Analysis |

American Arms, Not Boots, on the Ground in Syria?

U.S. is looking to play a bigger, albeit clandestine, role in helping the Syrian rebels in the war against Assad.

Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer
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Anshel Pfeffer
Anshel Pfeffer

The agreement reached on Saturday in Geneva by Russia and the United States to dismantle Syria's chemical arms arsenal has closed the door, for now, on an American strike against Assad regime targets. But the disarmament program, which is expected to take around a year, will not change the situation on the ground in Syria.

U.S. President Barack Obama may have avoided, at the last moment, what promised to be a humiliating defeat in Congress - his British colleague David Cameron was less lucky - but he is still open to accusations over the administration's impotence in the face of the deaths of thousands of Syrian citizens each month, even without the use of chemical weapons. This seems to herald a deeper American clandestine involvement in the war-torn country, on the side of the "secular" rebels fighting the regime.

Two reports in the U.S. media from recent days signal this. The first was a week ago in The New York Times, which reported the completion of training for the first group of 50 rebels by American special forces under the supervision of the CIA and their move into Syria. On Wednesday, The Washington Post reported the start of weapons shipments to the rebels, three months after the White House originally said it would start providing them with arms.

The timing of these reports is, of course, linked to the administration's desire to be seen as proactive despite the shelving of strike plans, but the long delay in aid to the rebels was the result of a deep-founded concern that the weapons could fall into the hands of Islamist groups such as Al-Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Shams instead of reaching units of the "secular" Free Syrian Army (FSA). Preceding the shipments was a comprehensive attempt by the CIA to map out rebel groups around the country and ascertain the composition of their forces - especially which of them include foreign jihadists and are aligned with Al-Qaida.

One of the main developments enabling the shipments has been the increased willingness of Syria's neighbors, Turkey and Jordan, to establish more orderly channels of weapon shipments, but only to the moderate factions. Turkey in particular, nearly from the start of the civil war, allowed a wide range of organizations to use its territory to smuggle arms into Syria, but the deteriorating security situation on its southern border, especially in the Kurd regions, has caused a rethink and, in some cases, the arrest of Islamist activists. On Friday, prosecutors in the southern Turkish city of Adana indicted a Syrian citizen accused of trying to acquire chemicals for the production of Sarin nerve gas on behalf of the two main jihadist rebel groups.

Jordan tried to keep a low profile regarding its connection to the Syrian conflict, but it too is increasingly worried about radical elements entering the kingdom in the stream of refugees fleeing to its territory.

Both countries are now cooperating closely in setting up U.S.-managed bases for training and supplying the rebels.

A large part of the aid to the rebels is not just weapons but civilian equipment such as firefighting vehicles, helping the FSA to maintain civil life in areas controlled by the rebels. The civilian aid is supposed to help them win over the support of the local population as jihadist movements try to install Sharia law.

Another factor has been the realization that even if the U.S. does not supply the rebels, advanced weapons will still make their way there. The leaders of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states continue to invest billions of dollars in weapons purchases, including advanced antiarmor and shoulder-launched antiaircraft missiles, and to transfer them to the rebels. In this situation, it is preferable for the U.S. to organize its own operation.

Israel, of course, is not directly involved in aid to the rebels, but a change in the Netanyahu government's policy regarding Syria in recent months has lent impetus to Western efforts.

For a lengthy period, Israel warned at all diplomatic and security levels against supplying the rebels with weapons, arguing that they would reach radical Islamists who would use them in the future against Israel and Western targets.

Israel's opposition, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his talks with Western leaders, contributed to the prolonged hesitation in arming the rebels. The deeper cooperation between the Assad regime and Hezbollah, which culminated three months ago in the capture of the rebel-held town of Qusayr by Hezbollah fighters, caused a change in Israel's position and the significant reduction of its opposition to arms shipments. After a long while during which Israeli intelligence assessed that President Bashar Assad's downfall was assured, doubts began to creep in that he could survive with Iranian and Hezbollah assistance, and the Shia axis in the region would be strengthened.

It is unclear whether America's allies, Britain and France, will also take an active part in the efforts to arm the rebels. Both countries pushed the European Union to end its embargo on arms shipments to either side in Syria, but despite the embargo officially expiring on August 1, the government in London has committed itself to seeking parliamentary assent to any arms supplies, and it is doubtful whether Cameron will risk another vote now.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry holding a joint press conference with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov in Geneva on September 14, 2013.Credit: AFP

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