Syrian Rebels Armed From Abroad Count Down to U.S. Missiles

Syria’s main rebel fighting force is counting down to U.S. intervention before it’s even approved.

“Zero hour for us begins with the first U.S. cruise missile,” Colonel Qassem Saadeddine, a member of the Free Syrian Army’s high command, said by telephone yesterday from his post just across from the Turkish border.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s opponents are depending on the U.S. to end a stalemate in the 2 ½-year conflict as President Barack Obama seeks congressional approval to strike Syria for what his administration says was a sarin gas attack last month by the government in Damascus.

Members of the Free Syrian Army, or FSA, have been posted close to targets and received a consignment of rockets, machine guns and anti-tank weapons from “sisterly countries” in the past week that are enough to do the job, said Saadeddine.

“It’s normal for the FSA to take advantage of the moment that the Syrian regime comes under military attack to capture as many positions as they can,” Samir Nashar, a member of the Syrian National Coalition, the main political opposition, said by telephone from Istanbul. “The U.S. intervention will shorten the duration of the crisis.”

Depots, Airports

While Obama put off any decision on a strike until at least Sept. 9, when Congress returns from its summer recess, the FSA is preparing to follow up with attacks on air defense systems, missile depots and airports. Saudi Arabia has taken over the leading role in arming and unifying the rebels, according to Mustafa Alani, an analyst at Gulf Research Center.

Assad’s government doesn’t comment on security issues, though has been emboldened by Obama’s decision.

Syrian Minister for National Reconciliation Ali Haidar called for a pre-emptive response against the U.S. in a Sept. 1 telephone interview, while Prime Minister Wael al-Halaqi said Syria is strong enough to ward off any aggression and isn’t intimidated by threats.

Assad told French newspaper Le Figaro that the Middle East is a “powder keg” and any attack on his country would reverberate across the region.

The Syrian National Coalition said in a statement posted on its Facebook page today that neutralizing the regime’s chemical weapons, ballistic missiles and warplanes “is the only guarantee to heading toward a political solution.”

“The whole world should prove that it is standing by the Syrian people and should punish Assad for the crimes he has committed against unarmed civilians,” it said.

Divided Rebels

The rebels meanwhile have been hampered by divisions, with radical Islamists emerging as the prevalent force seeking to topple Assad, fighting with the FSA and Kurdish groups. What began as a peaceful uprising turned into a war involving about 1,200 groups, according to U.S. intelligence estimates.

Also, while the fighters have made gains on the ground, they have failed to overcome Assad’s forces.

The planned attacks by the FSA are also unlikely to work, said Richard Kemp, a former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and a senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

He said the U.S. does not intend to hit the Syrian military so hard that it would expose it to a final push from the rebels.

‘More Talk’

“The idea they can suddenly launch an offensive that will bring down Assad because the Americans are carrying out some surgical airstrikes is probably unlikely,” Kemp said. What the rebels are attempting to do is show that they are “trying to exploit what the Americans are planning to do to Assad. It’s more talk than reality,” he said.

FSA Colonel Saadeddine said his fighters are more organized and ready than at any time before. He said he expected the Assad government to collapse without resistance, in part because of an increase in defections from the Syrian army in the past week.

Saadeddine would not elaborate on which countries sent the latest weapons consignment. The Saudis increased military support in the past few months with new “qualitative weapons, such as anti-tank arms in the battlefield,” said Alani, the Gulf Research Center analyst.

Saudi Arabia, the Arab world’s largest economy, is Sunni Muslim like most of the rebels fighting Assad. Its regional foe, Shiite-ruled Iran, is backing Assad, an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam. The Lebanese group Hezbollah, also Shiite, is fighting alongside the president’s troops.

“Iran and Saudi have strategic calculations,” Alani said on Aug. 31. “The Saudis believe that if Assad stays in power then he and his allies win.”

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