Not since the beginning of the Syrian uprising has the U.S. administration been as forthcoming about third parties arming Syria’s rebels, as it has this week. The push, accompanied by increasing pressure on the Obama administration to send direct lethal aid to the opposition, is aimed at changing the regime’s calculations by tipping the military balance and speeding up a political compromise.
Embracing Third Party Arming
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry gave an unambiguous support of regional countries arming the Syrian opposition during his recent trip to Europe and the Middle East. The top U.S. diplomat was most vocal about this policy during key stops in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, both considered to be strong backers of the opposition.
In Saudi Arabia, Kerry and after meeting with his counterpart Prince Saud Al-Faisal, noted that “there is a very clear ability now in the Syrian opposition to make certain that what goes to the moderate, legitimate opposition is, in fact, getting to them”. His statement appears to resolve a major US concern of arms falling into the hands of the al-Qaeda affiliated groups such as Jabhat Al-Nusra, designated as terrorist organization by Washington last December.
The U.S. position further evolved in Qatar, with Kerry coming full circle and supporting military aid from Doha and other regional actors to the Syrian rebels. Kerry in a joint press conference with the Qatari Prime minister Hamad bin Jassem Al-Thani, said in reference to arming “we are aware of what people are doing” and the “Prime Minister shares the belief in trying to do what we need to do rapidly and effectively” through the Syrian Opposition Coalition, and in terms of “the fundamental balance of battlefield tactics and of effort.”
Kerry’s statement represents the most articulate embrace from the U.S. of third regional parties arming the opposition, and coincides with military gains the rebels have been making in the North of the country (Raqqa and Aleppo). The Barack Obama administration had adopted similar strategy early on in the Libyan uprising, but has followed a slower and more reluctant pace in Syria due to complexities on the ground (status of minorities, shape of the opposition) and impacts on regional security.
The Barack Obama administration had adopted similar strategy early on in the Libyan uprising, but has followed a slower and more reluctant pace in Syria due to complexities on the ground (status of minorities, shape of the opposition) and impacts on regional security.Joyce Karam
Kerry’s emphasis on the “right people” and “moderate groups” to get the aid, follows concerted efforts by the administration to isolate Jubhat Nusra and cut its funding. The group in the words of the head of the Free Syrian Army Salim Idriss has more resources than the FSA itself and enjoys tactical ground advantage.
The FSA affiliated brigades appear to be more acceptable to Washington. Idriss’ name is gaining traction in the US capital, and could potentially join the head of the Syrian Opposition Coalition Mouaz El-Khatib on his upcoming visit to the U.S. The Salah Din brigade (Kurdish), the Farouq brigade, Thuwwar Ghwayran, and the liberation of Furat brigade, are some of the active groups that distinguish themselves from Nusra. The conflict, however, has taken an increasingly sectarian tone, and most of the fighting groups are Islamic, but not necessarily affiliated with Al-Qaeda.
Pressure on Obama
Despite supporting regional efforts to arm the Syrian opposition, the Obama administration is still getting criticized for not doing enough in Syria. More voices in Washington are calling for direct U.S. lethal aid to the rebels. The administration has so far provided 385 million dollars in humanitarian aid, and Kerry announced new package of 60 million dollars in unprecedented direct non-lethal aid to the opposition during his trip.
There are increasing calls, however, from Congress and influential policy figures for lethal aid. Congressman Eliot Engel of New York is introducing a bill that would support arming the opposition. The draft calls on the White House to “consider means to enhance the capability of friendly Syrian opposition military forces and to limit the Assad regime’s ability to carry out airstrikes on civilian populations and opposition forces.” It maintains, however, that “military assistance should be provided only to groups that commit to the destruction of Syrian chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear weapons-related materials that come under their control.”
Influential voices in U.S. politics such as former Secretaries of State and Defense Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta have previously voiced support for direct arming, so have Marco Rubio, and John McCain, the two prominent republican senators. The argument for arming is to accelerate Assad’s departure and prevent Syria from becoming a failed state. Although, risks of an increased U.S. involvement and hopes for a political agreement through Russia have kept the White House from endorsing it.
The Obama administration, by throwing its political weight behind the Syrian opposition and coordinating regional military aid with the Gulf allies, is hoping that these measures will, for now, help tip the balance and accelerate a political settlement in Syria. The chances of a protracted war and a regional spill-over could, however, force the U.S. into more involvement in a conflict that has resulted in over 70,000 deaths and more than one million refugees.
(Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam)