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Wednesday
Apr172013

Syria Analysis: US Arms to Insurgents, "Al Qa'eda", and Muddled Reporting

The confusion in most of the mainstream media appears to be getting worse, with The Wall Street Journal showing the symptoms in a lengthy featured article "U.S. Fears Syria Rebel Victory, for Now".

In these opening paragraphs, there are no less than four serious mistakes of reporting and analysis:

Senior Obama administration officials have caught some lawmakers and allies by surprise in recent weeks with an amended approach to Syria: They don't want an outright rebel military victory right now because they believe, in the words of one senior official, that the "good guys" may not come out on top.

Administration officials fear that with Islamists tied to al Qaeda increasingly dominating the opposition to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, too swift a rebel victory would undercut hopes for finding a diplomatic solution, according to current and former officials. It would also shatter national institutions along with what remains of civil order, these people say, increasing the danger that Syrian chemical weapons will be used or transferred to terrorists.

This assessment complicates the White House's long-standing push to see President Assad step from power. It also puts a spotlight on the U.S.'s cautious approach to helping the opposition, much to the frustration of U.S. allies including France and the U.K., which want to arm Syria's moderate rebels.

The result of this shift, these officials say, is the U.S. has sought a controlled increase in support to moderate rebel factions. President Barack Obama is expected as early as this week to authorize the provision of nonlethal military aid such as body armor and night-vision goggles to moderate fighters, though officials said Mr. Obama still opposes sending American arms and taking unilateral military action.

The administration goal, according to people briefed on the effort, is to provide enough aid to strengthen U.S.-vetted fighters without tipping the balance so far that Islamists who dominate rebel ranks will be able to overrun the regime and its institutions.

1. THE "ISLAMISTS TIED TO AL QA'EDA" LINE

The Journal highlights how, in the space of a week, the notion of Al Qa'eda directing part of the Syrian insurgency has become embedded in most reports on Syria.

That assertion is based on a serious mis-reading of last week's statement by the Islamist faction Jabhat al Nusra --- if indeed reporters ever read the statement --- failing to appreciate the wording or the context of what became distorted into a "pledge of allegiance" by Al Qa'eda. (We will have more on this in a Special Analysis later in the week.)

In this case, however, the Journal goes even farther. Al Qa'eda is not linked to one prominent but minority faction in the insurgency --- it is "increasingly dominating the [entire] opposition".

2. THE "NO OUTRIGHT INSURGENCY VICTORY" LINE

The Journal is right: the Obama Administration is worried about a scenario in which the insurgency suddenly overwhelms the regime, leaving uncertainty and possible chaos in the endgame in Damascus.

But the article is wrong that this is a new concern, tied to "Al Qa'eda" and "terrorists" getting chemical weapons.

The US Government has been worried for months about political instability, irrespective of which factions bring down Assad. That concern has been compounded by the failure to establish a coherent opposition which is certain of commanding the support inside Syria to quickly establish authority.

In other words, "Al Qa'eda" is a red herring in whiat is a far more important, complex situation. The Journal approaches that reality with the reference to "shatter[ing] national institutions along with what remains of civil order" but it is took diverted to understand it.

3. THE "SHIFT TO SUPPORT OF MODERATE FACTIONS" LINE

The Journal is right that the US is pursuing a "controlled increase in support to moderate rebel factions".

The reporters are wrong that this is a "shift".

The US Government has been pursuing this line for almost a year, beginning with the arms supply effort across the Turkish border. It has wanted to get weaponry to the Free Syrian Army, while trying to limit provision of "extremist" factions such as Jabhat al Nusra.

That effort, which ran into complicated, was paused last autumn, but it was renewed in late 2012, with a second arms front being opened across the Jordanian border. Once again, the hope was that the weapons would link up with better organisation and tactics from the Free Syrian Army and brigades affiliated to it.

The "Al Qa'eda" narrative from last week did not, as the Journal implies, cause a shift in a strategy that was decided many months ago.

4. THE NON-LETHAL MILITARY AID LINE

If the Journal recognised the "real" US strategy and tactics from last year to now, including the American role in co-ordination of arms supply to insurgents, it might have avoided these errors.

It does not, instead parroting the public line of the White House that President Obama will authorise "non-lethal military aid" but "still opposes sending American arms and taking unilateral military action".

Note that this line is technically true --- the US is helping send arms made in other countries and is acting on a multi-lateral basis with Arab States, Turkey, Britain, and France.

I doubt the Journal understands the game behind this "technically true" statement. For example, it puts out the far-from-true diversion about US disagreement with "France and the U.K., which want to arm Syria's moderate rebels".

----

These four errors undermine the article, which is a shame because there are a couple of notable statements which are lost.

One "senior US official", for example, summarises the ongoing worry about stability that would exist even if there was no "Al Qaeda myth":

We all want Assad to fall tomorrow, but a wholesale institutional turnover overnight doesn't make a whole lot of sense. The end game requires a very careful calibration that doesn't tip the meter in an unintended way toward groups that could produce the kind of post-Assad Syria that we aren't looking for.

BEven more important is that admission from an American official about the arms supply to insurgents: "This is like Goldilocks, but I don't think we live in a world in which we have porridge that's just right."

In other words, the Obama Administration has come to the point where it either has to withdraw from the effort to provide weapons --- in which, it faces the prospect of insurgents, some of whom it does not like, getting the arms elsewhere and thus being beyond US "influence" --- or it accepts that the weapons will not always remain in the hands of "moderate" factions.

The US official says --- although the Journal does not realise this --- that the Obama Administration has chosen the latter scenario.

It is this, not the inaccurate hook-line of "Islamists tied to Al Qa'eda", which is the real story of US intervention in the Syrian conflict.

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