President Barack Obama’s decision to send some light weapons to Syrian rebels may be too little and too late to thwart a regime offensive to retake Aleppo, the nation’s largest city and commercial capital.
Regime forces supported by fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have moved north after defeating rebels in al-Qusair, a setback that triggered concern in Washington that Iran and its Lebanese ally are tipping the balance in favor of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. Assad’s forces captured a Damascus suburb near the international airport today, according to the official Syrian Arab News Agency.
“Arming the Syrian rebels is unlikely to tip the balance in their favor,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “It might have made a difference a year ago, but, today, the Assad regime -- particularly after re-taking Qusair -- has the advantage.”
Some U.S. officials say they are worried that Obama’s reluctant decision to provide limited amounts of small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition is enough to drag the U.S. into a third Mideast war, but not enough to win it.
The U.S. will direct its aid to the rebels’ Supreme Military Command, headed by Major General Salim Idris, who has appealed in recent weeks for heavy arms, beyond guns or rocket-propelled grenades, from the U.S. and Europeans.
Heavy Arms Needed
Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who spoke with Idris by phone this week, said of the opposition leader, “He was very clear: Machine guns and RPGs can’t compete with air power. He asked specifically in addition to conventional arms for anti-tank weapons that could deal with the Russian tanks and also anti-aircraft weapons.”
Idris told Al Arabiya television in an interview that the rebels may be able to bring down the Assad regime by the end of the year if they get enough support.
“If we only get some armed support, we will continue to battle for a long time,” he said. “But if we receive enough training and arms and are well-organized, I think we need about six months to topple the regime.”
Obama discussed Syria in a call with leaders from Britain, France, Italy and Germany in advance of next week’s Group of Eight nations summit in Northern Ireland, according to a White House statement. They talked about the regime’s use of chemical weapons and ways to support a political transition to end the conflict, according to the statement.
The U.S. is considering a limited no-fly zone inside Syria along the Jordanian border to protect refugees and rebels based there, the Wall Street Journal reported June 13. The no-fly-zone would be enforced from Jordan, the newspaper reported.
Egyptian President Mohamed Mursi urged an international no-fly zone over Syria in a speech televised from Cairo today. Egypt has decided to recall its envoy to Damascus and to close the Syrian embassy in Cairo, he said.
The U.S. Defense Department announced today that it will leave F-16 aircraft and Patriot missiles in Jordan, which borders Syria, after an annual military exercise with the Jordanians ends next week.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry yesterday called Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari to press Iraq to bar overflights by Iranian aircraft carrying weapons for the Syrian regime, according to a State Department statement.
Syria now threatens to become a larger proxy war, said two administration officials familiar with the internal policy debate who asked not to be identified discussing the classified arms shipments. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are allied with Assad, while the U.S., U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and other predominately Sunni nations are backing the rebels, they said.
The U.S. now finds itself sharing a goal with the Sunni extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda that are seeking to replace Assad’s secular regime with Islamic rule, said one of the officials. While the Islamists’ vision of a post-Assad Syria is clear, Obama’s isn’t, this official said.
Both officials said the Obama administration has done virtually no planning for a postwar Syria, much as President George W. Bush’s administration had no road map for Iraq after the U.S. invasion other than a dead-on-arrival plan to put Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi in power.
The administration has been hamstrung since the war in Syria began by the risk that weapons could fall into terrorists’ hands, or enable radical Islamic groups to take control of Syria, and by the absence of domestic political support for intervening. Most American still oppose intervening in Syria, according to recent polls.
Given the lateness and scope of the president’s about-face on arming the rebels, the timing may not matter, the U.S. officials said.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon said Syria is now an “arena for the Cold War superpowers,” as well as a proxy war between the region’s Sunni and Shiite powers that may continue for a “very, very long period of time.”
“We can’t see any conclusion in the current situation, with Assad, without Assad,” he said, speaking yesterday at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Ya’alon said the Syrian regime controls about 40 percent of the nation, with the rest in the hands of Sunnis and Kurds. The rebels are fragmented, with Muslim Brotherhood factions supported by Turkey and Qatar, others backed by Saudi Arabia, and al-Qaeda extremists coming in from Iraq with a goal of destabilizing the region extending to Lebanon, he said.
The recent advances by forces loyal to Assad, whose Alawite sect is a Shiite offshoot, and its Shiite allies Iran and Hezbollah are a challenge to the credibility of the U.S., Ya’alon said. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist group by the U.S. and Israel.
An estimated 20,000 pro-regime forces, including fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, are now south and west of Aleppo in preparation for a “huge battle,” according to Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington nonprofit organization that works as a liaison to the rebels’ Supreme Military Council. Rebels control about 70 percent of the province and about half of the city, he said, citing unconfirmed reports from rebel military officials.
Administration officials on June 13 cited proof that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons as the reason for the president’s reversal. Yet the rebels’ defeat in al-Qusair and the growing Iranian involvement triggered a series of crisis meetings this week that led to the president’s decision to begin arming the rebels. Both the U.K. and France previously stated their conclusions that Syria used chemical weapons in limited instances.
Russia doesn’t believe that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons, said President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. French President Francois Hollande yesterday commended Obama for confirming “what France already knew” about Syria’s actions.
American intelligence agencies concluded more than a month ago that Assad’s forces had used small or diluted amounts of the nerve gas sarin, a third U.S. official said. The White House stalled on acknowledging that because the president earlier had called the use of chemical weapons “a game-changer,” the official said.
“The unstated previous policy of the U.S. was hands-off, assuming that the rebels will win,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “The new policy is an acknowledgment that this may not be working.”
Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Obama had sought to avoid being drawn into the conflict, with officials stating their confidence that Assad would soon go the way of ousted Arab autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Obama was focused on removing the U.S. from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not getting drawn into a another war in a Muslim nation.
Assad so far has defied those predictions, and the situation has become more dire -- with more than 90,000 deaths - - and more complex, as Syria has become a sectarian battleground in a larger war.
The U.S. had said for months that sending more weapons could worsen the conflict and used that argument to deter Russia from sending Syria S-300 anti-aircraft missiles. Now Obama’s action risks alienating Russia, a long-time ally of the Assad regime whose influence the U.S. seeks in trying to arrange talks on a political transition in Syria and a halt to Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons program.
Russia, which maintains its only Mediterranean naval facility in the Syrian city of Tartous, and the U.S. have proposed holding an international peace conference on Syria next month in Geneva. Ushakov told reporters yesterday in Moscow that peace talks will be in doubt if the Obama administration “hardens” its stance on the conflict and arms the rebels.