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Syria and the Monarchs: A Perfect Storm

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The Obama administration's decision to directly supply weapons to the Syrian opposition may end up torpedoing the possibility of a political settlement. It will almost certainly accelerate the chaos spreading from the almost three-year old civil war. It will also align the U.S. with one of the most undemocratic alliances on the planet, and one that looks increasingly unstable.

In short, we are headed into a perfect political storm.

The U.S. is now a direct participant in the war to bring down the Damascus regime, thus shedding any possibility that, along with Russia, it could act as a neutral force to bring the parties together.

The White House has always given lip service to a "diplomatic solution," albeit one whose outcome was preordained: "Assad must go," the president said in August 2011, a precondition that early on turned this into a fight to the death. As Ramzy Mardini, a former U.S. State Department official for Near Eastern affairs, recently wrote in the New York Times, "What's the point of negotiating a political settlement if the outcome is already predetermined?"

It is hard to tell if the administration's policies around Syria are Machiavellian or just stunningly inept. Didn't the president realize that his "red line" warning to the Assad regime not to use chemical weapons was a roadmap for the insurgency: show that chemical weapons were used and in come the Marines?

Carla Del Ponte, of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, says it was the insurgents who used poison gas, not the Syrian government.

The war is going regional, particularly in Iraq and Lebanon, although Turkey and Jordan are also being pulled into the maelstrom.

There is fighting between Assad loyalists, Sunni insurgents, and the Shite-based organization Hezbollah on both sides of Lebanon's border with Syria. In the meantime, Sunni extremists are waging a car-bombing offensive against the central government in Iraq. A recent bombing in a Turkish border town killed 51 people and local Turks blamed the insurgents, not the Assad regime.

The war has put economically fragile Jordan on the front lines. Some 8,000 troops from 19 countries just completed war games aimed, according to the Independent (UK), at preparing "for possible fighting in Syria."

While the Syrian civil war started over the Assad regime's brutality, it has morphed into a proxy war between Syria, Iran, Russia, and Iraq on one side, and the U.S., France, Britain, Israel, Turkey and the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on the other. The Council includes Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and new members Morocco and Jordan.

Qatar has poured more than $3 billion into the effort to upend Assad, and, along with Saudi Arabia and the U.S., helped shift Egypt from its initial support for a diplomatic solution to backing a military overthrow of the Damascus regime.

The Gulf Council has almost unlimited amounts of cash at its disposal, but how stable are the monarchies that make it up?

Last year Bahrain was forced to use Saudi Arabian troops to quash protests by its Shia majority demanding democratic rights. The United Arab Emirates charged 94 people with conspiracy because they asked for democratic rights. They face 15 years in prison. Qatar recently sentenced a poet to 15 years for writing a "subversive" poem.

The monarchs' bitter opposition to anything that smacks of democracy or representative government suggests that their crowns do not sit all that firmly on their heads.

Saudi Arabia is a case in point. As Karen House points out in her book On Saudi Arabia, the country's "High birthrate, poor education... and deep structural rigidities in the economy, compounded by pervasive corruption, all have led to a decline in living standards... Many of [the] young feel their future is being stolen from them."

Yet it is with these monarchies -- the world's last bastions of feudal power -- that the U.S. and its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) have made common cause.

Reliance on the GCC also means that Washington is essentially part of the Sunni jihad against Shiites in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Iran.

There is still time to halt this looming train wreck.

United Nations General Secretary Ban Ki-moon said the U.S. move was "not helpful," and reiterated, "There can be no military solution to this conflict, even if the [Syrian] Government and the opposition, and their supporters, think there can be." The Obama administration could use that admonition to call for a ceasefire, hold off sending arms, and instead concentrate -- along with Russia -- on building a peace conference.

The conference would have to involve all the parties, including the countries currently being destabilized by the ongoing fighting. The U.S. will also have to step back from its "Assad must go" position and, instead, seek a way to integrate Syria's 2014 presidential elections into a formula for peace. But more arms and a tighter embrace of the backward Gulf Council will insure the war will continue to kill Syrians and destabilize the region.