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Washington's Muddled Syria Policy: Arms Shipments to Rebels Won't Turn Military Tide

It's still unclear what the Obama administration's grand strategy towards Syria is.
 
 
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Syrian soldiers, who have defected to join the Free Syrian Army, hold up their rifles as they secure a street in Saqba, in Damascus suburbs.
Photo Credit: Freedom House/Flickr

 
 
 
 

Despite Thursday’s announcement that President Barack Obama has decided to provide direct military assistance to Syrian rebels, what precisely the administration has in mind remains unclear.

Analysts here are also questioning whether the decision is part of a deliberate strategy – and, if so, what that strategy is – or whether it is instead another in a series of efforts to relieve growing pressure from its allies in Europe and the Gulf and hawks at home to take stronger military measures designed to shift the 27-month-old civil war decisively in favour of the opposition.

“When Julius Caesar actually crossed the [Rubicon], he proceeded rapidly to mission accomplishment in accordance with a sound strategy,”  noted retired Ambassador Frederic Hof, a Syria specialist at the Atlantic Council who has long called for stronger U.S. military intervention.

“Although the administration’s crossing [decision] is significant, welcome, and long overdue, it is far from certain whether this particular legion will move smartly toward an objective or simply mill around the river bank.”

The White House tied the decision to escalate the “scope and scale” of military aid to the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the Syrian Military Council (SMC) to the U.S. intelligence community’s determination that the Syrian forces had used chemical weapons – albeit “on a small scale” – against rebel forces in multiple battles over the past year.

It also cited the deepening involvement of Iran and Hezbollah militants from Lebanon in support of the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad, whose departure from office Obama has repeatedly demanded since hostilities first broke out more than two years ago.

The announcement, however, followed a series of intensive internal meetings over the past two weeks, as it became clear that the regime’s forces had made a series of battlefield advances – most importantly by capturing, with Hezbollah’s help, the strategic western town of Al-Qusayr close to the Lebanese border – that threatened to tip the war decisively in Assad’s favour.

With pro-government forces and Hezbollah fighters reportedly preparing a major assaults on the key city of Aleppo and other “moderate” opposition leaders appealing desperately for weapons, the administration has found itself under pressure from both its allies abroad and hawks here to “do something” that could halt, if not reverse, the regime’s momentum and restore the “strategic stalemate” that Washington considers essential to any prospect for a political settlement.

But what precisely that “something” is or will be remains unclear. In a briefing for reporters Thursday evening, deputy national security adviser Ben Rhodes  repeatedly avoided answering the question, insisting, however, that Washington will increase “the scope and scale” of direct aid to the SMC which so far has received mainly humanitarian and “non-lethal” assistance.

According to various published reports, Obama has indeed decided to provide small arms and ammunition but still pending are decisions on rebel requests for anti-tank weapons and shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles. Washington had previously ruled out the latter, in part due to Israel’s concerns that they could be used against its aircraft, particularly if they fall into the hands of radical Islamist factions among the anti-Assad forces.

But hawks here have argued that small arms and even anti-tank weapons are at this point insufficient to redress the rapidly tilting balance of power on the ground.

“The president must rally an international coalition to take military actions to degrade Assad’s ability to use airpower and ballistic missiles and to move and resupply his forces around the battlefield by air,”  declared Congress’s most visible interventionists, Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham late Thursday. “We must take more decisive actions now to turn the tide of the conflict in Syria.”

 
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