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.