Jeffery Goldberg, the award winning and highly influential columnist for Bloomberg View and The Atlantic, recently had the opportunity to accompany Chuck Hagel, the USA’s Secretary of Defence, on a tour of Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. The trip, as Goldberg wrote in Bloomberg, apparently answered a question that had been “nagging” at him for a while; why don’t the GCC countries that are calling for greater American involvement in Syria, just go ahead and single-handedly launch their own full scale military intervention against Assad’s regime. Afterall, the Gulf with its 400 odd combat aircraft should, in Goldberg’s opinion, put its money where its mouth is, and do themselves and by themselves what they would clearly like the USA to have taken the lead in doing a long time ago.
It is difficult to know where to begin when pointing out the myriad issues with Goldberg’s peculiar notion. Indeed, the idea that the onus is on the GCC countries opposed to Assad to go to war and remove him is one that has been bandied about for months by Obamanite ideologues, looking to deflect the blame for America’s incoherent Syria policy away from their president. Such a position depends a great deal on ignoring some very basic facts about a) how international arms exports actually work in the real world and the restrictions placed on their use, and b) the actual precedents in the first Gulf war and Libya, and the massive political and military commitments without which those interventions would not have been possible.
Simply put, the proponents of “let the Gulf themselves charge into Syria and save the day” such as Goldberg are not after real solutions to the bloody conflict; their foremost concern is to whitewash Barack Obama’s incompetent and morally bankrupt Syria policy by demanding that the region’s countries do what NATO itself can’t even contemplate undertaking.
Early in his article, Goldberg tallies up the airforces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, putting them at around 440 combat aircraft. Apparently, Goldberg believes that this force by itself would be capable of enforcing a no fly zone in the face of the Syrian regime’s very dense anti-aircraft defences. In reality, such a force wouldn’t come close to being sufficient for the task Goldberg envisions. The 2011 intervention in Libya, a country with not even a tenth of the Syrian regime’s air defences, took no less than 26,000 sorties, over a hundred cruise missile airstrikes, numerous naval assets from eighteen different countries, and bases all over the Mediterranean, in addition to a still unknown number of secret operations on the part of Qatari and British special forces.
Just as importantly as the military assets, the intervention had the benefit of a United Nations Security Council resolution. Goldberg seems to deliberately ignore the fact that even more than military might, political legitimacy is crucial for any sort of intervention in Syria. In the first Gulf War, it took months of painstaking diplomacy to create and maintain a broad and international coalition against Saddam Hussein. Russia and China, having repeatedly vetoed resolutions with even the slightest criticisms of the Assad regime, would never be moved to agree to a UN resolution authorizing the same action in Syria, without the Obama administration pressing the issue with far more determination than they have hitherto shown a willingness to employ.
And here we come to the primary reason why no tangible action has ever been taken against the Assad regime during its bloody and barbaric slaughter of tens of thousands of Syrians; namely, the complete and utter lack of commitment on the part of the Obama administration to seeing the actual downfall of Bashar Assad. After more than three years of genocidal slaughter in Syria, it is time to face the fact that Barack Obama was never serious at all in seeing Assad deposed. Not only has the Obama administration never contemplated getting involved in Syria the same way it did in Libya, it has done everything in its power to make sure the Syrian opposition never got the kind of arms and assistance that would have changed the balance of power on the battlefield.
And contrary to what Goldberg might have his readers believe, American approval is absolutely necessary for American made weapons in possession of the Gulf countries to be used in any shape, way or form against the Assad regime. It doesn’t matter if the Gulf countries decide to go it alone, or to arm the opposition, the obstacle to both courses of actions are the one and the same; when a country buys arms from another country, the deployment of such and the manner in which those arms are utilized is always subject to approval from the supplier. Use such weapons in a manner that your supplier deeply disproves of, and you will immediately be slapped with a crippling arms embargo not only from your current supplier, but almost certainly from every potential major weapons exporter as well.
An arms embargo is no laughing matter; aircraft and tanks have to be constantly refurbished when used in battlefield situations, ammunition stockpiles replenished, systems upgraded and enhanced, advanced training provided to repair crews and troops. The threat of an arms embargo is a major power’s insurance policy that the weapons it sells will never be used against its interests. The Obama administration never even bought up the possibility of an arms embargo when Saudi Arabia intervened in the Bahrain unrest, but the slightest hint of weapons transfers to Syrian rebels has always been met with vehement opposition from the Americans.
If the Obama administration is so adamantly opposed to the transfer of a few MANPAD systems to the Syrian rebels, how the heck does Goldberg imagine the USA will approve of a full scale war against the Assad regime using American made weapons? Such an offensive would shut down within a few weeks for lack of spare parts and ammunition, and the Gulf countries involved would never find another arms supplier to take the place of the USA. That is the reality of the arms-trade which Goldberg would prefer his readership remain ignorant of in his efforts to whitewash Obama’s incomprehensible handling of the conflict in Syria.
Bashar Assad is in the enviable position of operating under no such handicap in his relation with his Russian suppliers as he continues to bomb Syrian cities back to the pre-stone age. Vladimir Putin is more than happy to keep his one remaining Arab client well supplied with every tool of murder available in the Russian arsenal. Tanks and artillery not enough to subdue the country? Ship some helicopters and more attack aircraft. Cluster bombs not doing the trick? Provide diplomatic cover as the regime escalates using the Scud missiles you supplied. And make sure the Assad regime’s machine of murder never runs out of bullets, shells and spare parts. Russia could have crippled the Syrian army within six months of the imposition of an arms embargo.
Meantime, the Obama administration continues to use every excuse under the sun to prevent its regional allies from providing the Syrian opposition with the arms to counter those being lavishly supplied by the Russians to the Assad regime.
Elsewhere in his article for Bloomberg, Goldberg postulates that the reason the Gulf countries have so far refrained from taking any direct action in Syria is their apprehensions of a possible Iranian retaliation. And the GCC countries are right to be apprehensive. While Iran’s airforce is hopelessly obsolete, and its tank force numerically inferior to that of its potential adversaries, the Iranians can count on the same kind of superpower backing from Russia that has been lavished on Syria.
What can the GCC look to America for? Crap all, as has been proven by the Obama administration’s handing of Iraq over to an Iranian back government, the abandonment of America’s allies in Lebanon, Obama’s appeasement and tolerance of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and America’s retreat in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine. Goldberg laughably calls Chuck Hagel’s visit to the Gulf countries “relationship therapy”. This would be a good time to remind Mr Hagel and Mr Goldberg of a wise old Yiddish proverb; “Words show the wit of a man, but actions shows his meaning.”
Afterall, as Madeline Albright once said, “What’s the point of having this superb military you’re always talking about if we can’t use it?” In the case of the Gulf countries, the full potential of what can be done with the magnificent American weapons in their arsenals is limited by the desperate need of Barack Obama to avoid any sort of confrontation anywhere in the world, whatever the cost. Obama can rest assured that there will always be a Jeffrey Goldberg on hand to whitewash his policies of perpetual abject surrender.
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