The Enemy of My Enemy…Remains My Enemy

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Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, left, raises the hand of Syrian counterpart Bashar Assad after awarding him a "medal of valour" at a 2010 function in Tehran.

“Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake.”
— Napoleon Bonaparte 

Let’s face it. There are no good choices for the U.S. in Syria, at least none that reduce the violence in the short term.

Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., wants to arm the rebel Free Syrian Army. Pundits Eugene Robinson of the Washington Post and Zbigniew Brzezinski in TIME say U.S. support of the FSA will only make things worse.

Neither side offer any solutions to the problem, however. Meanwhile, we are providing support to the rebels, just not enough for the liking of some and, presumably, not enough for others.

With the ascendance of al Qaeda-affiliated groups fighting alongside the FSA, we cannot provide the rebels with enough support to bring the war to an end without the risk of arming Al Qaeda. Even if we could arm only the “good” elements of the FSA and help them win, there’s no guarantee they’d be friendly once they were in power.

Friends in the Middle East, after all, are only ever rented, never bought. We certainly cannot support Bashar al Assad.

And in choosing to do nothing, in the words of the band Rush, we still have made a choice — and in this case a bad one.

President Obama has so far only provided humanitarian and non-lethal support to a few, semi-trusted, Syrian opposition groups. Perhaps the Administration has been trying to walk a fine line on Syria, trying to do something without clearly picking a winner.

Unfortunately, this approach has had the consequence of prolonging the civil war, since without this support – along with support from other Arab nations – Assad would have crushed the rebellion in its nascent stages.

In a way, I partially agree with Obama’s approach, but I see no discernable plan on the part of the Administration. He and his people are simply muddling through, on behalf of the American people.

I am not a humanitarian.

I see the advantage in having our enemies fighting each other, despite the inevitable civilian suffering and the potential for the violence to spill into neighboring countries. We should focus on mitigating these problems, while letting our enemies kill each other. After all, at a certain point in a structure fire the firemen simply have to step back, let it burn and try to keep the fire from spreading.

Military intervention and doing nothing are both mistakes. Instead, we need a plan that focuses on containing the violence within Syria, while providing a way to get civilians clear of the fighting as much as possible. And it must push to weaken our enemies, through continued humanitarian support to elements of the FSA.

Why are we not bringing together a coalition of involved countries to ensure the violence stays in Syria? We have an opportunity to try to bring together Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Jordan, even – possibly – Israel and the Kurds. All have a stake in preventing chaos from infecting the entire region, but right now each is a solo actor looking out for their individual interests. The United States should focus its diplomatic efforts on bringing them together in an ad hoc coalition to work on ways to contain the violence. This would also enable efforts to evacuate civilians from the conflict and continue humanitarian support within Syria.

The Syrian conflict is more than a civil war. It is an international proxy war being fought within the context of a civil conflict. I am intimately familiar with what a proxy war looks like., some of which I described a couple of months ago — based on my experiences in Iraq — here on Battleland.

Through the years I spent in Iraq as a Marine and civilian intelligence analyst, I saw the U.S. and its allies fight Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah through their Iraqi Shia proxies, Asa’ib al Ahl Haq and Kata’ib Hezbollah. We also fought Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQIZ – distinct from Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda in Pakistan and Afghanistan), which was largely supported by foreign donors.

Now we are seeing many of the same actors in Syria.

Russia, Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have explicitly sided with Assad. They provide material support, training and boots on the ground. Hezbollah no longer hides the funerals for its fighters killed in Syria and Iran-sponsored Iraqi Shia groups fighting in Syria (the same ones the U.S. fought in Iraq) are a poorly-kept secret. A recent article in Foreign Policy by Thanassis Cambanis details Iran’s and Hezbollah’s involvement.

Essentially, the Assad regime is critical to Iran. His government allows Iran to re-supply Lebanese Hezbollah, and is an irreplaceable part of Iran’s defense against Israel. There is no doubt in my mind Iran will commit whatever resources necessary to ensure Assad survives.

Iraq also sides with Assad, as the Maliki government there freely allows Iranian re-supply shipments to fly over Iraqi airspace, despite repeated diplomatic protests from the United States.

Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United States back the Free Syrian Army to varying degrees. At the same time, the al Nusra Front – the al Qaeda affiliate in Syria that supplies critical combat power to the FSA – is supported by a host of international donors, and is allied with a resurgent al Qaeda in Iraq.

Make no mistake – even with the limited support we are providing the FSA, we are embroiled in a proxy war in Syria, whether we like it or not. And is that really so bad?

Everyone else involved — Syrian civilians aside — is our enemy, to one degree or another. Iran, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda are all avowed enemies. Russia, the Free Syrian Army and Iraq have no intention of supporting U.S. interests.

So let Iran spend millions supporting Assad while its own economy is in shambles. Let Lebanese Hezbollah and Al Qaeda commit blood to their respective causes. Russia’s ongoing support of the dictator Assad earns it a black eye on the world stage, all the better for the United States.

It serves the U.S. national interest to support the rebellion in Syria. We haven’t committed blood to this conflict as of yet, and we don’t need to do so.

We simply need a well-designed plan to keep our enemies at each other’s throats, while minimizing the spread of the war to the rest of the region.

J.E. McCollough is a Marine Corps combat veteran. He served from 1996 to 2005 and was a counterintelligence specialist. He is currently writing a memoir and resides in Portland, Ore.


The problem with this marine is he assumes that wars make both sides weaker.  The Russians were invaded by the largest force in history during WW2 and most of their country was destroyed.  However, by the end of the war the Russians had a far more powerful army than they did at the beginning.   In America's civil war the North emerged more powerful after the conflict than it was before the action started.  This effect comes from really bad wars causing populations to make the sacrifices necessary to achieve victory, as well as foreign actors becoming more willing to lend support to the faction they feel best represents their interest.  The Syrian Army is more powerful today than it was when the civil war started, and if Obama had simply allowed the rebels to be crushed the Syrian Army would not be the battle-hardened, technologically advanced force it is today.  The longer we support the rebels the stronger both al-qaeda and the Syrian Army become.  


With incompetent analysts like this self-important ex-Marine in charge of analysis of American "interest" (whatever that is - it certainly isn't the defence of principles and ideas vital to Western-European cultural survival) - no wonder the American foreign policy in the Middle East has been a series of unmitigated disasters in the past 10 years.


J.E. is a pragmatist; a position  which is out of fashion these days of people who prefer to place their faith in the illusion that everyone can live together peacefully, without conflict.

 The reality is that the US faces individuals, groups, and states that both directly and indirectly actively seek to harm the US. How then should the US respond to this? Through soft power, certainly, humanitarian aid, cultural influence, etc. But this alone is insufficient; we must also, if necessary, be willing to exert force. The big stick, if you will. 

And when exerting force, much better if it is other people serving their own interests which are doing the fighting and the US can simply play a supporting role. Then the freedom-fighters (or rebels/traitors/rival tribes) can do the dying and our sons and daughters, not. They are fighting for their own country, after all. Think of it like the French during our own Revolutionary War.


@quifor He's not a pragmatist, he doesn't understand strategy.  He's an infantry soldier who thinks in terms of tactics, like "how can we flank that enemy position?"  War on the strategic level works nothing like he assumes it does, as he makes perfectly evident in this article.  Prolonging this civil war accomplishes nothing strategic for the US whatsoever, it makes our enemies on both sides stronger and could start an all-out sunni vs. Shia war of attrition across the entire Middle East, which would certainly destroy the entire region for decades to come.  How are our interests preserved by supporting jihadists?  How are our interests preserved by forcing Russia and Iran to further empower Assad?  This isn't the cold war where we had to wage proxy wars in the East to keep the USSR from waging proxy wars in the West, this is a Muslim war where the only major countries to have their interests threatened in any way at all are Russia and Iran.  This means that no matter what they will commit all that is necessary to prevent the rebels from ousting Assad.  We could start bombing Syria tomorrow and the Russians would start shooting at our fighter planes.  They are making their stand and we are powerless to do anything about it, because we have nothing to lose in this conflict and they do.  

TimMulhair 1 Like

Devoping a coherent plan for supporting the Syrian rebels is easier said than done because the rebels are so incoherent a fighting force.There are essentially five classifications the rebels fall into. First are Sunni neighborhood militiamen. They don't really care about ideology and just want to protect their homes; they won't launch any offensive outside a two-block radius. Probably the most common type of rebels. Many of them are decent people, but don't make the mistake of thinking these are all good guys; plenty will happily murder Alawites or Christians, they just won't travel far to do so.Second are the FSA-types, the secular, progressive Syrians who want a democratic government. There aren't nearly as many of these as there seems to be because they like to inflate their numbers with those local militia guys.Third are Kurdish rebels who are pretty much separatists, working with the PKK in Turkey and their brethren in Northern Iraq. They collaborate with FSA because they think a democratic Syria would give them greater autonomy, but their ultimate end goals are very different. Supporting these guys will also piss off US ally Turkey, which is the key conduit to aiding the rebels in the first place.Fourth are Muslim Brotherhood and the like, softcore Islamists. These are the wildcards, because they'd readily support either a democratic Syria or an Islamist dictatorship as backed by al-Nusra; they'd be confident in winning elections and comfortable in an Islamist state. There's also a high rate of turnover in membership of the FSA to these guys, i.e. when people get tired of the FSA getting nothing done, they move on to these groups. In turn, these groups are recruiting pools for the hardcore jihadis.Al-Nusra and other hardcore jihadis are the last major group, the ones who are definitely our enemies and that of most Syrians as well. This is the group that is the most successful in combat, as the jihadis are generally better-armed, more experienced, and far more willing to take risks than any other rebels. Even in this group, there are two major subdivisions: native Syrian jihadis, who are more nationalist and also have families in the warzone to think about, and foreign jihadis, who tend to want a multinational Islamic regime and also don't have any family in Syria, so they don't have to worry about be reprisals for their actions falling on anyone they care about.

AndresCB 1 Like

"Russia’s ongoing support of the dictator Assad earns it a black eye on the world stage, all the better for the United States."  You mean the capitalist states and other western countries?  Because Russia, China and the east have many other allies.  There are two sides to every story and this reporter failed to fully understand what is going on in the other side of the equation.

detexify 1 Like

This is disgusting.


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