accomplishing their ends” in Syria, he argued that the Russians and the Syrian government could take control of Aleppo, but that “holding territory has always been difficult”.

Kerry claimed that the Russians could not prevent the opposition from getting the weapons needed to continue the war, as long as the US and its allies were supporting them. He offered no explanation for that claim.

The Turkish-Saudi weapon smuggling into Lebanon is an explanation for the claim Kerry made. Syria and Russia are in the process of closing off the Syrian-Turkish border. If the Saudis can build a weapon pipeline into north Lebanon it will become quite difficult for Syria and its allies to hold the Syrian territory near the Lebanese border.

In a speech yesterday Hizbullah chief Nasrallah discussed the general Saudi threat to Lebanon at length but did not mention the Sunni militia plot:

“Saudi which treats Yemen, Syria, Iraq, and Bahrain like that, treats Lebanon the same way,” Sayyed Nasrallah concluded, addressing the Saudis: “Your problem is with us, it is not with the country or with the Lebanese…”
Nasrallah is right, but the Saudis will not care when the Lebanese people or their country get hurt due to some nefarious scheme to attack Syria and Hizbullah. Nor will the United States.

There are obvious signs for a plan to use Saudi controlled Sunni militia from Lebanon against the Syrian government and its supporters. The U.S. is, in my view, very likely involved in this plot. But we still do not know if this plan will ever be implemented.

The recent Saudi threat to send its army into Syria turned out to be a pure (dis-)information campaign to unsettle the Syrian government’s side. The recent revelations about the plot in Lebanon and the “Plan B” may also be pure deception and illusionary to gain some leverage for the coming negotiations.

But the ship the Greek coastguard caught was real and such a plan would have a good chance to create lots of troubles for Syria and its supporters. My advice to the Syrian government and its allies is to prepare now to eventually counter it.

Gareth Porter, 4thmedia.org

Tags: Middle East  Syria  US  Kerry  Obama 

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