Because there is no international security problem that can’t be ameliorated with drones, the Obama administration has deployed its platform of choice to perform reconnaissance over Syria.
We’ll get to the Iranian warships. The drones – according to Pentagon officials, a “good number” of them – are reportedly being used to collect information on Bashar al-Assad’s crackdown on his people. They will provide supporting evidence to justify an international intervention in Syria. The US officials say the intelligence collection is not a precursor to military operations in Syria.
The US has actually done this before. During the gruesome internal conflict in Rwanda (back in the Clinton administration), when Hutus were massacring Tutsis, the US dispatched military reconnaissance aircraft to collect intelligence on the fighting. We have also, of course, operated drones over Somalia and Yemen at various times in the last decade, both to collect intelligence and to target terrorists. But in Syria, the interested parties include Russia, Iran, China, and a collection of Islamist groups.
The US administration’s interlocutors are not wrong to wonder if sending in the drones is a preparatory measure for sending in troops to intervene: the intelligence collected by tactical drones is more immediate, dynamic, and ephemeral than that gathered by standoff collection assets. If you want to know what Assad’s overall posture is, you use the standoff assets; if you want to know what his forces are doing on a moment-to-moment basis, you use operational-level (e.g., Predator) or tactical drones. (If there are a “good number” of drones being used, most of them have to be operational or tactical drones – and are probably Predator operational-level drones, with good range and altitude.)
Meanwhile, as if on cue, the Iranian warships that stopped in Jeddah earlier this month have transited the Suez Canal – without any prior brouhaha in the press – and arrived in Syria. They are in Syria exactly a year after their last visit, and presumably will offload weapons and/or ammunition from the supply ship Kharg, which is accompanying the Iranian destroyer. Reporting from a Syrian defector (see last link) indicated that last year’s Iranian naval task force delivered weapons and ammunition to the Assad regime.
The ships’ arrival makes Iran the third foreign government that has been able, without hindrance, to enter a Syrian port and offload whatever it wants, in spite of the sanctions being imposed on the Assad regime. Hugo Chavez has delivered diesel fuel to Syria since the sanctions were imposed, and Russia, besides sending her carrier task force to Syria during its recent deployment, used a commercial cargo ship to deliver arms to Syria in January. The sanctions thus look pretty perfunctory (not to mention perforable).
Could a US drone be shot down over Syria? Yes, the capability is there. I don’t assess that Assad wants to do anything so provocative, and Russia – the supplier (and very possibly the current operator) of anti-air missiles in Syria – will want to keep things calm as long as possible. But drones watching Syria will inevitably end up watching Russian forces there, and at a certain point Russia may well find that intolerable. If a combination of Assad’s and Moscow’s preferences should cause them to want to exclude the drones, the question will really be whether anyone thinks President Obama would retaliate for a drone shoot-down or two.
There are too many variables in this situation to predict narrowly which direction things will go. The reason for that is largely that the Obama administration’s policy is to avoid securing an outcome with the use of US power. If the US will not seek a particular outcome, we will be consigned to waiting on others to do so. There are many players, and numerous potential reactions. The permutations of hostility and resistance along the way are endless.
What should the US do? Our first principle should be that Assad must go, but that principle can’t stand on its own. It would not be better to have a new government of Islamist radicals than to have Assad in power. It matters who takes over, and how.
A key problem, however, is that we have put our chips on Muslim Brotherhood groups and the brokerage of the Erdogan government in Turkey. That is a very bad policy move, one guaranteed to generate enemies (Russia, China, Iran) for our non-policy policy while giving nations like Saudi Arabia less reason to endorse our activities. We can’t make the Muslim Brotherhood good for the Middle East by throwing our weight behind it.
Doing so is, in fact, wasting and diluting the power we still have. If the US policy were to fence in and discourage the Muslim Brotherhood, while bolstering liberalizing elements instead — elements that exist in every nation of the Middle East – we would make it more desirable for a nation like Russia to collaborate with us on the Syria problem. Russia is the one nation that could directly help us to get rid of Assad; if one of our top objectives were to ensure that the follow-on government was not taken over by Islamists, we and Moscow would have that key objective in common.
The only way to secure a positive outcome in Syria is to use US power, under US strategic direction, to do it. This has never necessarily meant military intervention, but it does necessarily mean acting with purpose and determination, rather than throwing random reconnaissance assets into the fray while handing the political problem over lock, stock, and barrel to the Arab League and the UN. Even after the non-intervention intervention in Libya, there is still a level of respect for US power; it would still be possible for America to foster a good outcome in Syria by bringing together the positions of the various parties.
We cannot exclude Turkey, the Arab League, or Russia from Syria, but the US could establish limits on what they can hope to do there. For the sake of the Syrian people and regional stability, one of the two most important things in ousting Assad is preventing an Islamist takeover. (The other is fostering a positive character for the follow-on government of Syria.) Liberalization of the Muslim Middle East faces obstacles under any kind of regime, but radicalization is most likely under Islamism. There are elements in the Arab League (and in the larger OIC as well) that want an Islamist takeover as little as Russia does; there is common ground to be found if the US is willing to take leadership.
We have not been, however. The Obama administration has chosen an ideological course of passivity as regards concrete political outcomes, combined with courtship of third-party Islamist groups. This is an exceptionally bad approach. Nothing this administration does is a conventional use of US power – and that is why Assad is still mowing down his hapless people while his allies deliver fuel and arms to him without let or hindrance from NATO or the United States.