Saudis goad Obama to invade Syria

Syrian rebels, including dominant jihadist elements, torpedoed Geneva peace talks by setting preconditions to come to the table. But the maneuver also renewed pressure on President Obama to commit to a "regime-change" invasion of Syria alongside Saudi and other Sunni armies, as Joe Lauria explains.
February 10, 2016
Joe Lauria

The Russian-backed Syrian Army's encirclement of Aleppo, the battle that could determine the outcome of the five-year-old war, has sparked a Saudi plan with allied Arab nations to hold a war maneuver next month of 150,000 men to prepare for an invasion of Syria.

Saudi Arabia's desire to intervene (under the cover of fighting Islamic State terrorists but really aimed at ousting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad) has been welcomed by Washington but dismissed by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander and some Western analysts as a ruse.

Iranian Maj. Gen. Ali Jafari told reporters in Tehran, "They claim they will send troops, but I don't think they will dare do so. They have a classic army and history tells us such armies stand no chance in fighting irregular resistance forces."

"The Saudi plan to send ground troops into Syria appears to be just a ruse," wrote analyst Finian Cunningham on RT's website. "In short, it's a bluff aimed at pressuring Syria and Russia to accommodate ... ceasefire demands."

But I don't believe it is a bluff or a ruse and here's why: It appears instead to be a challenge by the Saudis to get President Barack Obama to commit U.S. ground troops to lead the invasion. The Saudis made it clear they would only intervene as part of a U.S.-led operation.

After meeting Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington on Monday, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir said: "The coalition will operate the way it has operated in the past, as an international coalition, even when there is a ground-force contingent in Syria. There would be no international coalition against ISIS [an acronym for the Islamic State] in Syria if the U.S. did not lead this effort."

Riyadh knows better than anyone that it doesn't have the military capability to do anything beyond pounding the poorest Arab country into dust, that would be its neighbor Yemen. And it can't win that war either. But when Saudi Arabia's ambitions outsize their capabilities, who do they call? The "indispensable nation," the United States.

President Obama has so far resisted direct U.S. combat involvement in the Syrian civil war despite longstanding Saudi, Israeli and neocon pressures. They clamored for intervention after the chemical weapons fiasco in Ghouta in the summer of 2013. The attack supposedly crossed Obama's "red line," (although there is growing evidence that the sarin attack was a "false flag" provocation by the rebels to draw the U.S. military into the war on their side).

Obama came close to acceding to that pressure. On Aug. 30, 2013, he sent out a breast-beating John Kerry, playing the role normally reserved for the president, to threaten war. However, after the British parliament voted against intervention, Obama threw the issue to Congress. And before it acted, he accepted a Russian deal to eliminate Syria's chemical weapons (though Assad continued to deny any role in the sarin attack).

Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh contends Obama backed away because British intelligence informed him it was the rebels and not the Syrian government that carried out the chemical attack.

Even earlier in the conflict, Obama resisted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's pressure to set up "a no-fly zone" inside Syria (which would have required the U.S. military destroying Syria's air defenses and much of its air force, compromising the government's ability to battle Sunni jihadist groups, including those associated with Al Qaeda).

Obama also defied the Saudis, Israelis and the neocons in pushing through the Iranian nuclear deal over their strident opposition in 2015. But Obama has not shown the same resolve against the neocons and liberal interventionists elsewhere, such as in Libya in 2011 and Ukraine in 2014.

Regarding Saudi Arabia's new offer to intervene in Syria, the Obama administration has welcomed the Saudi plan but has not committed to sending in U.S. ground troops, preferring instead to deploy some air power and a limited number of Special Forces against Islamic State targets inside Syria.

However, the Saudi plan is being discussed at a NATO defense ministers' summit in Brussels this week. In Istanbul last month, Vice President Joe Biden hinted at a possible Obama change in position when he said if U.N.-led peace talks in Geneva failed, the United States was prepared for a "military solution" in Syria. (In making that comment, Biden may have given the rebels an incentive to sink the peace talks.)

The talks collapsed last Wednesday when Syrian rebel groups set preconditions for joining the talks, which were supposed to be started without preconditions. (However, the U.S. mainstream media has almost universally blamed Assad, the Iranians who are supporting Assad, and Russian President Vladimir Putin who has committed Russian air power to the offensive around Aleppo).

So, with the Syrian government now realistically viewing victory in the war for the first time, the panicked Saudis appear to be prodding Obama on whether he's ready to be remembered as the president who "lost" Syria to the Russians and Iranians.

Like most leaders, Obama is susceptible to his "legacy," that vain concern about how "history will view him." It is an attitude that can conflict with doing what's best for the country he leads and, in this case, would risk direct confrontation with Russia. Even embedding only hundreds of U.S. Special Forces with Saudi and other Arab troops inside Syria could lead to disaster if they are struck by Russian warplanes.

The Saudis are counting on U.S. domestic criticism to motivate Obama, such as this from New York Times columnist Roger Cohen: "Syria is now the Obama administration's shame, a debacle of such dimensions that it may overshadow the president's domestic achievements. Aleppo may prove to be the Sarajevo of Syria."

Emile Hokayem, a Middle East scholar at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, wrote that it's understandable for Obama to seek a negotiated settlement of the war. "But to do so while exposing the rebellion to the joint Assad-Russia-Iran onslaught and without contingency planning is simply nefarious."

It is up to Obama to resist such pressure and not commit the folly of risking a direct confrontation with Russia by committing U.S. ground forces to what would amount to an illegal invasion of Syria. It might be in Saudi Arabia's interests, but how is it in America's?

Joe Lauria is a veteran foreign-affairs journalist based at the U.N. since 1990. He has written for the Boston Globe, the London Daily Telegraph, the Johannesburg Star, the Montreal Gazette, the Wall Street Journal and other newspapers. He can followed on Twitter at @unjoe.

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