Syria: Rebels take Aleppo Airport Road; NYT: Obama Nixed Clinton/Petraeus Plan to Arm Rebels

Syria’s revolutionaries are saying that they have taken a key Aleppo district, Sheikh Said, that enables them to block the road to the airport. The Baath regime has been using its airports and air bases to resupply troops in the north. If the rebels can block the use of Aleppo airport for this purpose, they will have a better chance of taking all of the north of the country. They now hold significant swathes of Aleppo, including some military bases that have fallen to them, along much of the territory between Aleppo and the Turkish border, all along the way.

Meanwhile, the opposition met with Russia on Saturday. Since Russia is losing standing in the Middle East for its Syria policy, such a meeting benefits all the parties. But I can’t imagine much practical coming out of it.

Michael R. Gordon and Mark Landler of the New York Times broke the story on Saturday that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had gotten then CIA director David Petraeus’s agreement to a plan to arm, train and support America-friendly revolutionaries in Syria. The plan was scotched by President Obama on the grounds that it could spin out of control and draw the US into an intervention in Syria. Obama was also allegedly worried that a covert operation like that could go bad very publicly and might have a negative impact on his presidential campaign.

I think we now have a concrete difference between what an Obama presidency looks like and what a Hillary Clinton presidency would have looked like. Obama doesn’t like interventions of choice on the ground, and wants the US out of its Middle Eastern land wars. He was happy enough to get out of Iraq altogether. He will be wholly or for the most part out of Afghanistan in a couple of years. His intervention in Libya was forced on him by UK PM David Cameron and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and it remained a purely from-the-air affair, with no US military engagement in the country after the fall of dictator Muammar Qaddafi. Obama’s main form of foreign policy interventionism is a) sanctions (e.g. Iran) and b) drones, as in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia. These two techniques may appeal to ground-war-averse Obama as a way of avoiding sending in the infantry, though I suspect Washington underestimates the danger that these two tactics can themselves spiral out of control and lead to military engagement.

Clinton pushed hard for the Libya intervention, and apparently she wanted to be much more hands-on with regard to Syria than Obama would let her. And, although the consideration of the electoral campaign has passed, the fear of being drawn into a quagmire has not. This revelation of the NYT underlines my argument on a recent edition of “Empire” on Aljazeera English that the US really has no on-the-ground, practical Syria policy, and that rumors of US covert action in Syria have been much exaggerated. (The US does say al-Assad should go and has worked with the revolutionaries on the political side.)

15 Responses

  1. just a reminder that Prez Obama tripled the number of US forces in Afghanistan from when he entered office.
    From ~33,000 to ~68,000 to ~104,000.
    After his recent troop cuts, we are down to double the troops there in Jan 2009.

    And he has never explained why we’re there.

    • “And he has never explained why we’re there.”

      President Obama has made it clear on numerous occasions that we are in Afghanistan to suppress the insurgents, assist the Afghan Government to expand its writ to as much of the country as possible, and to train the Afghan security forces to take over. The over-arching goal is to prevent Al-Qaeda and its affiliates from regaining a foothold in Afghanistan.

      Obama summed it up in his 02 May 2012 address at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan:

      “For this reason, in one of the most difficult decisions that I’ve made as President, I ordered an additional 30,000 American troops into Afghanistan. When I announced this surge at West Point, we set clear objectives: to refocus on al Qaeda, to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, and train Afghan security forces to defend their own country.”

      Frankly, I have my doubts whether or not we will succeed in meeting our objectives. I am not a fan of Counter-Insurgency and “Nation-Building.” Nevertheless, President Obama has made it very clear, as did President Bush, why we are in Afghanistan.

      • Bill,

        I think what the poster meant was that there has never been a _good_ reason presented for being in afghanistan, that would justify the massive cost in dollars and human life.

        As for the chances of success in these Quixotic goals, I suspect your intuition is correct, except that the Afghan Security Forces have proven quite adept at defending their country from _us_.

  2. Obama’s main form of foreign policy interventionism is a) sanctions (e.g. Iran) and b) drones, as in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia.

    I question whether the war against al Qaeda – the context in which the drone strikes are taking place – is properly considered “foreign policy.”

    When the U.S. or one of its allies arrests an al Qaeda operative overseas, is that “foreign policy?” What about an attempted arrest raid that turns into a firefight? What about the raid on the Abbottobad compound?

    The term “foreign policy” generally refers to geo-politics, and the use of force against al Qaeda – ranging all the way from quiet arrests to drone strikes – doesn’t seem to be carried out in the pursuit of geo-political objectives. The strikes in Pakistan, and the hostility they produce from the Pakistani government, actually seem to run counter to American geopolitical objectives – which should make the point that they are being driven by other considerations.

    At the same time, you don’t see the types of targeted drone strikes* that are being carried out against the al Qaeda leadership being used in the pursuit of any other foreign policy objectives the administration is working on.

    *A “drone” is just a piece of equipment, and are used in many different ways. We wouldn’t conflate sending someone to shoot a foreign head of state with an infantryman laying down suppressive fire with a machine gun in a war zone just because they both use bullets, and we shouldn’t let the equipment define the meaning of the mission in the case of unmanned aerial vehicles, either. There were drones hitting artillery batteries during the active fighting in Misrata, but that’s quite a bit different from blowing up a car full of terrorists driving to a secret meeting in Yemen.

    • Hmmm.

      A soldier with a gun in something like traditional combat would be engaged in War (declared or not), or politics by other means, and their targets typically are other functionaries. When a general happens to be involved, the target is just another center of gravity. Its no different whether its a sniper, a drone, or a squadron of P-38s in World War II: they’re all just tools.

      Now drones are being used exclusively for assassination: their targets being political centers of gravity and put to death on that basis. But it’s no different than if the circumstances where such that James Bond were ordered in for the Wet Work.

      It’s all politics by other means. Same confusion comes from not recognizing Terrorism as just another tool. The US has high-tech drones; the poor of the world rely on low-tech terrorism.

      What’s most important and interesting is how these symantics are manipulated for the cause of self-righteousness.

      • This is mostly right. That Congress expressly invoked its war powers should make that clear enough.

        I have to question the claim that al Qaeda targets are being selected for their political leadership instead of their operational leadership. Awlaki was making his little YouTube videos in Yemen for years, but it was only when he went over to the operational side that we began shooting at him.

        And also the claim that terrorism is the tool of “the world’s poor.” Bin Laden was fabulously rich, so much so that he got his start providing funds, from himself and his rich Saudi friends, for the Afghan insurgency. None of al Qaeda’s leadership, and none of the suicide pilots of of 9/11, were po ‘boys.

      • There is a difference in the way Terrorism and Drones are/have been used to this point, but the underlying point is that they are just tools. But more importantly, they are words/concepts with special rhetorical weight that are being manipulated for psychological advantage.

        Thing about Terrorism, is that it has been used deliberately against civilians; Drones have so-far gone, with an arguable sincerity, against very discrete targets. But then you get to splitting hairs (to maintain your moral high ground) between the firebombing of Tokyo and a bus on the West Bank. Any weapon/tool might be used in a more or less socially acceptable way depending on the skill of rhetoric deployed.

  3. Good discussion in the Empire roundtable clip, though a couple of things left me annoyed.

    Bishara continually cut off people in mid-thought. Yes, I know the job of a good moderator is to move the conversation along but his repeated interruptions broke up what otherwise might have turned into interesting observations. He did it with each participant.

    Secondly, Stephen Starr came off like so many other self-styled experts, who live in a place for a few years, write a book and then get trotted out as experts. How he could sit there and smugly claim that Assad could remain in power even if Damascus came out to demand his ouster left me speechless. Someone – it may even have been Juan – correctly noted that we’ve heard similar declarations about previous regimes which were armed to the teeth. Didn’t matter in Iran, the USSR, Romania, or Libya. Each situation is different. For Starr to argue otherwise reveals an astonishing blind spot.

  4. This is a very interesting report as it has seemed to me that Secretary of State Clinton’s behavior on the world stage was consistent with her neoconservative history, such as her support of the Iraq War. As Secretary of State she helped foment civil war in Syria with the multiple millions of dollars funneled into propaganda for American media which helped militarize the protests. Doing this while decrying “terrorism” in other parts of the world, and supporting the generals in Myramar as democratic. She talks a good line for the media, is the perfect hypocrite, and doesn’t get called out for it, which will make her a excellent Presidential candidate for 2016. “War is Peace! Freedom is Slavery! Long live Oceania”

  5. Juan, How can the Syrian opposition be assisted without the “Islamists”–who are a small but important element of the opposition–also being assisted?

    Are not the contradictions in US foreign policy creating a dilemma for it? To paraphrase from Robert Lacey recounting 9/11: America was the ‘far Satan,’ in Osama’s eyes, because it was the patron and supporter of the Al-Saud, the ‘near Satan’ that was the ultimate target. Few Americans could see that it was through the selection of contradictory friends (i.e., Islamic extremists in Afghanistan and allying with the House of Saud while also supporting Israel at the expense of Arabs) that successive US governments had picked themselves this lethal foe. link to

    • Are not the contradictions in US foreign policy creating a dilemma for it?

      It’s not our foreign policy that creates this dilemma. There would be a popular uprising including mainly liberal and nationalist elements, which includes anti-American international jihadis, regardless of what the U.S. does.

      Obama’s foreign policy, which seems to consist mainly of trying to steer weaponry away from the jihadis and towards the more democratic and pro-western elements, is an effort to deal with this dilemma.

      The Arab Spring uprisings have consistently generated this dilemma for the United States, and American foreign policy in this area seems to consist mainly of reacting to events beyond our control.

      • It is unclear how important the “Islamists” known as Jabhat al-Nusra are to the Syrian rebels attempt to depose President Assad. Although their fighting prowess has bee lauded by the Free Syrian Army, their numbers are only several hundred.

        What is clear is that the Free Syrian Army does not trust Jabhat al-Nusra and vice-versa. The Syrian National Coalition chairman has attempted to get the U.S. State Department to rescind the designation of Jabhat al-Nusraa a terror organization. The CIA has reportedly tried to ensure that the influx of armaments to the rebels do not fall into the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra; this extremist group may be composed largely of foreign fighters linked to al-Qaeda in Iraq – which had been founded and led by the infamous Zarkawi before he was killed by the U.S. Armed Forces.

        Jabhat al-Nusra is a “wild card” in the Syria equation. They are anti-Assad, yet also anti-American and are, further, fighting on their own side rather than as part of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army. What their role, if any, may be in a post-Assad transitional government is purely speculative.

  6. “former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had gotten then CIA director David Petraeus’s agreement to a plan to arm, train and support America-friendly revolutionaries in Syria.”

    This is interesting.

    who released this information, and why did they do it?

  7. Nice front-page article today in the Detroit Free Press about Syrian-Americans in Michigan and their role in the Syrian conflict.

    It identified $17 million dollars in aid was raised by Syrian-American and Islamic groups in Michigan for assistance to Syrians affected by the ongoing civil war.

    One member of the Istanbul-based 43-seat Syrian National Council exile organization lives in Flint, Michigan. Another Syrian-American leader in Michigan interviewed indicated that he met with National Security Council staffers about the U.S. role in the conflict. It was indicated that there has been disappoinment in the exile community about the paucity of aid given by the United States government to the rebels, although they are clear they do not want American troops involved in the fighting.

    There was a report that the Troy-based office of the Syrian Consul was the target of Syrian-American protesters.

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