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U.S., Russia Continue to Jockey for Influence in Syria

July 3, 2012 ·

The U.S. is trying to pressure Russia to put pressure on Syrian President Assad.

Cross-posted from the Arabist.

The New York Times reports that the CIA has been on the ground in Turkey vetting armed opposition groups in Syria. The anonymous sources cited by the Times say that the US itself is not providing weapons to the rebels, in keeping with its earlier declarations to not directly arm them, but is apparently tracking weapons going into Syria and “advising” allies in the region as to which groups should get what weapons. Reports on alleged Western intelligence-gathering operations along Syria’s borders several months ago were denied then, but the Times asserts that the CIA presence has been on the ground “for several weeks” at least.

The promise of weapons sales to the rebels has been advanced as a cost-effective way for the US and its allies to direct the course of the Syrian uprising’s armed resistance to the Assad regime. With arms comes influence -- or so WashingtonDoha and Riyadh hope -- and the armed opposition has been hard-pressed to provision itself.

Even with these promises, armed groups in Syria, who are frequently at odds with one another, have relied and continue to rely on materials produced by Syrian expatriates, captured battlefield detritus or purchased from black marketeers. With the exception of equipment seized from a battlefield or brought over by defecting soldiers, the regime can still bring much greater firepower to bear, which manifests itself in the form of besieging and shelling neighborhoods concealing (or thought to be concealing) insurgents fighting the Syrian Army. As such, some factions of the anti-Assad movement continue to call for direct foreign military intervention, notably from the Turkish Army.

Ankara, for its part, denies it is helping arm the rebels, and even the recent shootdown of a Turkish fighter jet in Syrian airspace is unlikely to result in directly military action by NATO. Indeed, Turkey’s reluctance to “get involved” more proactively remains a major stumbling block for interventionists. (Ed. note from the Arabist: is it Turkey that is holding back NATO, or the reverse?)

The Times report paints a picture of a more engaged American intelligence effort in Syria, one that critics of both intervention and non-intervention say has been lacking since 2011. The perception of expanded US handling has been buttressed by recent reports in the Wall Street Journal and Time that the US is assisting activists on the ground report on atrocities ascribed to the Syrian Army and pro-regime militias accused of committing civilian massacres in the conflict.1

As has been the case with reports on US efforts in Yemen, it is not clear whether the government sources speaking for these reports are engaging in unsanctioned leaks, or are going to the press with the White House’s acknowledgment. Despite years of talk about regime change in Syria and past US support for Syrian dissent groups in Istanbul and London, the Syrian uprising -- like those in Egypt, Yemen, Libya, Tunisia and Bahrain -- clearly caught the Obama Administration (and Syria’s neighbors) by surprise. The White House has been scrambling to implement something like it’s “leading from behind” model for Libya in building an international consensus to take more decisive action, though denies Russian claims that through NATO, it intends to directly intervene in Syria.

Recently, there have been several spats between Washington and Moscow, which is Assad’s main arms supplier. The UK Foreign Office managed to fire a warning shot across Moscow’s bow over the Syrian crisis when the Standard Club withdrew insurance for the MV Alaed, a Russian freighter carrying repaired Syrian attack helicopters and “air defense systems” to Syria. This act of “lawfare” forced the Alaed to turn back to port. Shortly before this incident, US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton raised Cain over the use of Russian-made helicopter gunships by the Syrian military. One of the outcomes of this diplomatic protest, though, has been some embarrassing revelations about US-Russia defense sector links.

These moves were plainly aimed at signaling to Russia that it needs to exercise more influence on Assad in ways favorable to the West’s demands, or to back away from the dictator. A CNN report that the US military has revised/prepared contingency war plans for Syria is also part of this messaging -- as is the Iranian media pushback in the form of announcing war games to be conducted in Syria by the Russians (these reports have been denied by Russia and do not seem credible).

More concretely, Russia has dispatched three amphibious landing craft to its naval base in the Port of Tartus, increasing their security presence there. Significantly, this force is thought to include heavy weapons and advanced anti-air systems. Russia’s mistrust of Washington’s efforts to address the conflict stems from fears that Syria will turn into Libya again, where the Russians and Chinese essentially allowed the UN Security Council and NATO to invoke a “responsibility to protect” that turned into a coordinated effort to oust the late Colonel Qadhafi from power. Russia’s stated principles are closely linked to its national interests. Arms, allies and naval basing rights matter too, analyst Dmitri Trenin notes, but “Moscow is concerned that allowing the United States to use force at will and without any external constraints might lead to foreign interventions close to Russian borders, or even within those borders.” So even absent the Libyan card, for Russia, there are few prices short of war the Kremlin will not pay to avoid the humiliation of “losing Syria,” its sole remaining Arab ally in the region.

So while the arming of rebel groups under US auspices is ostensibly aimed at redressing this imbalance of firepower, so far, no policy has been articulated in public as to whether this aid is supposed to help take down Assad with extreme prejudice, or compel him to broker a ceasefire and exeunt, even though members of the Syrian opposition have now repeatedly rejected a “Yemeni solution.” Assad, for his part, shows no signs of backing down despite combat fatigue, desertions and attacks within the heart of Damascus itself.

The US is still not willing to take that bet for Syria, though, at least not yet. Moscow shows no signs of backing down. Syrian activist Haytham Manna recently told the Guardian that “foreign influence and arms have split Syria’s civil movement.” The continued failure of Kofi Annan’s ceasefire plan, and the efforts of the Syrian Army or the rebels to maintain secure zones for civilians, show that this split may be irreconcilable, even if foreign powers press harder on Assad by all means short of open war.

1While media activists have specific agendas and incentive to spin events, such activists have been politicized from the start in this conflict, with or without US dollars or cameras. Another complication is that the conflict has seen the deaths of Syrian media activists who were not associated with one particular armed camp or another, such as Bassel Shehadeh, who was killed by the Syrian Army in Homs this May. Ideally, third party sourcing to evaluate competing claims would be easier to come by. But even when such reports appear, the coverage quickly turns into a debate over the credibility of each outlet’s narratives.