As Fighting Rocks Syria, American Insights Remain Limited

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “We certainly don’t want to be exposed to chemical weapons falling into the hands of Hezbollah or some other terrorist group.” Photographer: Uriel Sinai/Getty images

As rebels yesterday battled government forces in Syria’s largest city, concerns about the nation’s arsenal of chemical weapons mounted, and the Obama administration searched for ways to help end the conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel is concerned that Hezbollah or other terrorist groups could gain control of chemical weapons, rockets and missiles if the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad collapses into chaos. He didn’t rule out taking action to prevent such a transfer.

“Do I seek action? No,” Netanyahu said yesterday on “Fox News Sunday.” “Do I preclude it? No.”

U.S. intelligence officials yesterday said Assad’s forces have moved some of the country’s stocks of sarin and VX nerve gas and other chemical weapons. They said they don’t know whether the Syrians are trying to secure the weapons or move them into position to use against the opposition if Assad orders that.

The state-run Syrian Arab News Agency yesterday reported that Assad had ordered armed forces chief General Ali Abdullah Ayyoub to “continue chasing down the terrorists and preserving the security of the citizens and protecting them against terrorist acts.”

The U.S. officials, who all spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss classified information, said they have little insight into the intentions of Assad and his remaining allies, principally members of the country’s Alawite minority sect of Shiite Islam.

Consensus View

Nevertheless, the U.S. officials said, the consensus view, shared by America’s European allies, Israel, and even Russia, a longtime ally of Syria, is that Assad is unlikely to fight to the death, and his family’s authoritarian regime is unlikely to last until its 42nd birthday on Nov. 13.

“Look, I think the regime will go,” Netanyahu told Fox News host Chris Wallace yesterday. “I don’t know if it’s days or weeks or months, but I don’t think it’s sustainable and I think it will go.”

Efforts at the United Nations to broker a peaceful transition to a new government broke down last week after Russia and China again vetoed a proposal to impose sanctions on Syria, and the UN Security Council on July 20 voted unanimously to end a fruitless three-month mission by 300 unarmed peacekeepers in 30 days.

Speaking yesterday on CNN’s “State of the Union,” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain criticized the Obama administration for failing to assist the opposition and instead relying “on the goodwill of Russia and the United Nations Security Council” to resolve the crisis in Syria.

McCain Criticism

“I hate to be sarcastic, but because of our failure to assist, because of our failure to lead other willing nations in the region, like Turkey and Saudi Arabia and Qatar and others, the situation has now deteriorated to a situation which is really, really very dangerous,” McCain said.

U.S. intelligence officers, as well as White House, Pentagon and State Department officials, have been talking with their counterparts in Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Qatar, Lebanon, Iraq and elsewhere. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will embark this week on a trip that includes a stop in Israel.

The issues being discussed, administration officials said yesterday, include securing Syria’s weapons if the regime collapses; halting the bloodshed that has claimed an estimated 17,000 civilian lives; and preventing the exodus of some 125,000 refugees from destabilizing Turkey, Lebanon or Jordan.

Israel’s Borders

In addition, they said, the administration wants to help keep Israel’s northern borders with Syria and Lebanon secure and to assist creating a transitional government to succeed Assad.

Meanwhile, foreign ministers from the Arab League held a crisis meeting in Doha, Qatar, yesterday, Nile News reported.

Still, the intelligence officials and four U.S. officials involved in Syria policy said yesterday, all those efforts are hampered by a lack of insights into Assad’s thinking and the intentions of more than 100 scattered opposition groups. They also cited the fact that the opposition doesn’t have a safe haven for coordination meetings and aid deliveries, the way opponents of the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi did.

That may be changing, though, the U.S. officials said, as rebel forces seize border crossings with Turkey and Iraq and take their fight to Aleppo and even some privileged precincts of Damascus, the capital.

Aleppo Offensive

Rebel leaders with the al-Tawhid Brigade said in a video sent to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that their military offensive to seize Aleppo has begun, according to a statement posted on the U.K.-based rights group’s Facebook page yesterday. Rebels gained control of three neighborhoods in the city, and government forces intensified shelling there, Al Jazeera television reported.

Syrian security forces killed 37 people yesterday, Al Arabiya television reported, citing activists.

Armed clashes were taking place near the al-Zabadia police station and the immigration and passport building in Aleppo, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on its Facebook page. Battles were raging in the Aleppo neighborhoods of Saif al-Dawla, al-Jameeliya and al-Meridian, it said.

Syrian forces caused “heavy losses among the terrorists,” destroying three pick-up trucks equipped with machine guns during clashes with armed groups in Qebtan al-Jabal to the north of Aleppo, the Syrian Arab News Agency said yesterday, citing an unidentified source.

Battle Widens

Damascus and Aleppo, Syria’s largest cities, had been spared the worst of the violence until recently, as government forces waged fierce battles in provinces such as Homs and Hama. The two cities are home to merchants and wealthy Assad supporters who have benefited from their ties to his administration.

Rebels also seized the town of Rwehina, about 1,400 meters (1,530 yards) from Israeli troops in the Golan Heights, Al Arabiya reported yesterday, citing activists. The Israelis captured the Heights from Syria in the 1967 Mideast war, and the Assad regime has kept the area, which overlooks Israel’s northern Galilee, mostly quiet.

Israel filed a formal protest to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon and the president of the Security Council after 500 Syrian soldiers and 50 vehicles entered the demilitarized zone there, Haaretz reported yesterday.

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