While U.S.-backed Syrian opposition leaders in Washington are lobbying for better weapons, the Syrian government has forced rebels to abandon the city of Homs, a bastion of the revolt against President Bashar al-Assad.
Ahmad al-Jarba, president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition, said today that the rebels urgently need anti-aircraft weapons to prevent Assad’s air force from continuing to drop barrel bombs on opposition-controlled areas.
The barrel bombs, a type of improvised explosive device dropped from Syrian helicopters and aircraft, are “making our life a nightmare,” Jarba said in an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. “So we want weapons that would be able to neutralize the air force.”
His request poses a challenge for the Obama administration, which has been hesitant to provide weapons -- particularly those such as portable anti-aircraft missiles -- that may fall into the hands of Islamic radicals with ties to al-Qaeda who are also fighting Assad.
Jarba will meet with President Barack Obama at some point during his visit, which ends May 14, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters today in Washington.
As Jarba’s group began making the rounds in Washington, events on the ground demonstrated the inability of the outgunned rebels -- who are backed by the U.S., European nations and Persian Gulf allies -- to topple the Assad regime after three years of civil war. The delegation includes Brigadier General Abdullah al-Bashir, chief of staff of the Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council.
Hundreds of rebel fighters began withdrawing today from central Homs, which has been bombed and besieged by Syrian forces, under a cease-fire that will leave Assad’s army in control of what had been one of centers of a revolt entering its fourth year.
Jarba said more arms for the rebels are essential to make possible an eventual negotiated end to the civil war, which he said has claimed as many as 200,000 lives.
“The balance of power must be changed on the ground in order to open the door” to a political outcome, Jarba said.
UN-brokered peace talks among the Syrian factions collapsed earlier this year, with Assad’s role in a future government one of the main points of disagreement. Since then, the Syrian president, who’s backed by Iran and Russia, announced that he’s seeking re-election on June 3, defying U.S. and rebel demands that he quit.
License to Kill
“He wants to run for office on the dead bodies of Syrians,” said Jarba. “This is a farce. If it happens, it will be an international license for Bashar al-Assad to kill some more of his own people for many years to come.”
Munzer Akbik, Jarba’s chief of staff, said in a phone interview that the delegation will tell administration officials that “there’s a wide range of sophisticated weaponry that can make a difference on the ground” for the Free Syrian Army, the coalition’s armed wing.
Akbik cited “missiles, the anti-aircraft, anti-tank missiles and maybe some kind of guided weaponry and heavy artillery.”
While the U.S. hasn’t confirmed that it’s providing limited arms, as well as humanitarian and non-lethal aid, it’s an open secret in the region that the CIA is providing training and some weapons covertly to a small number of vetted rebels. Some rebels have been seen recently in photos and videos with U.S.-made, TOW anti-tank missiles, developed in the 1960s, though U.S. officials have refused to comment on their source.
Jarba said the opposition doesn’t want U.S. military intervention. “We do not want for Americans to die in Syria as they died in Afghanistan and Iraq,” Jarba said.
He said opposition forces are seeking to establish interim rule in areas under their control, including in Idlib and Aleppo provinces. While Homs city has been a “very important symbol” of the revolt, the rebel withdrawal under a negotiated deal with the Syrian government “is not the end of the world,” said Jarba.
The rebels’ situation “is not as bad as some believe,” he said.
For the opposition, the stakes are higher and the outlook is grimmer than ever as the civil war entered its fourth year in March, a month after peace talks collapsed. More than 6.5 million Syrians have been forced to flee their homes as ill-equipped and inexperienced rebel fighters struggle to combat Assad’s forces, which are backed by Iran, Russia and Hezbollah, Iran’s Lebanese ally.
The moderate opposition also has fought with extremist factions over territory, as well as competing with them for influence. There’s been a steady trickle of defectors and their weapons from moderate rebel groups such as the Free Syrian Army to radical ones, and in other cases extremists have seized control of border crossings and hijacked aid shipments, according to according to three U.S. officials, who requested anonymity to discuss intelligence analysis.
Jarba is trying to deliver a message to officials and members of Congress that there’s a credible moderate opposition seeking an inclusive Syrian government amid news that has highlighted the growing influence of what the U.S. regards as terrorist groups in Syria.
The success of the opposition coalition’s visit depends on whether the delegation can convince Americans that it’s a credible alternative to the Assad regime and that bolstering moderates will help the U.S. combat terrorism, said Andrew Tabler, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Jarba was scheduled to hold meetings with Secretary of State John Kerry and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Members of the committee include Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican who’s led demands that the administration arm the Syrian rebels.
Jarba also is to meet with members of the Senate and House Armed Services committees ahead of talks with National Security Adviser Susan Rice next week.
The administration marked the start of the coalition’s visit on May 5 by announcing an additional $27 million in non-lethal assistance to the moderate armed rebels, bringing the total of such U.S. aid to $287 million.