By Ivan Eland
The recent downing of a Turkish military aircraft by Syria is one indication that Turkey may now be more aggressively supporting the overthrow of the Assad regime. Although Turkey insists that its aircraft had accidentally entered Syrian airspace but was in international airspace when shot down, the Syrians claim that the aircraft was flying threateningly low and entering their airspace when it was downed. Either way, Turkey is tweaking the embattled Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad by buzzing its borders.
Turkey, a former friend of Syria, is clearly providing a sanctuary for Syrian opposition fighters on its soil and funneling weapons, communications equipment, and field hospitals across the border to rebels in Syria. Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia are funding the weapons, including rocket-propelled grenades, assault rifles, ammunition, and anti-tank weapons. All of these supplies are making the disparate Syrian rebel militias more effective against Assad’s forces.
The United States, in a slick effort to help the insurgents without getting its hands dirty, is providing “non-lethal” equipment, such as communications equipment. Of course, the “non-lethal” designation is a joke because better communications between militias increases their combat power greatly by allowing them to coordinate attacks. Although you can’t kill directly with communications equipment, it allows a force to indirectly kill more Syrian military personnel. Nowadays, communication has become very important in warfare. In addition, the U.S. is providing intelligence on Syrian opposition fighters to the weapons exporters so arms recipients can get at least some vetting. The U.S. is also considering providing intelligence—including satellite imagery—to the rebels on the location and strength of Syrian military forces.
The United States tried a similar ruse during the long and bloody Iraq-Iran War from 1980 to 1988. Ostensibly, the United States had an arms embargo against both belligerents, but it secretly favored Saddam Hussein’s Iraq over Iran’s theocratic regime. The U.S. encouraged its European allies to sell arms to Saddam but not to Iran. Also, the United States sent Saddam civilian technology that had military applications, gave him much intelligence, and even helped his military plan attacks.
The United States sometimes likes to stay above the fray while secretly fueling conflicts indirectly and accusing rival countries of stoking the conflict by supporting the bad guys. For example, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently accused the Russians of providing offensive weapons to the Assad regime. The Pentagon immediately started backpedaling by saying that attack helicopters being sent from Russia to Syria were not new but were probably old ones being repaired. The Russians then stated that the only arms contracts they had with Syria were for defensive weapons, such as air defenses. The American media of course gave a pass to the deceptive pronouncement by Clinton.
Bashar al-Assad is a brutal ruler who has so far killed more than 10,000 civilians in his own country. And the United States may be generally correct in criticizing Russian support for him. But even that is hypocritical, because the U.S. has supported governments that killed far more people—for example, in the 1980s, the U.S.-backed government of El Salvador killed 65,000 of its own people, many execution-style.
Also, the United States has directly killed more innocents than Assad ever has. In Vietnam, U.S. carpet bombing and other types of attacks killed millions of civilians and rivaled the wanton Nazi destruction in the Balkans during World War II. In the Korean War, the United States targeted dams in North Korea to flood cropland, thus inducing starvation among the people in order to hamper the North Korean war effort.
Furthermore, U.S. criticism of Russia to divert attention from and justify its own meddling in the Syrian conflict is also hypocritical. Both outside powers should avoid fueling what is rapidly becoming a civil war that could overflow Syria’s borders and become a regional sectarian war.
Regardless of what the Russians do, the United States has no vital strategic interest in Syria and should quit stoking the conflict in any form. Although the Israelis may have such a strategic interest there, Islamists could hijack the rebellion as they have in Egypt—making Israel and the United States nostalgic for Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorial rule.