If not for Russia’s military escalation, Washington would not have revisited its policy on Syria. With such a game-changer, and probably under time pressure, Washington recently unveiled its intention to provide arms and equipment to moderate Syrian rebels fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). This will contribute considerably to changing the image of U.S. policy on Syria as indecisive and disinterested.
It is said that Washington’s decision means an end to the much-criticized $500 million rebel-training program. However, it can be also viewed as a re-modification of the program to meet new realities brought on by Russia’s military intervention in support of President Bashar al-Assad.
The Pentagon said the weapons will be sent to rebel groups whose leaders have passed a vetting process to ensure they are not, and will not, be linked to radical Islamist groups. The risk of U.S.-supplied arms falling into the hands of anti-Western fighters, as happened in Afghanistan and Iraq, had so far stopped Washington from arming Syrian rebels.
ISIS and the regime
The weapons and equipment will be sent only to moderate rebels with the sole aim of defeating ISIS, not fighting the Assad regime. Russia has described its intervention in Syria as mainly against ISIS.
However, it is becoming clear that Moscow is not striking ISIS, which is reportedly advancing into rebel-held territories in Aleppo province and elsewhere while anti-Assad rebels are intensively bombarded by Russian jets. In other words, U.S. ammunition to moderate rebel groups will, one way or the other, be used against the Russians, even if only fired at ISIS.
Providing moderate rebels with advanced weapons is a manifestation of Washington’s conviction that defeating ISIS is inseparable from defeating the Assad regime. There are two possibilities the Americans cannot afford to see as realities: Assad recovering and ISIS expanding.
Depending on developments on the ground, Washington may readjust its approach to Syria in the near future to counter Russian scheming, including - as said by Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook - providing air support to Syrian rebels fighting ISIS.
Raed Omari is a Jordanian journalist, political analyst, parliamentary affairs expert, and commentator on local and regional political affairs. His writing focuses on the Arab Spring, press freedoms, Islamist groups, emerging economies, climate change, natural disasters, agriculture, the environment and social media. He is a writer for The Jordan Times, and contributes to Al Arabiya English. He can be reached via [email protected], or on Twitter @RaedAlOmari2
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