UN inspectors are taking their earliest steps to account for and eventually remove all chemical weapons from Syria. The Obama administration is mulling over a plan to send military advisers to train more Syrian rebels in their fight against the Assad regime. The long debated U.S. involvement in the Syrian War appears to be escalating, but this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone. The Syrian War offers the U.S. a chance at good, old-fashioned revenge against Assad and Iran.
The United States has a track record of tit-for-tat reprisals against nations that have wronged it, prolonging conflicts at its enemies’ expense. According to a quote attributed to CIA officer Ed Juchniewicz in George Crile’s popular Charlie Wilson’s War, the US provided just enough aid to Iraq in its war against Iran in the 1980’s for the two antagonists of the US to “kick the (expletive) out of each other.” In Afghanistan around the same time, the American CIA covertly provided weapons and training to the Mujahideen fighting against the Soviets. Some analysts have seen this program as at least partially motivated by retribution on the Soviets for aid they gave to the North during the Vietnam War.
Just as the US had its grievances with the Soviets, America now has good reason to see Iran and Assad similarly bloodied in the civil war in Syria. During the Iraq War, the Quds Force, a branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, was suspected by the West of providing Iraqi insurgents with training to make advanced improvised explosive devices (IEDs), called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), capable of inflicting casualties through even the heaviest armor of American and British military vehicles. Washington has long maintained that Iranian-made weapons were used in staggering numbers against US and allied security forces in Iraq. The Department of Defense accused Assad’s administration of allowing foreign insurgents unhindered passage into Iraq through Syria to fight against the American occupation. It was estimated that more than half the foreign fighters in Iraq gained entry through their country, with Damascus doing little of consequence to stem the flow. Both Iran and Syria have been accused of providing safe havens and operating bases within their borders to members of the Iraqi insurgency.
Now, as the saying goes, the shoe is on the other foot. The CIA is currently training moderate rebel groups in Syria on communications techniques and weapons use from sites in Jordan. In June, the Obama administration authorized delivery of weapons and other lethal aid to the Free Syrian Army. US allies in the region, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, had already been providing weapons, including light anti-tank weaponry. Turkey, a NATO member ally of the U.S., is allowing safe haven to the Free Syrian Army inside Turkey and free passage for rebel forces in and out of Syria.
Tens of thousands of Syrian army, police, and Assad-loyal militiamen have died in the last thirty months, far more than the number of dead Americans in either Iraq or Afghanistan. Hezbollah, often seen as an Iranian proxy, sent fighters into Syria to help prop up Assad, and hundreds of its members have died. Syrian rebels have even killed members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and taken others as hostages. Given the support Iran and Assad provided to Iraqi insurgents during the Iraq war, the U.S. is likely enjoying this chance at revenge using the rebels in the Syrian War as a proxy.
Between the loss of oil and tourism revenues, widespread destruction of buildings and infrastructure, and other war-related burdens, the Syrian economy has sustained billions of dollars in losses. Inflation is rampant, with food and fuel prices skyrocketing. Even those Syrians not displaced by the fighting are dealing with shortages of basic goods and essential government services. The Assad regime has staved off complete economic disaster by burning through its international currency reserves, but those reserves are running out. If and when these are depleted, the government will need to find other sources of money to continue fighting the rebels and maintaining their government. Money is power and an Assad regime without money makes a weaker enemy for America.
Any sort of large-scale, international relief will not come as long as Assad is in power. This leaves any financial rescue of the Syrian regime to its allies in Iran. Tehran has little choice but to provide their proxy state with a safety net, lest they risk a weakened Syrian state amidst increasing global support to rebel forces from Western, Arab-state, and Islamist fundraisers. Unfortunately for Iran, they have little cash to spare due to crippling U.S. sanctions over its refusal to rein in its nuclear program.
The United States surely appreciates the irony that jihadist fighters in the region are now battling the same regime that gave them free passage into Iraq. But previous experience supporting rebel forces has taught the U.S. to be cautious. After all, it was American support for jihadists fighting the Soviets in the 1990’s that laid groundwork for the emergence of Al-Qaeda. As the U.S. hopes to prop up the Free Syrian Army, care must be taken to provide a check against the hardline Islamist rebels in Syria like Al-Qaeda affiliated Jabhat Al-Nusra.
Most analysts consider a decisive rebel victory to be an unlikely near-term outcome, but American support to the rebels is not in vain. At this time, the Assad regime has an undeniable edge in firepower and logistical capacity against the rebels, but as long as credible threat to Assad’s rule remains, it is too difficult to reverse the costly military campaigns that hold back the opposition and keep him in power. Simply by existing, the rebellion is damaging Syria and Iran. Continuing assault will eventually lead to a slow and sustained starving out of Assad and his Iranian backers, a process America can and is using to leverage concessions from Assad as the war continues.
The civil war in Syria is bleeding Iran and Assad of money, manpower, and good standing, much as the Iraq War did to the United States. Convinced that Iran and Assad aided insurgent efforts that killed Americans and their allies in Iraq, the Syrian war presents an opportunity to return the favor. The U.S. is taking its chance to get revenge.
Written By: Danyelle C. Overbo