The Syrian army loyal to Bashar Assad recently retook Daraya, a suburb of Damascus. Daraya had been in the hands of the rebels.
The Syrian armed forces came in with tanks and armored personnel carriers. As troops advanced on foot, the fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army withdrew. The retaking of Daraya by Assad’s army was the culmination of three days of helicopter gunship attacks that took a huge toll on the rebel army.
After the rebel forces left, a massacre ensued. Rebel sources report that as many as 600 people were massacred — execution style — in the aftermath.
For Assad this was a huge step toward victory over the insurgents, the people he refers to as terrorists. Add to that the other victory he had in Aleppo, and you will understand why Assad, his followers and his forces feel as if the balance of power has shifted back toward them.
One of the reasons Assad’s army has been so much more successful in their recent attacks against the rebel army is their now-frequent use of helicopters and jets in air attacks.
As the Syrians fight among themselves, the world’s most powerful nations watch, wait and some even play more or less active roles in the rebellion. Right now, the United States is furious with Russia and with China for providing assistance to Assad and for vetoing U.N. Security Council resolutions that they proposed. Worse still, the United States is livid because Russia and China are forcing compromises on other resolutions so that, if and when they are passed, the resolutions have no teeth.
But Russia is just looking out for Russia’s own best interests. It just finished building a naval base in Tartus, which cost between $3 and $4 billion. The base is set to be a new and improved set of Russian eyes and ears in the Middle East.
That base puts Russian boots on the ground in the Middle East. To protect their new base, the Russians have dispatched their only aircraft carrier and placed it right there. The carrier, known as the Admiral Kuznetsov, is not a single ship. A carrier comes with 41 to 67 accompanying aircraft and many escort ships. A carrier fleet the size the Russians have carries thousands of sailors and soldiers plus techies.
Russia isn’t finished. It has also just sold a fleet of 36 YAK fighter jets to Syria. The Russians didn’t build the base and sell the YAKs with the expectation that it will all be turned over to rebel control. The Russians expect to do business with Assad and Syria for a long time to come.
As all this is happening, the United States is sitting on its hands with smoke coming out of its ears diplomatically and strategically speaking. The only support the United States can provide in Syria is humanitarian aid.
The United States is in a Catch-22.
It wants to oust Assad from power because he is an evil, murderous dictator. But it learned a lesson in Libya. In Libya, the United States fought to create a no-fly zone that was, in reality, an invitation for the West to oust Gadhafi. Then the United States armed the Libyan rebels and aided them. And it backfired.
Libya is actually a country of tribes — about 140 tribes. And many of the tribes took the weapons and then sold them. They sold them to Gaza and they sold them to groups that are not friends of the United States. Like al-Qaeda. Imagine how angry Congress was to discover that the weapons they gave to oust Gadhafi ended up in Gaza and were used to shoot Israelis.
By now it is clear that the original rebel protesters in Syria are either dead, arrested or going back to school. According to intelligence reports, there are now 15,000 al-Qaeda-trained fighters in Syria.
Despite its desires to see the rebels succeed, the United States cannot offer weapons or military aid to Syria’s rebel fighters — all it can offer is humanitarian aid. Despite all good intentions, the United States knows exactly what will happen if it provides rebel forces with weapons, and Congress will not knowingly give weapons to al-Qaeda.
The United States is upset with the situation inside Syria and upset with Russia and China. But in reality, Russia and China are doing exactly what the United States has done in other situations. Russia and China cast vetoes in the United Nations in order to protect their own interests in Syria and in the Middle East.
They fear that ousting Assad would bring in yet another Islamic regime that is unfriendly to foreign friends.
The only chance the United States has of changing the game in Syria is by convincing Russia and China to see things as it does. But neither China nor Russia is falling for that again. Meanwhile, Assad’s retaking of Daraya might very well signal the wave of the future for Syria — more massacres and more executions, under the guiding hand of Bashar Assad.
Micah D. Halpern is a columnist and a social and political commentator. His latest book is “Thugs: How History’s Most Notorious Despots Transformed the World Through Terror, Tyranny, and Mass Murder” (Thomas Nelson).