A Syrian man walks amid destruction in the Syrian city of Aleppo
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.
"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."
Even some U.S. officials 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 from the U.S. and Europeans beyond weapons such as rocket-propelled grenades.
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."
Worse, 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 most perverse twist, even given the complicated politics of the Middle East, is that 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. In a NBC News-Wall Street Journal poll released June 5, 15 percent of respondents advocated taking military action, and 11 percent supported sending arms to rebels. A plurality of respondents, 42 percent, said they favor providing only humanitarian assistance to the Syrian opposition, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,000 people from May 30 to June 2 and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percentage points.
Given the lateness and scope of the president's about-face on arming the rebels, the timing may not matter, the 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.
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 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.
While administration officials on June 13 cited proof that Assad's forces have used chemical weapons as the reason for the president's reversal, 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.
The U.S. is responding to new concern that rebels may not be able to prevail over the regime, according to three United Nations diplomats who asked not to be identified discussing U.S. policy. 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 PresidentVladimir Putin's foreign policy aide Yuri Ushakov. French President Francois Hollande yesterday commended Obama for confirming "what France already knew" about Syria's actions.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry spoke with his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, yesterday to discuss the escalating violence in Syria as well as the U.S. assessment that Assad's forces had used chemical weapons, according to a U.S. official who asked not to be identified describing the conversation.
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. has sent food and medical supplies to the rebel military, and in April promised to send non-lethal supplies, which could include radios, flack jackets and armored vehicles. The State Department has started to notify Congress in preparation for sending those supplies, spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters yesterday.
For two years, the U.S. has left it up to other nations, including Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to help arm the rebels, in part because of U.S. concern that weapons meant to defeat Assad could fall into the hands of radicals allied with al-Qaeda.
The rebels have received weapons from Croatia, bought with Saudi money, such as M60 machine guns and M-79 Osa antitank weapons, according to Layman. The rebels also have obtained portable anti-aircraft weapons used against regime helicopters.
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.
"The only solution to the Syrian situation is a political solution with the departure of Bashar al-Assad," French President Hollande said. "But military pressure must be kept on the regime; What must be prevented is an endless conflict with ever increasing radicalization."
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.
The Geneva initiative is shaky already, with rebels insisting on getting more arms before they will agree to attend. 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.