White House reassesses arming Syria rebels

US President Barack Obama may send lethal arms to Syrian opposition after Assad regime claims border town Qusair.

June 11, 2013 03:11
3 minute read.
Soldiers loyal to the Syrian gather in Qusair, after Syrian army took control of the city, June 5.

Assad's Soldiers, Qusair, Flag 370. (photo credit: Reuters)


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WASHINGTON – An increasingly dire situation for Syria’s fragmented rebel movement is likely to prompt an immediate policy reassessment in the White House this week.


US President Barack Obama is to take meetings throughout the coming days in which he is expected to consider sending lethal arms directly to fighters in opposition to Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. Government forces have turned the tide in recent days with aggressive assaults on increasingly fractured rebel groups.

Assad’s reclamation of Qusair
– a city valued for its position on the supply route between the Assad-loyalist West and the heartland of the country and the city of Homs – represents a significant moment in the conflict that reminds some in Washington of the moments before forces of Libya’s Colonel Muammar Gaddafi were preparing to descend on rebel-held Benghazi during their 2011 civil war.

The fear of a definitive rebel defeat in Libya – and of a massacre of civilians – prompted an emergency Security Council meeting at the United Nations, providing legal justification for the NATO-led no-fly zone over the country that followed.

Assad forces say they are aiming for Aleppo, Syria’s largest city currently divided among rebel sects as well as some government loyalist groups. A “major offensive” is expected in the coming days, Syrian government officials say.

“The difference here from the Benghazi situation is that Homs is tentatively under rebel control, but has Assad forces around it, and Aleppo is a mixed city,” says Anthony Cordesman, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“When you start actually drawing the map, you see what rebel-held really means, and its very sketchy.”

“At this point,” Cordesman added, “Assad has established a relatively secure corridor along the Lebanese border, now reinforced with Qusair.”

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Before this week’s battles, rebels had held much of northern Syrian territory for over a year.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who recently traveled to Syria to meet with rebel leaders, tweeted on Monday that the Obama administration is “fiddling while Syria burns,” as over 5,000 Hezbollah fighters flooded into Syria to surround Aleppo.

The Obama administration has already sent non-lethal aid to opposition forces. But that aid has taken weeks to mobilize, and will take weeks more to arrive, Washington officials acknowledge. With an increasing sense of urgency, the question becomes whether time is on the side of those the United States has already, in one way or another, invested in supporting.

“You can fly in arms in a hurry, if you make a determination that it’s required. But the practical problem is, if you’re going to move them, training on these weapons is required and supply routes from Turkey or Jordan must be secured, and that’s what takes time,” says Cordesman. “It takes weeks to get anything done with these rebels in Syria.”

Jeffrey White, a defense fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it’s the will, not the means, that is preventing aid from reaching opposition fighters.

“Assuming the administration makes that decision, they can do that in a hurry. It’s not the back side of the moon,” says White.

“Turkish intelligence knows the supply routes, and the border is porous enough.”

White adds that the tide may be turning, but is not irreversible.

“The task for the regime is still pretty large, but the rebels are in trouble,” he said. “Their weaknesses were exposed in Qusair.” •

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