Moscow remembers Charlie Wilson's War
By M K Bhadrakumar
Charlie Wilson claimed to be on United States government business even while entertaining the then Egyptian defense minister with a Texan belly dancer he brought along to Cairo with the hope of persuading him to agree to a deal to supply weapons to the Afghan mujahideen in the early 1980s.
George Crile details in the riveting book Charlie Wilson's Wars, how the colorful congressman from Texas virtually formed part of the CIA's Operation Cyclone in Afghanistan, which ensured a steady supply of sophisticated weapons such as the Stinger missiles reaching the mujahideen fighting the Soviet Army.
Indeed, the CIA funded the travel expenses of girl friends who
accompanied Charlie Wilson on his numerous trips to Pakistan. The agency later conferred on him the Honored Colleague Award for his role in the Afghan jihad.
John McCain, the 77-year old senator from Arizona, certainly won't push things that far, but eyebrows will be raised that on Monday he crossed the Turkey-Syria border on a clandestine trip accompanied by "General" Salem Idris, the leader of the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army.
McCain apparently held meetings with Syrian rebel fighters and opposition figures in the Turkish city of Gaziantep and with Idris in tow, crossed the border into Syria where he spent "several hours".
America's lawmakers are a law-abiding lot and McCain would know he needed a visa for traveling to Syria and yet he travelled without one. He challenged the Syrian government's legitimacy. The plain truth is that McCain sneaked into Syria illegally with the knowledge and possible connivance of the US and Turkish governments.
Now, juxtapose Gaziantep with the Pakistani city of Peshawar, and McCain's visit bears an uncanny resemblance to Charlie Wilson's war.
From Idris we have a fair idea of what McCain's mission was all about. Idris says:
What we want from the US government is to take the decision to support the Syrian revolution with weapons and ammunition, anti-tank missiles and anti-aircraft weapons. The visit of Senator McCain to Syria is very important and very useful especially at this time. We need American help to have change on the ground; we are now in a very critical situation. ... Of course we want a no-fly zone and we ask for strategic strikes against Hezbollah both inside Lebanon and inside Syria.
McCain's mission synchronizes with the successful move by Britain (with Washington's backing) to force the lifting of the European Union embargo on supplying arms to the Syrian rebels. Washington has since commended the EU decision.
Missions such as Charlie Wilson's and McCain's are well-choreographed and signal the directions of future US policies, aside from cultivating domestic opinion in the US. The Vietnam syndrome needed to be got over before pressing the pedal on the Afghan jihad, whereas in the case of Syria, American public opinion is opposed to the US' involvement in another war in the Middle East after Iraq.
But that opinion is slowly changing. It is no mean achievement that almost two-thirds of American public opinion, according to the latest CNN poll, believe that the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria has been using chemical weapons in the current fighting. (The rebels who met McCain repeated the allegation.)
Evidently, all this forms part of a dual-track strategy on the part of the Obama administration.
The pursuit of the political effort in search of an intra-Syrian solution through dialogue is running parallel to what now appears to be the main track preparing for a more direct US military involvement, including a plan of multilateral military actions inside Syria.
When McCain was in Turkey, there were media "leaks" in Washington that President Barack Obama has directed the Pentagon to draw up the operational strategy for enforcing a "no-fly zone" in Syria. The Daily Beast quoted an unnamed US official:
The White House is still in contemplation mode but the planning is moving forward and it's more advanced than it's ever been. All this effort to pressure the regime is part of the overall effort to find a political solution, but what happens if Geneva fails? It's only prudent to plan for other options.
Significantly, at about the same time that the proposed peace conference may take place in Geneva in the coming weeks, the US plans to hold a set of big military exercises in Jordan called Eager Lion, with the participation of more than 15,000 troops from 18 Arab and other countries.
The media reports suggest that after the exercises, those US military assets will be retained in Jordan, which might come handy for imposing a "no-fly zone" in Syria, such as F-16 fighter aircraft.
The common perception is that the Syrian air defense systems deter the US and its like-minded allies and partners from imposing a "no-fly zone". On the contrary, military experts estimate that there is no question that the US and its allies have the overwhelming capacity to suppress the Syrian government's airpower.
The Russians may think their S-300 missiles are invincible, but the Israeli air force has held military exercises with Greece, which has S-300 missiles in its inventory, and would know how to outmaneuver them. Suffice to say, the only real question that remains is whether Obama has the will and resolve to take the path of an overt military intervention in Syria.
The Geneva peace conference is an initiative of Secretary of State John Kerry, who did a first-class diplomatic job of convincing the Russians they two have a nice thing going between them on Syria. But, while going through the motions of the peace conference, it should be quite apparent that the odds are heavily stacked against Geneva II producing any progress toward a political solution.
McCain estimated on Monday that the Obama administration probably wouldn't make any decisions about greater intervention in Syria until after the Geneva conference. But what happens if the conference fails? McCain's mission suggests that the Obama administration is already looking past the debris of Geneva II.
McCain has a nice way of summing up things: "I think they [the US administration] are moving towards the planning because the pressure is so great, but we're in a full-court stall until this conference in Geneva."
A sense of uneasiness could be crossing the Russian mind. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu has confirmed that the EU decision to lift the arms embargo may prompt Moscow to reconsider its own self-restraint so far on weapons deliveries to Damascus. Shoigu also has a way with words: "Every decision has two sides. If one side lifts restrictions, the other may consider itself free from observing earlier commitments."
The Russian stance is that there could be a 2010 contract with the Assad regime for arms supplies and a Syrian "wish list" for more weapons dated March 2011.
The beauty about the Russian stance is that Moscow keeps the Western powers guessing about the progress of the arms deals with Syria, which of course makes the latter's "wish list" seamless and leaves them free to supply anything they like anytime they like.
Moscow maintains with a poker face that all its weapons transfers to the Assad regime are perfectly legitimate traffic under international law involving two sovereign governments. Of course, McCain just reminded the Russians about Charlie Wilson upping the ante every single time the Red Army began showing signs of prevailing over the mujahideen.
If McCain thought he threw the ball into the Russian court, he is mistaken. Just as he returns home, and Shoigu is tossing the ball back onto the White House lawns. It seems the new ball game all but makes Geneva II redundant.
M K Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India's ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).
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