Obama arming Syrian rebels: why now?

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U.S. President Barack Obama is known to many of his advisors as a patient and cautious decision-maker, and his latest move to arm Syrian rebels is an indication of that. Its primary aim is to stop opposition losses, and it marks a turning point in Washington’s position after identifying key groups it can work with, and as it has lost confidence in a negotiated settlement.

While the White House decision to send “ammunition and small weapons” to vetted Syrian rebels does not come as a surprise, it was the product of a lengthy consultation process whose components involved intelligence-gathering, regional pressure, and lot of political maneuvering.

The process started early last year as the peaceful uprising turned violent, and armed groups started multiplying on the ground in the face of a brutal crackdown from the Syrian regime. The U.S. had called on President Bashar al-Assad to step down in Aug. 2011, but had been wary of sending lethal assistance to rebels out of fear that they might fall in al-Qaeda hands, or threaten Syrian state infrastructure and prospects for a political solution.

A key to the change in the U.S. stance was Washington’s ability to vet and identify “moderate rebels” with whom it can build a working relationship. This process required the administration to increase its intelligence-gathering and presence in and around Syria, and then filter through the largely Islamist factions to sort out the moderates from the extremists.

Ceding Syria to Hezbollah’s or Iran’s control is in its own way a “red line” for Washington and many regional actors, including Israel.

Joyce Karam

The designation of Jabhat al-Nusra last December as a terrorist organization was a product of this strategy. It helped isolate the group and cut some of its regional support. Obama has reportedly asked the Turkish and Qatari leaderships to cut support for Nusra.

Rebel Chief of Staff Salim Idris, and Abd al-Jabbar Akidi, head of operations in Aleppo, have emerged as interlocutors with the United States in receiving non-lethal aid throughout this year, and in meeting with senior officials. Idris is floated to be the key receiver of most of the ammunition and weaponry that the Central Intelligence Agency is slated to distribute to rebels within weeks.

Washington is looking to support non-extremist groups under Idris’s command that can turn the tide in the battle against Assad. They include the Kurdish Salah al-Din brigade, the Farouq brigade, Thuwwar Ghwayran, and the Liberation of Furat brigade, all active groups that distinguish themselves from Nusra.

A U.S. official told Al Arabiya that Hezbollah’s heavy involvement in Syria helped a great deal in galvanizing support for arming from Congress and some previous skeptics in the administration. Both the Senate and the House of Representatives are readying to vote on a bill that would arm and train vetted rebel groups.

Hezbollah, whose fighters excel in guerrilla warfare, recently helped Assad carry a crucial victory in the border city of Qusayr, and are on their way to Aleppo to build on this momentum.
Ceding Syria to Hezbollah’s or Iran’s control is in its own way a “red line” for Washington and many regional actors, including Israel.

Fears of the Iranian-backed party getting its hands on sophisticated Syrian weaponry, or increasing its regional dominance, are prevalent in Washington. It would complicate U.S. strategy not only inside Syria, but also in Lebanon and Iran, as the international community grapples with the bigger challenge of Tehran possibly developing a nuclear weapon.

Washington, by agreeing to arm rebels, is extending the war of attrition in Syria and further draining Iranian resources, while creating a more precarious situation for Hezbollah as it suffers a big credibility gap in the Arab world, being viewed by many as a sectarian militia.

Hezbollah will likely increase its involvement as more arms start flowing to the opposition and calls for jihad (holy war) in Syria are heard across the region. The conflict might occupy the party’s agenda for a long time, complicating its ability to attack Israel if Iran came under air strikes, and weakening its political stature inside Lebanon.

The U.S. decision comes on the heels of Obama’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Northern Ireland this Monday. Diplomatic sources have told Al Arabiya that Moscow has doubled its support for the Assad regime, and has been hoping to use its current advances in pressuring a negotiated settlement that would preserve its current military, security and economic interests in Syria.

By arming the opposition and calling for a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the United States has gone off the diplomatic train-track for the time being.

Joyce Karam

By arming the opposition and calling for a U.N. investigation into chemical weapons use by the Assad regime, the United States has gone off the diplomatic train-track for the time being. The Geneva conference is no longer expected anytime soon, as all sides brace for ground fighting and hope to tip the balance in their proxies’ favor. Obama will have a better chance at snatching a compromise from Putin when Assad’s odds of political survival are lower.

Also, if Washington is considering a no-fly zone over Syria, as has been reported, then gaining Russia’s approval would facilitate such plans, although it remains very unlikely at the moment. Establishing humanitarian corridors to protect refugees is a more likely scenario for Syria. Helping Idris form a de-facto safe zone in the north, with Turkey’s Patriot missiles on the border, is another scenario.

However, none of this is feasible if the rebels lose looming battles in Aleppo or Homs, and if Assad prevails militarily. For Obama, arming rebels was a necessity in a conflict that holds strategic regional implications for his country. In his meetings with regional leaders in the last few weeks, Obama showed more willingness to act on Syria, and arming rebels is a preliminary action towards heavier diplomatic and military involvement in the conflict.

Joyce Karam is the Washington correspondent for al-Hayat, an international Arabic daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004, with a focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she was a journalist in Lebanon, covering the post-war situation. Karam holds a B.A. in Journalism, and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam

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