Why Obama doesn’t want to intervene in Syria

After President Obama’s remarks about chemical weapons use in Syria, many newspaper articles appeared suggesting that he was rethinking his opposition to US involvement there. They were wrong, and weren’t listening. Obama said we don’t know who used the chemical weapons or to what extent. That isn’t building a case for intervention, it is knocking it down.

Olivier Knox gets this story right, in part because he asked experienced Washington, D.C. insiders.

Obama learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that US military intervention in the Middle East doesn’t actually work very well. Iraq is still a security basket case, with over 400 dead in bombings and attacks in April (nowhere near the high of 3000 a month in 2006 when the US was in charge of security, or even as much as contemporary Mexico, where over 1,000 a month have been dying in the drug war — but still no paradise). It has been 11 years and we are still stuck in Afghanistan, nor have we “stood up” a credible Afghan government.

Why people think a US intervention in Syria would go better, I don’t know. They always forget that generals are about winning quickly, even at the cost of civilian lives, and that a lot of carpetbaggers always show up in any war to find ways of profiting from it. Billions were looted from Iraq by American bureaucrat-criminals.

Sen. John McCain argues for an aerial intervention, which more or less worked in Libya. But Syria is not like Libya in any way.

Syria’s weapons depots, tanks and artillery are not out in some desert where they can be bombed with few casualties. They are in the cities. Bombing them would kill a lot of innocent civilians. Even just trying to take out the large number of anti-aircraft batteries (the essential first step of any aerial intervention) would be very costly in lives.

Everyone always forgets that if foreigners bomb a hated regime’s installations and accidentally thereby kill large numbers of innocent civilians, the dead civilians show up on the front page and everyone turns against the foreign air force. NATO only avoided this outcome in Libya by staying mostly away from the cities (it did not actually intervene in the Misrata siege). The few bombing raids on Gaddafi’s HQ, the Bab al-Aziziyah, did give the regime some propaganda points, since you can’t bomb downtown Tripoli without casualties.

So an air intervention is impractical in Syria, because its geography and the distribution of weapons are just different from those in Libya. And, any air intervention could well become unpopular both in Syria and the world, really, really fast.

A limited and very careful air intervention could possibly do some good, but in my experience military enterprises cannot be conducted in a ‘limited’ or ‘careful’ way.

If the concern is chemical weapons, those cannot be dealt with (must not be dealt with) by bombing them. That step would just release them into the air and kill people. Since McCain and other interventionists are not proposing US troops on the ground, it is unclear how he thinks the chemical weapons can be secured.

Moreover, the simple fact is that the US does not have good intel on where the chemical weapons are stockpiled. In the absence of really good such information, aerial bombardment of military bases risks accidentally hitting the canisters and releasing clouds of toxic gases onto civilian populations.

If an aerial intervention is not practicable, what about arming the rebels? The latter are already armed, so what this proposal really entails is giving them medium and heavy weaponry. But there is no way to keep such weapons out of the hands of radicals within the rebel camp. Moreover, having a lot of medium to heavy weaponry flood into a country can destabilize it for decades. If the Syrian rebels got shoulder-held heat-seeking missiles, would the Israeli civilian airlines, El Al, ever be safe again, in the aftermath?

I was in Pakistan in the early 1980s when security was relatively good. Then the CIA flooded in weapons to help the Mujahidin fight the Soviet-backed leftist government in Afghanistan. These weapons got sold on a Pakistani black market and started showing up in the bazaar. I had been in Lebanon’s civil war before going to Pakistan, and knew what it means when civilians can buy automatic guns at will. Pakistan’s security has spiraled down ever since and it is unclear when the world’s sixth-largest country will recover from the plague of weapons that has afflicted it.

So sending a lot of weapons into Syria might end the war sooner (or might not; the regime has heavier weapons); but it could also prolong the violence and insecurity in the aftermath.

People talk about arming groups loyal to the West, but that was how al-Qaeda got started in the first place. They don’t necessarily maintain an alliance of convenience with the foreigners.

All this is not to reckon with Russian and Chinese opposition to NATO intervention, and the consequent lack of a security council resolution. For the US to act in the teeth of international law would just be one more nail in its coffin. Sometimes if you aren’t careful, you undermine the very framework you are trying to uphold.

Finding ways to help the refugees and displaced, and to get food to half-starving neighborhoods in places like Homs, are about the best the US could do. I think we’re on the verge of having a plausible humanitarian corridor in the north, and Jordan is considering a buffer zone in the south.

It is not as if the world is stepping up on humanitarian aid in the first place; why would anybody think they will risk even more with a military role? Lets see billions in humanitarian aid flow to the Syrian people– that might sustain them for their fight against tyranny. But even that is not being done.

It is a horrible situation. It breaks our hearts every day. But here as in medicine, the first rule has to be to do no harm, to avoid making things worse. It would be very, very easy to make things worse.

Obama is a smart man who knows all the above. That is why he is reluctant to get involved in that civil war, unless it spills over onto a US ally in the region in a highly destabilizing way.

50 Responses

  1. Excellent article, thanks.

    American readers will read with some sad irony “what it means when civilians can buy automatic guns at will.” We’re learning.

    • Americans haven’t been able to buy automatic weapons since 1930. Please don’t conflate our gun issue with what’s happening on the ground in Syria. It’s not even close to accurate.

      • Raul, yes, U.S. citizens can purchase full auto weapons but ownership requires a special federal license.

        Juan, excellent article [as always] though I doubt ethics and practical matters will prevent more foolishness, especially when so many decision makers have had no practical experience.

      • What, you think the NRA won’t try to overturn that too?

        The entire far-right position on guns is that they are there so the “people” (the right kind of Americans) can overthrow any government that doesn’t let them monopolize power. Full automatic weapons are clearly required for that.

  2. Regardless who eventually rules Syria, I can GUARANTEE these things:

    – the Syrian people and the government will hate the US.

    – the Syrian people and the government will hate Israel.

    – the Syrian people and the government will eventually forcibly take back the Golan from Israel.

    It is also likely that the government will be friendly with Lebanon and maybe even Iran.

    Obama is smart to stay out and in fact should publicly tell the congress critters that want intervention they are fools and it can not be done in any way, shape or form.

    Obama should tell anyone that wants intervention that he will give them an AK-47, thousands of rounds of ammo and a free one-way ticket to Syria. He should really force Graham hand and publicly shame him.

    Unfortunately, Obama is a wimp and completely incapable of playing hard ball.

    • - the Syrian people and the government will hate the US.
      Agreed.
      – the Syrian people and the government will hate Israel.
      Agreed.
      – the Syrian people and the government will eventually forcibly take back the Golan from Israel.
      Not so sure.
      – It is also likely that the government will be friendly with Lebanon and maybe even Iran.
      No. Rebels are Sunnis fed up with Shia “dictatorship” (to them, Assad=Hisbollah=Iran).

    • Sure, just look at how that ‘wimp’ Obama caved on using AC-130s in Libya, extending the withdrawal timeline in Iraq, or announcing a withdrawal timeline in Afghanistan.

      Or canceling the missile defense bases in Poland and the Czech Republic.

      He sure is pushover when the right criticizes his foreign policy!

  3. I’m sorry to say that you are assuming that Obama is really in charge of those types of decisions,, and I’m not so sure anymore that he is capable of making those decisions himself. He has not yet crossed our military, so why would you suspect that now he might be able to go against what the mil/ind/complex controlled Pentagon is offering for a solution ? Obama has become a deer in the headlights of The Complex. The Complex will decide what is best for Syria. Obama will once again be the mouthpiece of our federal regime,, not the real leader. That type of leadership has been compromised. Obama has never been a true Commander and Chief of our military. A deer in the headlights methinks.

    • Obama has crossed the military on:

      Canceling the F-22 program, sticking to the timeline in Iraq and abandoning the bases, announcing a timeline in Afghanistan, getting involved in Libya, limiting the firepower we used in Libya, canceling the missile defense bases in Eastern Europe, including and sticking to the defense cuts in the sequester, pushing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell repeal…and that’s just off the top of my head.

  4. Do the various cultures in which the U.S. has become militarily involved have histories of stability without some form of ‘strongman’ leadership? Other than shows of force that become – for the Americans and their efforts – enervating and eventually exhausting, requiring the emergence of another ‘strongman’?

    • You say that like it is not the norm for the US as well, the only real difference being that the US tend to project that force outwardly , and as you say the ‘shows of force’ ( that would actually be a rampaging global assault) has become very much ‘enervating and exhausting’.
      I would long for the day the US stops feeling the need to save us from the boogey men they have had a leading hand in creating but they’d just be replaced by the emerging ‘strongman’ from behind the bamboo curtain …..nothing new under the sun :(

  5. These are good reasons not to intervene. And good reasons why Obama should not have drawn a red line (made a threat).

  6. What the Russian reaction might be to a direct US intervention is something that Obama is also probably weighing.

  7. Juan,

    I have a deep interest in Syria due to having a friend there, and I have generally supported a limited Western intervention.
    Your words, however, show how such a limited campaign could be very counterproductive and could easily escalate. Refreshing to hear a rational case against intervention.

    I would also be hoping that a serious effort is made to provide much more humanitarian aid, and that this is greatly prioritised.

  8. I have to ask — with all the reports of the usual behavior of our State Security types in actually arming and training one group or another of “rebels” (what’s the accurate term for such a diverse bunch of gunmen? “Insurgents?” “Dissidents?” “Terrorists?” “Anti-government forces?” “Opposition fighters?” “All of the above?”), is it honest or accurate to say that Obama and his Secret Squirrels are not “intervening” in Syria?

    link to globalresearch.ca

    link to csmonitor.com

    As it evolved, the airlift correlated with shifts in the war within Syria, as rebels drove Syria’s army from territory by the middle of last year. And even as the Obama administration has publicly refused to give more than “nonlethal” aid to the rebels, the involvement of the C.I.A. in the arms shipments — albeit mostly in a consultative role, American officials say — has shown that the United States is more willing to help its Arab allies support the lethal side of the civil war.

    From offices at secret locations, American intelligence officers have helped the Arab governments shop for weapons, including a large procurement from Croatia, and have vetted rebel commanders and groups to determine who should receive the weapons as they arrive, according to American officials speaking on the condition of anonymity. The C.I.A. declined to comment on the shipments or its role in them.

    link to nytimes.com

    On the other hand, of course, who the hell cares any more? There’s an avalanche of likely unstoppable imperial financial, military, “security,” environmental, political and social badness rolling downhill and gaining speed, and the most of us, who create the wealth that provides the mass of schmutz that makes up the avalanche, just want decent work, families to love and be loved by, and communities to support, are square in the path. While the few of us keep throwing boulders into the flow, from nice safe perches…

    • is it honest or accurate to say that Obama and his Secret Squirrels are not “intervening” in Syria?

      Here’s an easy way to answer that question: if 70,000 American troops landed in Syria next week, after a five days of an air campaign, would your response be “Meh, no big deal, just the same as what’s been going on for two years,” or would it “Yowza, this is a huge deal, this is the most terrible thing since Hiroshima on acid on steroids?”

  9. There is another reason for caution on intervention. If reports of small amounts of gas are accurate there may be some question of the real point of origin. Presidential statements of a “bright line” that would trigger US intervention give two different actors motivation to use gas in a way that would incriminate the Syrian government. First, rebel groups concerned about recent recovery by Syrian government could decide the sacrifice of some civilians, were it to prompt US action against the government, would be worth the outcome if in the long run it reduces the carnage. It is entirely possible that small amounts of gas fell into the hands of rebels and they decided to try to provoke US intervention against their enemy.

    The second possibility is more disturbing. It is quite plausible that Israel, eager to weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon, launched a clandestine operation in Syria using poison gas in the hope of triggering a US retaliation against the Assad regime. Dragging the US into the conflict in a way that damages the existing Syrian government while triggering a popular revulsion against US for the inevitable civilian deaths gives the Israelis best of both worlds, i.e., undermining Hezbollah and leaving the US even more isolated in the Arab. Given so much uncertainty efforts to stampede the US into intervention smells of an eagerness to enhance the Israeli position.

  10. They question should not be “Why President Obama doesn’t want to intervene in Syria”, but rather, “Why should President Obama intervene in Syria?”

    We all know that the real reason for our ‘interventions’ has nothing to do with humanitarian goals, otherwise we would not be supplying arms to radical jihadists who love to set bombs that kill civilians and point their fingers at the Assaad gov’t. Just like Libya before it had nothing to do with humanitarian intervention.

    The truth is that we do not care about R2P but rather continue to use it as a pretext to invading countries that we dont like and whose resources we want to usurp. Even in the rare case when we might want to invoke R2P for actual humanitarian reasons, we have essentially gutted it by using it for manufactured conflicts like Libya and Syria, where the flames were fanned by the west followed by the self-serving outrage. China and Russia are now (rightfully) suspicious of any ‘humanitarian’ effort using R2P, and particularly so in the middle east and Africa where we are clearly working to reshape the map to our advantage and, inevitably, their disadvantage.

    I am generally a fan of Dr Cole, but I hope he at least considers that his support of the US intervention in Libya has actually undermined R2P and in doing so, has left many civilians in harms way.

    • “We all know that the real reason for our ‘interventions’ has nothing to do with humanitarian goals”

      “We” all knew that troops wouldn’t be withdrawn from Iraq, that there would be BOOTS ONNA GROUND! in Libya, that the Libyan government would be dominated by Islamists, and that the CIA was working with the Mubarak holdovers after the revolution to keep the Muslim Brotherhood out of power.

      “otherwise we would not be supplying arms to radical jihadists who love to set bombs that kill civilians and point their fingers at the Assaad gov’t.”

      We’re not; the US has been working to steer arms deliveries from the Gulf states away from such factions of the rebellion. Unless this is another thing that “we all know” without evidence.

      “otherwise we would not be supplying arms to radical jihadists who love to set bombs that kill civilians and point their fingers at the Assaad gov’t.”

      Right, there was no Arab Spring in Libya or Syria, just outside troublemaking.

  11. However, a great way to help defuse the situation in Syria is for the US government to flex its muscle with the Saudi and Qatari and Turkish governments and insist that they stop arming the rebels in Syria (and of course, we would need to stop arming them as well…). That would lead to either the rebels either walking away or at least getting them to the negotiating table.

    • “However, a great way to help defuse the situation in Syria is for the US government to flex its muscle with the Saudi and Qatari and Turkish governments and insist that they stop arming the rebels in Syria”

      So you apparently would be pleased to see the US Government exercise hegemonic power over Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey? Am I reading you correctly that you have no problem with the US lording it over other countries to pursue goals with which you happen to support?

      • Gee, is that what he said? In the great complex Game you know there are ways to “flex muscles” that do not involve “force projection” or dumping weapons and troops into the pot, stuff called “diplomacy” I hear, that require maybe a kind of will to live as opposed to what looks more like a usual-imperial-death-wish abetted by post-national corporate interests that somehow get to replace a “national interest” that might benefit the most of us rather than the ones who run the Warisaracket.

      • “So you apparently would be pleased to see the US Government exercise hegemonic power over Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Turkey?”

        Just as happy as he is to see Russia and Iran exert hegemonic power in Syria.

        See, the big bad US is always trying to expand its power (you know, like ditching Mubarak…uh never mind), but poor little Russia, well, it’s understandable.

  12. Everyone always forgets that if foreigners bomb a hated regime’s installations and accidentally thereby kill large numbers of innocent civilians, the dead civilians show up on the front page and everyone turns against the foreign air force. NATO only avoided this outcome in Libya by staying mostly away from the cities.

    Message for U.S. Citizens – Explosions Outside of French Embassy
    April 23, 2013
    Embassy of the United States of America
    Tripoli, Libya
    We advise all U.S. citizens in Libya to remain cautious and recommend postponing all travel within the country.
    link to libya.usembassy.gov

  13. I agree with you on the whole, Prof. Cole. There is only part that I would like to point out though – arming civilians in Lebanon and Pakistan caused those countries harm. Is the same also true for Nicaragua – where the civilians were armed too? If not, how do we find armed rebellions in Muslim countries so dangerous but often glorify the same in leftist revolutions? Even though I agree with you, I feel this inconsistency needs to be addressed.

    • AAMIR,

      Contras were armed by u.s. – most of these had been civilians.
      Sandinistas, also former civilians, were armed through years of conflict and slightly by Cuba and the Salvadoran FMLN.
      Civilian civilians were not all armed although government forces certainly were.

      Other hand, Chilean civilians were not armed by Allende nor were Guatemalan civilians armed by Arbenz – Two cases in which democratically elected presidents may have avoided overthrow -if- they had armed the civilian populations.

  14. President Obama has good reason to be cautious as there are at least two categories of interest that would benefit from bringing us into the Syrian conflict. First, it is conceivable Syrian rebels, having captured small quantities of gas, might make the difficult decision that it would be better to sacrifice some civilians now in the hope that our intervention would hasten the fall of the Assad regime. The expectation would be that the appearance government forces employed gas would lead President Obama to declare his “bright line” had been crossed and seek to topple the current government.

    Second, and more disturbing, is the strong possibility that gas, if used, was employed by an Israeli team as part of an effort to draw the United States into the morass of the Syrian civil war. American action against the Assad government would benefit Israel by hindering Syrian support for Hezbollah. Simultaneously it would damage American standing with the Arab world by embroiling it in another conflict with the inevitable cost of civilian Muslim dead. The US would pay the cost, Israel would benefit.

    Under these circumstances the United States would be prudent to avoid being stampeded into actions intended to benefit others.

  15. I would say the President cannot intervene without congressinal approval. it is the congress that declares war.

    I would say that the air defenses of Syria are no match for NATO unless they are manned by Russians and especially the latest versions.

    I would say that if you advocate non intervention then stick with it even when the whole sale massacres start to happen a la Rwanda.

    I would ask do you still advocate non intervention if the regime were to use chemical weapons massively or if the sect starts getting slaughtered?

    Finally Syria is of no strategic value to the US or to NATO and if it is a concern for Israel and Iran let them duke it out without our input.

    Pox on all of their houses. Keep us out of the worst region on the face of the earth with the worst dictators and with the most bizarre ideologies from Ayathollaism to Wahabism to Zionism to Sectarianism.

    • I would say we have already been intervening – light weapons and funds.

      Air defense – ”So, what has the Syrian air defense corps been upgrading its old SA-2s and SA-6s with? Well, rumors about that the RF-4 was shot down by a brand new Russian-made SA-22 system. The SA-22 is a mobile antiaircraft system the equipped with its own target acquisition and tracking radars and it carries 12 medium range 57E6 radio-guided surface-to-air missiles and two 30 mm autocannon. Yeah, it’s a nasty little system designed to protect ground troops, cities and even more advanced, high-altitude surface to air missile systems.

      Speaking of high-altitude Russian-built SAM systems, dubbed triple digit SAMS, that keep American planners awake at night, Syria’s probably got them. [defensetech.org]

      I would say that the SLA/SLF are just as likely to massacre as Assad.

      Syria is of geopolitical value to Russia……..

  16. The basic principle of “first do no harm” was explored at length by U. of Arizona Professor David Gibbs, in his masterful 2009 book First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia. Could it be that Professor Cole, a champion of humanitarian intervention in Libya, has been chastened by subsequent events in Libya post-intervention?

    • Professor Cole was arguing against intervention in Syria at the same time he was supporting intervention in Libya.

      So was I.

      I am still 100% convinced that the Libya operation was the right thing to do, and I am still 52% convinced that trying to do something similar in Syria would be a mistake, owing the differences in the specific situations. My opinion hasn’t changed in the past two years.

  17. In 2001, the CIA didn’t have even one spy in the Middle East.
    The CIA folks in the region managed intel purchased from others; they didn’t do actual espionage, regardless of what’s written in memoirs.

    Our main subcontractors were Israel, Turkey, Jordan and – wait for it – Syria!

    Curveball was prepped by Israeli Intelligence.
    The yellowcake documents were forged by Italian Intelligence for an internal (Italian) purpose, never intended for release to the CIA.
    The aluminum tube scam originated with Iran, if U can believe that.

    We basically allowed these 4 countries to slide the most profanely false notions into our domestic IC.
    They still haven’t recovered.

    ……….

    To understand the culture in the CIA, just consider how Bob Gates leapfrogged to the top leadership in the mid-1980’s:
    he wildly exaggerated the Soviet threat, which led to wasting perhaps $250 Billion or more on unneeded military capability, but feeding right into the Reagan-Bush campaign theme.

    • “In 2001, the CIA didn’t have even one spy in the Middle East.
      The CIA folks in the region managed intel purchased from others; they didn’t do actual espionage, regardless of what’s written in memoirs.”

      Your statement above is patently false. All of our Embassies had stations with case officers running agents and collecting intelligence. We did not “outsource” our Intel activities to others. We cooperated with host country services, of course, but we ran our own activities as well. To say we didn’t have any clandestine officers in the Middle East is just plain ludicrous.

      • If there was all this clandestine activity, one has to wonder why “our” involvements there have worked out the way they have for us. Of course, other than arming and destabilizing and shhhh maybe involvement in drugs? it is unfair, I guess, to expect the clandestine types to control what happens on a global scale… I guess “presence” just can’t be expected to equal “competence” in the sense of VICTORY and SUCCESS and MISSION ACCOMPLISHED. But then it’s hard to discern what the actual goals of the Game were and are, much less of the manifestly and intentionally opaque activities of the Sneaky Petes — there’s been a successful disappearance of billions of cash dollars, and of course provision of bricks of $100 bills and Viagra to warlords to “buy their loyalty,” and an enormous multi-trillion-dollar transfer of wealth to certain parts of the economy that have little to do with the survival of America the True, let alone the species, and a lot more with the furtherance of a few corporate interests.

      • Absolutely correct Bill, I knew one who had spent many years in Cairo and was a really effective/intelligent guy.

        Other hand, I recall a case officer who was supposed to provide direct report on contras but stopped and stayed at a Mx tourist facility, pretending to be in Honduras.

  18. Hasn’t the direct arming of Syrian opposition and groups like the Friends of Syria already done damage to exacerbate the civil war, since Assad and regime supporters decry outside influence? And aren’t those weapons already going to be sold on black markets and unaccounted for just as they were after the invasion of Libya? Many of the weapons have trickled further into the continent and have ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda allied groups in Mali and Nigeria?

  19. President Obama is a victim of his own loquaciousness, a trait he should keep under control. He appears to be too impressed with his own verbal ability, however, to do so. Obama is always talking about “red lines” and this or that course of action being “unacceptable.” It is “unacceptable” that Iran should develop a nuclear weapons capacity. It is “unacceptable,” and would cross a “red line” for Syria to use chemical weapons. The most absurd example of the Administration’s approach was in March, when National Security Advisor Tom Donilon stated that, “The United States will not accept North Korea as a nuclear state.” Earth to Obama Administration: North Korea IS a nuclear state.

    The problem with “red lines” and the Administration’s constant use of the term “unacceptable” is that they never follow through with the threat. I’m not suggesting we should bomb Iran or establish a no-fly zone over parts of Syria. I’m even rapidly losing interest in providing the Free Syria Army and other rebels with weapons because by far the best fighters and commanders are the al-Nusra group and other Al-Qaeda offshoots and affiliates. I’m of the opinion that there is a high likelihood they would prevail among the rebels and create one more headache for the US and the West.

    If Obama does not intend to follow through and do what really needs to be done in order to make it “unacceptable” for Syria, Iran, North Korea, and any others, to violate his “red lines,” then he should not stop talking about “red lines” and banish the term “unacceptable” from his vocabulary. On the other hand, if he is so enthralled with his use of those terms, he should follow through with his threats. To do otherwise in either case noted above is to diminish the credibility of the United States.

    • WW II was probably the last conflict that we followed through to the end. Why? Probably because our collective direct survival depended on it. Since then, we have always bugged out before the job was completely finished. Why? Because our “survival” is not at stake and because the public can only put up with so much expenditure of blood and treasure.

      Syria will be the same, so hopefully this Administration will not OVERTLY get involved.

  20. Uncle Sam will be looking to install a Chalabi-type caretaker to look after the interests of the petro/security profiteers. If the locals successfully resist such an arrangement, Washington knows that there is always plenty of money to be made in dealing with a ‘failed state’.

    I think that the priority in external support for any party in Syria should be the stipulation of a solid arrangement to protect minorities, particularly Alawites. The best resolution for the moment might be a Lebanon-style confessional accord, brokered by … Egypt? Brazil?

  21. This is an excellent article.

    Recall the Central Intelligence Agency involvement in Afghanistan during Operation Cyclone. The opposition rebels were Afghan tribesmen who often fought each other when they were not fighting the Marxist Afghan regime or the Soviet Red Army.

    The rebels had high morale but lacked anti-tank and anti-aircraft rockets neeeded to fight Russian tanks and helicopter gunships. They also needed durable automtic rifles. The CIA supplied them with Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, ant-tank guns and Kalashnikov rifles. The result turned the tide against the Communist regime in Kabul and the Red Army of the USSR.

    The collapse of Dr. Najibullah’s Marxist goverement ended the Soviet influence in the region but brought years of infighting amongst the victorious Afghan fighters and eventual domination of the Pakistani ISI intelligence service via its Taliban movement it fostered.

    Without the Operation Cyclone “victory” of the CIA, there would have likely been no growth of Al-Qaeda into the pre-eminent international terrorist organization, no 9/11 tragedy, no Taliban, no burgeoning of Afghan agriculture as the world’s largest opium producer, no 9/9/2001 assassination of the charismatic Ahmad Shah Massoud – just ongoing civil war that would have likely prevented any one faction from taking over the country.

    Jabhat Al-Nusra has become the first Al-Qaeda affiliate to have broad-based public support in its host state. How much CIA-brokered arms deliveries eventually found its way on the black market to that Jabhat al-Nusra? Note how the big Eric Harroun story disappeared from media attention overnight after Harroun’s father reported the ex-American serviceman was a CIA operative.

  22. The public verbage is for public consumption. For real action there’s the CIA, black military, pseudo military, any number of MIC corporations, and a long line around the corner of entities eager to take American dollars and arms from the US Debt Machine to do our many secret biddings, to ‘spare the pain’ of ‘what needs to be done’. Americans find out about this months or years later when some then-retired participant has a burst of conscience. Then its a done deal–dollars blown, actual participants hinted at, blowback stacked high–and the Real Patriots believe it is a false liberal conspiracy and buy more guns. Plausible deniability for the masses. Blackwater–that’s a fatal disease of the kidneys, isn’t it?

  23. Dear Professor Cole,great and very sober and impassioned analysis, thank you. I have a few statements to make one in form of inquiry/question and three in form of comments.

    Question:
    Sir we have been hearing from the administration and others (experts)- who more and less resonate and repeat the State Department attitude toward Syrian affair – in form of, reluctance of Obama to get involved, non-military aids for the fear of weaponizing the Jihadists,etc., etc., my question for you sir is in two folds;

    1. What are we doing there? If the US aspiration is for democratic Syria why not encourage a fair election, why is that not an option?
    2. How does the US “indirect involvement” via our regional “Democratic” allies [read sarcasm] like Saudi Arabia and Qatar since 2012 differ from “direct involvement”,since at the end of the day the result would be the same?

    Comment:
    You’ve stated,”Obama learned from Iraq and Afghanistan that US military intervention in the Middle East doesn’t actually work very well”.
    Didn’t Mr.Obama call the Iraq war a “wrong war” and suggested that we should have focused on the Afghanistan? Didn’t he surged the number on boots on the ground in Afghanistan shortly after taking office?
    How/what did he learn? He learned nothing sir.
    As you stated it has been 11 years since we have been in Afghanistan, lets us not forget that 4 of those 11 years were under Obama’s leadership or lack there of.

    Comment;
    Very sober analysis, I like it very much when you stated;”Everyone always forgets that if foreigners bomb a hated regime’s installations and accidentally thereby kill large numbers of innocent civilians, the dead civilians show up on the front page and everyone turns against the foreign air force”.
    Professor Cole by “everyone” I hope you mean “everyone in the Administration”, because surely those affected don’t forget. The large number of innocent civilians have been/are dying in Pakistan and Yemen sir, since 2008 thanks to Mr. Obama’s Drone Program.
    What is probably reasonable thing to say, is if American casualties are in front page, then American people and public opinion would turn against the administration.
    Well Mr. Obama took care of that hazard with the unmanned drones, exponential cheaper warfare, no American casualties, and better yet no counts on civilian casualties to report on the “back page” let alone the “front page”!!!!

    Comment;
    In regards to your concerns about “prolonging war” should the US decides to “directly” or “indirectly” send heavier weapons, again very sober observation Professor Cole, but from a first hand experience sir, I very much doubt it if that has ever been a concern of any US administrations.
    US provided arms to BOTH Iran & Iraq for 8 years, that ongoing gift resulted in over 1000,000 death on both sides. “prolonging wars” and “loss of human lives” might upset you and I Prof. Cole but the US Administration has never lost a night sleep over that.

    • I think you make a serious error assuming that the Saudis and Qataris are operating as American clients. Just look at the disagreements over whether to arm the jihadist factions.

  24. This is an excellent piece. It may very well be true that Obama doesn’t wish to increase US involvement in Syria but I doubt he’ll be able to avoid it. The regional involvement in Syria is escalating and it is causing increasing instability in Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey. Given the tensions between the US and Iran, for the US to abstain while Iran is getting more and more involved seems unlikely. Personally I think medium and heavy weapons to the FSA would not be a bad thing because it leaves the opposition in control of the war. No fly zones, airstrikes and boots on the ground would rob Syrians of the possibility of being the authors of their own liberation which is exactly what connects it with the broader Arab spring. Yes, some of those weapons would likely end up in the hands of Salafists and other extermists but they make up a relatively small minority of opposition fighters and there is no certainty that they couldn’t be persuaded to give them up once Assad is gone. This is not Afghanistan or Pakistan and regardless I don’t believe a hypothetical problem down the road outweighs the ongoing atrocities of the Assad regime in the here and now. As for how this affects attitudes towards the US, that’s really not important as far as I’m concerned. I’m all for them sending weapons for the wrong reasons and then living to regret it when a democratic Syria emerges hostile to US interests in the region. Call me an optimist but I think the scenario I’ve painted is the one most likely to lead to that result.

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