Outside View: Who is winning the pre-talk coin toss in Syria?

By JAMES ZUMWALT, UPI Outside View Commentator

HERNDON, Va., June 4 (UPI) -- In an old comedy routine, Bill Cosby jokes about warring parties in history determining terms of battle beforehand by adopting the coin toss -- used today by football teams to see who first goes on offense or defense.

In the Battle of Little Big Horn, for example, Cosby -- playing referee -- introduces Indian "team" captain Chief Sitting Bull to cavalry "team" captain George Custer. After the former wins the toss, a brief silence follows as Cosby supposedly listens to Sitting Bull's terms under which Custer must fight. Then, talking to Custer, Cosby says, "OK, Captain Sitting Bull says you and your boys must wait at the bottom of the hill while him and all the Indians in the world ride right down on you."


Two years of fighting in Syria by rebels who have taken on the regime of President Bashar Assad have resulted in some tremendous gains. However, these hard fought victories are being jeopardized as new interests play out on the battlefield. It is as if conditions under which the fighting now occurs, placing rebels at a major disadvantage, resulted from a Cosby coin toss Assad won.

While rebels have received limited help from the West and other Arab states, Assad has benefitted greatly from outside assistance. He continues to get diplomatic support from Russia and China -- both having blocked efforts by the United Nations to intervene.

Russia continues to arm Syria, most recently indicating it will send Assad some very sophisticated air defense missiles.

Iran, for whom Assad is a key ally, continues to feed weapons to the Syrian government. Most come in by air cargo as Tehran's new ally, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, has granted Iran unimpeded over-flight rights.

Meanwhile, the United States continues to provide rebels with mostly non-lethal aid. The termination date on an EU ban against arming the rebels ran out last month. A decision must now be made, either collectively or by individual states, whether they will send weapons to the rebels.


But of more concern now are the ground forces coming to Assad's aid.

Shiite Iran's Lebanese proxy -- the Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah -- has committed its personnel to fight for Assad.

So, too, have fighters from Shiite Iraq who are crossing into Syria as Maliki turns a blind eye.

Also helping Assad in the fighting are members of Iran's elite Quds Force who coordinate the anti-rebel coalition.

Additionally, with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking shelter in Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon, those countries' domestic resources are being drained, putting great pressure on their leaders to seek a solution to the fighting in Syria.

It took the international community considerable time to acknowledge the uprising in Syria had reached the level of a civil war. Now, it seems it is also dragging feet in acknowledging the civil war has evolved into a regional conflict. If there was any doubt before this, Iran has forced the issue now by influencing multinational, anti-rebel participation and coordinating their attacks.

For Tehran, there is both good news and bad news.

The good news is the fighting in Syria draws international attention from Iran's nuclear arms program, enabling it to push forward with its ultimate objective to develop such weapons.


The bad news is the potential cost to Iran in helping its Syrian puppet. Iran runs a risk in committing resources, such as Hezbollah, to the Syrian fray. It still has to worry about an Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities. Both Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, sharing borders with Israel, play a major role in Iran's response equation to an Israeli strike.

(While Hamas is Sunni, it would still be responsive to Iran's orders to attack Israel as Tehran has been generous in providing it with weaponry to do so.)

But because of their Shiite synergy, Iran would look primarily to Hezbollah in such an attack. A prolonged fight in Syria could deplete Hezbollah's ranks, reducing the threat to Israel.

The commitment by Iran to influence the war in Syria in favor of Assad despite such risks should underscore just how strategic it considers control of Damascus in achieving its objectives.

An EU and U.S. commitment now to arm the rebels can only further drain Iranian resources but doing so is the last best effort the United States can mount, short of military action. It would give Tehran pause concerning its commitment to develop nuclear weapons, realizing it might simultaneously be faced with fighting both an offensive war in Syria and a defensive one at home against Israel.


When the last effort to negotiate with Iran on its nuclear program failed, the West decided to await results of Iran's June 4 presidential election to revisit the issue. As all eight now approved presidential candidates (out of 680) are Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei minions, it will be business as usual with Iran concerning the nuclear talks regardless of the election's outcome.

Thus, the European Union and United States need not await the election's outcome. They need to move decisively now, even with talks between the rebels and the Assad regime a possibility.

The increased resources brought to bear against the Syrian rebels have caused them to suffer setbacks as Assad's regime maneuvers for additional territorial gains prior to talks.

Talk co-host Russia has sought to improve Assad's bargaining positioning in advance; the United States can do the same for the rebels by supplying them with weapons.

The West's inaction leaves Assad winning Cosby's coin toss and demanding of the Syrian Sunni rebels "wait at the bottom of the hill while Assad and all the Shiites in the world ride right down on you."


(Lt. Col. James G. Zumwalt, a retired Marine infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Gulf War. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)



(United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.)

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