Obama administration officials are hinting they’re prepared to accelerate efforts to arm rebel forces in the effort to oust President Bashar al-Assad while also insisting that a U.S. missile attack on Syria would be intended solely to punish his regime’s use of chemical weapons.
“It also fits into a broader strategy that can bring about over time the kind of strengthening of the opposition, and the diplomatic, economic and political pressure required -- so that ultimately we have a transition that can bring peace and stability, not only to Syria but to the region,” President Barack Obama told congressional leaders yesterday at a White House meeting.
By couching that strategy in political rather than military terms, the president is trying to navigate between lawmakers who want a promise that the U.S. won’t get dragged into Syria’s two-and-a-half-year civil war and others pressing him to deliver lethal aid to the rebels seeking Assad’s ouster.
Senators from both political parties who support military action complained yesterday the administration has failed to make good on its pledge in June to send arms to Assad’s opponents.
“I am still totally dismayed at the lack of support we are giving to the vetted, moderate opposition,” said Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he had just returned from visiting a Syrian refugee camp in the region.
“What we have not yet done is facilitated the delivery to vetted Syrian opposition of weapons systems, including anti-tank weapons, which can take on Assad’s tanks, take on his artillery, take on rocket launchers which delivered those chemical weapons,” said Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the Democratic chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
While Obama in June authorized limited U.S. military assistance and training for carefully vetted rebel groups, including the Syrian Supreme Military Council, three U.S. officials said yesterday that no weapons from a Central Intelligence Agency stockpile have reached Syria, and the first team of about 50 American-trained rebels is only now entering the country.
In addition, the weapons now being prepared for delivery are mostly small arms, and don’t include shoulder-fired anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles that could help tip the balance, according to the officials, who asked not to be identified discussing the planning.
A draft resolution authorizing military action made public late yesterday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would require the administration to submit a U.S. strategy that would include “the provision of all forms of assistance to the Syrian Supreme Military Council and other Syrian entities opposed to the government of Bashar al-Assad that have been properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States.”
Colin Kahl, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for the Middle East, said an agreement to better arm the rebels could become “part of a side agreement to gain support from some of the more hawkish members of Congress.”
Such a move would be sure to reignite a debate over how extensively the U.S. should work with opposition groups whose loyalties remain untested and over the danger that some sophisticated weapons could find their way to extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda.
“I don’t think any of the major concerns about arming the opposition have completely gone away,” Kahl said in an interview. “Some very dangerous technologies could make their way into the hands of some pretty violent jihadists.”
Free Syrian Army
Proponents of more extensive American involvement in Syria, such as Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona, say that arming moderate Syrian rebels would prevent more militant fighters from being the main beneficiaries of U.S. air strikes.
McCain said yesterday that he was encouraged after Obama told him that he would consider “increasing the capabilities of the Free Syrian Army,” including by supplying anti-armor and anti-air weapons.
“I’ve got to know the details, because I was told a long time ago we were going to give weapons to the Free Syrian Army and they haven’t gotten one single weapon yet,” McCain said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe” program.
Other members of Congress say deeper involvement could lead the U.S. into a quagmire, a concern shared by some of the military and intelligence officers who would be called upon to plan and execute a broader effort to oust Assad and the minority Alawite regime that’s ruled the country since 1970.
No push to arm the rebels is likely to win support from a war-weary U.S. electorate. More than 70 percent of registered voters oppose supplying weapons to the Syrian opposition, according to a Washington Post/ABC News poll, which surveyed 1,012 adults from Aug. 28 to Sept. 1 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said a strong case can be made for providing the rebels with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons because extremists already have acquired many such arms captured from Syrian stocks or from Libyan extremists and other sources.
“The more moderate rebel political factions and fighters are still relatively strong,” Cordesman said by e-mail. “Giving them a stable flow of arms, ammunition, other military supplies and intelligence can make a major difference.”
One concern about arms and training is purely practical, said one of the U.S. officials: In Syria, as in Afghanistan, local fighters and defectors from the regime are trained to use simpler and more rugged Russian-made equipment, not more complex American arms. After the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, this official said, the CIA has amassed a considerable arsenal of AK-47 automatic rifles, Russian-made mortars and other equipment that could be provided to the opposition.
Reservations about arming the Syrian rebels, the officials said, also reflect a deeper concern among some U.S. intelligence, diplomatic and military officers: how to tell the good guys from the bad guys.
The administration, said one official, should be mindful of the U.S. experience arming the Taliban in Afghanistan to fight Soviet troops in the 1980s, only to find itself battling many of the same fighters after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. The same thing happened to a lesser extent in Iraq, where some Sunni Muslims who were part of the 2007 U.S. troop “surge” are now slipping into Syria with groups affiliated with al-Qaeda.
While U.S. intelligence on rebel groups and leaders has improved over the last year with help from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan and Turkey, it continues to be frustrated by constantly shifting allegiances, the officials said. Extremist fighters with ties to al-Qaeda, many of them with experience in Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan, are attracting recruits from the more mainstream rebels ranks -- and even from some Syrian Army units -- because of their successes.
For all the complexities, Frederic Hof, who last year served as the Obama administration’s ambassador-at-large on the Syrian crisis, said the U.S. “does have a highly refined understanding of who it is it wishes to support in the ranks of the Syrian armed opposition.”
Matthew Levitt, a former terrorism finance specialist at the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, said “there are ways to go about this” so weapons are delivered to U.S.-allied groups.
Unless moderate factions are armed, “by default the jihadists continue to be the best-armed and therefore are the best and most effective fighting force on the ground on the rebel side,” said Levitt, author of the new book, “Hezbollah: the Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Army of God.”
In a possible sign over the weekend that Obama is weighing an increase in aid to rebel forces, Kerry called one of the main coordinators of aid to the the Syrian opposition -- Saudi Arabian intelligence chief Bandar bin Sultan, who as Saudi Arabia’s ambassador to the U.S. in the 1980s was central to the effort to oust Soviet troops from Afghanistan.
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