The Consequences of Intervening in Syria – Stratfor

The  Consequences of Intervening in Syria is republished with permission of  Stratfor.”

Read more:  The Consequences of Intervening in Syria | Stratfor

By Scott Stewart Vice  President of Analysis, Stratfor

The French military’s current campaign to dislodge jihadist  militants from northern Mali and the recent  high-profile attack against a natural gas facility in Algeria are both  directly linked to the foreign intervention in Libya that overthrew the Gadhafi  regime. There is also a strong connection between these events and foreign  powers’ decision not to intervene in Mali when the military  conducted a coup in March 2012. The coup occurred as thousands of heavily  armed Tuareg tribesmen were returning home to northern Mali after serving in  Moammar Gadhafi’s military, and the confluence of these events resulted in an  implosion of the Malian military and a power vacuum in the north. Al Qaeda in  the Islamic Maghreb and other jihadists were able to take advantage of this  situation to seize power in the northern part of the African nation.

As all these events transpire in northern Africa, another type of foreign  intervention is occurring in Syria. Instead of direct foreign military  intervention, like that taken against the Gadhafi regime in Libya in 2011, or  the lack of intervention seen in Mali in March 2012, the West — and its Middle  Eastern partners — have pursued a middle-ground  approach in Syria. That is, these powers are providing logistical aid to the  various Syrian rebel factions but are not intervening directly.

Just as there were repercussions for the decisions to conduct a direct  intervention in Libya and not to intervene in Mali, there will be repercussions  for the partial intervention approach in Syria. Those consequences are  becoming more apparent as the crisis drags on.

Intervention in Syria

For more than a year now, countries such as the United States, Turkey, Saudi  Arabia, Qatar and European states have been providing aid to the Syrian rebels.  Much of this aid has been in the form of humanitarian assistance, providing  things such as shelter, food and medical care for refugees. Other aid has helped  provide the rebels with non-lethal military supplies such as radios and  ballistic vests. But a review of the weapons spotted on the battlefield reveals  that the rebels are also receiving an increasing number of lethal supplies.

Visit our Syria  page for related analysis, videos, situation reports and maps.

For example, there have been numerous videos released showing Syrian rebels  using weapons such as the M79 Osa rocket launcher, the RPG-22, the M-60  recoilless rifle and the RBG-6 multiple grenade launcher. The Syrian government  has also released videos of these weapons after seizing them in arms caches.  What is so interesting about these weapons is that they were not in the Syrian  military’s inventory prior to the crisis, and they all likely were purchased  from Croatia. We have also seen many reports and photos of Syrian rebels  carrying Austrian Steyr Aug rifles, and the Swiss government has complained that  Swiss-made hand grenades sold to the United Arab Emirates are making their way  to the Syrian rebels.

With the Syrian rebel groups using predominantly second-hand weapons from the  region, weapons captured from the regime, or an assortment of odd ordnance they  have manufactured themselves, the appearance and spread of these exogenous  weapons in rebel arsenals over the past several months is at first glance  evidence of external arms supply. The appearance of a single Steyr Aug or RBG-6  on the battlefield could be an interesting anomaly, but the variety and  concentration of these weapons seen in Syria are well beyond the point where  they could be considered coincidental.

This means that the current level of external intervention in Syria is  similar to the level exercised against the Soviet Union and its communist  proxies following the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. The external  supporters are providing not only training, intelligence and assistance, but  also weapons — exogenous weapons that make the external provision of weapons  obvious to the world. It is also interesting that in Syria, like Afghanistan,  two of the major external supporters are Washington and Riyadh — though in  Syria they are joined by regional powers such as Turkey, Jordan, Qatar and the  United Arab Emirates, rather than Pakistan.

In Afghanistan, the Saudis and the Americans allowed their partners in  Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency to determine which of the myriad  militant groups in Afghanistan received the bulk of the funds and weapons they  were providing. This resulted in two things. First, the Pakistanis funded and  armed groups that they thought they could best use as surrogates in Afghanistan  after the Soviet withdrawal. Second, they pragmatically tended to funnel cash  and weapons to the groups that were the most successful on the battlefield —  groups such as those led by Gulbuddin  Hekmatyar and Jalaluddin  Haqqani, whose effectiveness on the battlefield was tied directly to their  zealous theology that made waging jihad against the infidels a religious duty  and death during such a struggle the ultimate accomplishment.

A similar process has been taking place for nearly two years in Syria. The  opposition groups that have been the most effective on the battlefield have  tended to be the jihadist-oriented groups such as Jabhat  al-Nusra. Not surprisingly, one reason for their effectiveness was the  skills and tactics they learned fighting the coalition forces in Iraq. Yet  despite this, the Saudis — along with the Qataris and the Emiratis — have been  arming and funding the jihadist groups in large part because of their success on  the battlefield. As my colleague Kamran Bokhari noted in February 2012, the  situation in Syria was providing  an opportunity for jihadists, even without external support. In the  fractured landscape of the Syrian opposition, the unity of purpose and  battlefield effectiveness of the jihadists was in itself enough to ensure that  these groups attracted a large number of new recruits.

But that is not the only factor conducive to the radicalization of Syrian  rebels. First, war — and particularly a brutal, drawn-out war — tends to make  extremists out of the fighters involved in it. Think Stalingrad, the Cold War  struggles in Central America or the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans following  the dissolution of Yugoslavia; this degree of struggle and suffering tends to  make even non-ideological people ideological. In Syria, we have seen many  secular Muslims become stringent jihadists. Second, the lack of hope for an  intervention by the West removed any impetus for maintaining a secular  narrative. Many fighters who had pinned their hopes on NATO were greatly  disappointed and angered that their suffering was ignored. It is not unusual for  Syrian fighters to say something akin to, “What has the West done for us? We now  have only God.”

When these ideological factors were combined with the infusion of money and  arms that has been channeled to jihadist groups in Syria over the past year, the  growth of Syrian jihadist groups accelerated dramatically. Not only are they a  factor on the battlefield today, but they also will be a force to be reckoned  with in the future.

The Saudi Gambit

Despite the jihadist blowback the Saudis  experienced after the end of the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan  — and the current object lesson of the jihadists Syria sent to fight U.S.  forces in Iraq now leading groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra — the Saudi  government has apparently calculated that its use of jihadist proxies in Syria  is worth the inherent risk.

There are some immediate benefits for Riyadh. First, the Saudis hope to be  able to break the arc of Shiite  influence that reaches from Iran through Iraq and Syria to Lebanon.  Having lost the Sunni counterweight to Iranian power in the region with the fall  of Saddam Hussein in Iraq and the installation of a Shiite-led government  friendly to Iran, the Saudis view the possibility of installing a friendly Sunni  regime in Syria as a dramatic improvement to their national security.

Supporting the jihad in Syria as a weapon against Iranian influence also  gives the Saudis a chance to burnish their Islamic credentials internally in an  effort to help stave off criticism that they are too secular and Westernized. It  allows the Saudi regime the opportunity to show that it is helping Muslims under  assault by the vicious Syrian regime.

Supporting jihadists in Syria also gives the Saudis an opportunity to ship  their own radicals to Syria, where they can fight and possibly die. With a large  number of unemployed, underemployed and radicalized young men, the jihad in  Syria provides a pressure valve similar to the past struggles in Iraq, Chechnya,  Bosnia and Afghanistan. The Saudis are not only trying to winnow down their own  troubled youth; we have received reports from a credible source that the Saudis  are also facilitating the travel of Yemeni men to training camps in Turkey,  where they are trained and equipped before being sent to Syria to fight. The  reports also indicate that the young men are traveling for free and receiving a  stipend for their service. These young radicals from Saudi Arabia and Yemen will  even further strengthen the jihadist groups in Syria by providing them with  fresh troops.

The Saudis are gaining temporary domestic benefits from supporting jihad in  Syria, but the conflict will not last forever, nor will it result in the deaths  of all the young men who go there to fight. This means that someday the men who  survive will come back home, and through the process we refer to as “tactical  Darwinism” the inept fighters will have been weeded out, leaving a core  of competent militants that the Saudis will have to deal with.

But the problems posed by jihadist proxies in Syria will have  effects beyond the House of Saud. The Syrian jihadists will pose a threat to  the stability of Syria in much the same way the Afghan groups did in the civil  war they launched for control of Afghanistan after the fall of the Najibullah  regime. Indeed, the violence in Afghanistan got worse after Najibullah’s fall in  1992, and the suffering endured by Afghan civilians in particular was  egregious.

Now we are seeing that the jihadist militants in Libya pose a threat not only  to the Libyan regime — there are serious problems in eastern Libya — but also  to foreign interests in the country, as seen in the attack on the British  ambassador and the U.S. diplomatic mission in  Benghazi. Moreover, the events in Mali and Algeria in recent months show  that Libya-based militants and the weapons they possess also pose a regional  threat. Similar long-lasting and wide-ranging repercussions can be expected to  flow from the intervention in Syria.

Read more:  The Consequences of Intervening in Syria | Stratfor

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