BEIRUT: French military intervention in Mali and a hostage crisis in Algeria, sparked by the actions of Al-Qaeda-inspired militants, appear to be another reason for hesitation by the U.S. and its allies when it comes to stepping up engagement on the Syria crisis, experts have told The Daily Star.
Paris this month deployed several thousand troops in the African country to battle hard-line Islamist militants, who then initiated a hostage crisis to the north in Algeria, resulting in swift and bloody intervention by that country’s army to end the standoff.
Paris’ equally rapid move toward Mali was seized on by Syrian demonstrators, activists and opposition politicians to highlight what they said was the hypocrisy of the international community in allowing rapid, direct action in Africa, while hesitating when it comes to Syria.
In interviews this week with two different outlets, U.S. President Barack Obama defended his administration’s hesitation to act more forcefully, as he questioned whether Washington had an interest in dramatically altering its level of intervention in Syria.
“In a situation like Syria, I have to ask: Can we make a difference in that situation?” asked Obama, who speculated that such moves could turn out to be counterproductive.
“Could it trigger even worse violence or the use of chemical weapons? What offers the best prospect of a stable post-Assad regime?” the president told The New Republic magazine.
Speaking on the CBS television program “60 Minutes,” Obama deflected criticism that Washington has been reluctant to engage in foreign policy issues such as Syria.
Obama said his administration put U.S. warplanes into the international effort to oust Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi, and led a push to force Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from office.
But in Syria, his administration wants to make sure U.S. action would not backfire, he said. “We do nobody a service when we leap before we look, where we ... take on things without having thought through all the consequences of it,” Obama told CBS.
“We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation” in conflicts around the world, he said. “Sometimes they’re going to go sideways.”
Media reports speak increasingly about the growing influence of the Nusra Front and other hard-line Islamist rebels in the ranks of the armed insurgency in Syria, and their role in the conflict can’t be understated.
This means that Western policymakers will have a difficult time defending any increase in military aid to the opposition National Coalition or funding that goes directly to elements fighting under the Free Syrian Army banner.
Syria expert Joshua Landis said, “The death of 37 hostages in Algeria only reminds us of the perils of intervention and taking on militants who hope to establish an Islamic emirate.”
Landis noted that a large number of Islamist-oriented militias have formed in Syria and their growth “clearly has U.S. policymakers worried – and I am not talking about Nusra Front. There are many others, such as Ahrar al-Sham, which hopes to establish an Islamic emirate in Syria, and belong to the [rebel] Islamic [Liberation] Front.”
Landis, the creator of the Syria Comment blog, which focuses exclusively on the country, said it was likely that policymakers in Washington would prefer to avoid a confrontation with this array of rebel units that espouse hard-line Islamist politics.
For now, national security-related concerns appear to be winning out over any political plan for engaging more directly with Syria’s rebels.
The “arms falling into the wrong hands” argument is what policymakers will fall back on, along with the related issue of securing chemical weapons stockpiles and an aversion to strengthening Al-Qaeda, even if indirectly.
However, some experts believe that while the Islamists’ role among the rebels shouldn’t be understated, it can be overstated.
“The opposition is not majority extremist,” said Andrew Tabler, an advocate of stepped-up engagement and intervention by Washington.
“Not arming the opposition means that those receiving support and arms from the Gulf will take over in some areas of a post-Assad Syria. That’s not in long-term interests of the U.S.,” said Tabler, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
But he acknowledged that events in Mali “make arguments for [even] low-risk arming of the Syrian opposition more unlikely.”
Tabler said the West would like Assad to step down but remains hesitant about working forcefully with the opposition, whether directly or indirectly, to topple the president. “This makes Assad’s departure longer than anticipated, and likely to divide Syria into parts in a de facto sense,” he said.
Tabler said Washington’s decision to designate the Nusra Front as a terrorist organization “backfired,” since the move came shortly before Washington recognized the leading opposition-in-exile body, the National Coalition, last month.
“I think it showed Washington’s priorities are terrorism first and getting rid of Assad second. But that doesn’t mean it will always be that way, or that the two concepts can’t merge,” he said.