John Kerry Endorses NATO Airstrikes in Syria

Just back from a trip to Jordan where he met with both Jordanian and Russian officials, Senator John Kerry--Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee--weighed in on the increasingly dire situation developing in Syria. He now advocates for arming and training Syrian opposition forces and for the creation of “safe zones” within Syria for civilians. "I'm talking about Gulf States and the Arab League engaging and leading on this with NATO perhaps as a support structure behind the scenes to back it up," he said. When asked if he favors U.S. or NATO led airstrikes in support of the effort he said, “Sure.”

Republicans have accused the administration of a failure to lead or “leading from behind” in recent Middle East conflicts in which the U.S. has been involved. Kerry responds "This ‘failing to lead' refrain is just a political refrain," he said. "The United States doesn't have to go off and do everything to be the leader. Actually, it's pretty smart to get somebody else to do some things for you. You save the American taxpayer a few dollars, you don't put American troops at risk, and you get the job done."

Time for another Kinetic Military Action, but leading from behind has come with unintended consequences, primarily child soldier and weapons proliferation. The United States has already been unintentionally responsible for arming the Syrian rebels. On April 28th Lebanese intelligence officials seized a ship with a massive weapons cargo originating in Tripoli, Libya and bound for the northern Lebanese port of Tripoli, a center for Syrian rebel activity. The shipment included heavy machine guns, shells, rockets, rocket launchers, and other explosives--weapons which could dramatically increase the intensity of the conflict.

In fact, with no NATO or American troops on the ground to exert control, weapons from the Libyan conflict have flowed across the Middle East, including Egypt and Gaza, as well as to rebels in sub-Saharan Africa. This includes anti-aircraft missiles which could change the face of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and global terrorism generally. The $147 million dollars pledged by Obama for Palestinians is likely, at least in part, to go to additional purchases of these weapons. In Mali, weapons from the Libyan revolution have enabled Taureg rebels to mount a new and successful offensive, culminating in a mutiny by outgunned Malian soldiers and resulting in a coup that has ended twenty years of democratic rule.

Senator Kerry said, "The concept of a safe zone is a reality and worth the discussion”. A safe zone is a reality, but in the past it has been referred to as occupied territory, the borders of which are known as war fronts. When Senator Kerry talks about Gulf States and the Arab league leading with the U.S. or NATO in a support role, what he is really saying is that the United States should militarily support the invasion and occupation of Syria by neighboring Middle East states.

There are several dangers in becoming directly involved with the Syrian Civil War. The possibility of this conflict devolving into a regional sectarian war is very real. President Assad is an Alawi Shia, the minority Islamic sect in Syria. The rebels are Sunni, the majority. Kurds and Christians are caught in the middle. Neighboring countries-- Lebanon, Turkey and Iran-- are demographically similar, and a prolonged conflict is likely to cross borders, pulling the U.S. into a broader regional conflict which would be very difficult to disentangle ourselves from. This would be a development beyond the ability of the U.S. or NATO to control and would require more than leading from behind.

Additionally, Al Qaeda appears to be responsible for yesterday’s bombings in Damascus which killed 70 people and injured another 400. Al Qaeda has previously been supportive of Syria’s efforts to oppose America in Iraq. This change in dynamic further muddies the waters. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged the presence of Al Qaeda in Syria but said the extent of their involvement is unclear, seemingly contradicting Obama’s Afghanistan victory lap statement that their defeat is, “now within our reach”. This in fact would put America and Al Qaeda on the same side of this war.

Further complicating the situation, both China and Russia are supporting the Assad regime and appear to be taking more of a cold war stance globally. Not merely protecting economic interests, Russia has $5 billion in weapons contracts with Damascus and another $20 billion in private investment;  there is a real strategic interest at stake. Russia’s only naval base on the Mediterranean is in the port city of Tartus Syria and is currently being refurbished. And just last week Russia threatened pre-emptive strikes against NATO if the U.S. installs a missile shield in Europe.

Meanwhile Putin has been busy stomping out his own pro-democracy protests in Moscow, arresting more than four hundred demonstrators at an anti-Putin demonstration that was over twenty thousand strong just last week. It is unlikely he will pivot his attention to resolving the Syrian conflict in the near term.

China is one of Syria’s largest importers, and the two countries have a long history of mutual support on international issues. For China, Syria is just one of many areas of contention with the United States--shielding North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, Taiwan, and claiming the South China Sea to name a few. The latter has caused the Obama administration to open a Marine base in northern Australia as a contingency against China closing major shipping lanes in the region.

As politicians line up to get on the right side of history, and the Obama administration bides it’s time hoping Kofi Annan can, as Senator Kerry put it, pull a rabbit out of his hat, it should be recognized that this conflict is likely to have regional and global implications. American involvement intending to avert a local humanitarian crisis could end up creating an international one, as did our involvement in Libya.


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