President Obama today threatened military action against Syria if the government of President Bashar al-Assad began to move its stocks of chemical or biological weapons.
“We cannot have a situation in which chemical or biological weapons are falling into the hands of the wrong people,” Obama told a White House briefing. “We have put together a range of contingency plans. We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us.”
The US president used the occasion to renew his call for Assad to cede power.
“The international community has sent a clear message that rather than drag his country into civil war, he should move in the direction of a political transition,” Obama said. “But at this point, the likelihood of a soft landing seems pretty distant.”
Washington had already provided $82 million in humanitarian assistance for refugees, he said, adding that “we’ll probably end up doing a little bit more” to prevent destabilization among Syria’s neighbors.
A former US Ambassador to the United Nations believes the administration must be more engaged with political developments on the ground and appoint a presidential envoy for Syria, the BBC reports.
Zalmay Khalilzad (right) said he would support initiatives by the West to arm Syrian rebels, noting that Washington is “moving in that direction.” Such efforts were needed to prevent extremists from filling a political vacuum, said Khalilzad, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.
The growing influence of group suspected of al-Qaeda links “has prompted concerns that the 17-month-old uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime is becoming radicalized as the bloodshed soars,” the Washington Post reports:
Jabhat al-Nusra [a.k.a. the al-Nusra Front for the Protection of the People of the Levant] is the only Syrian rebel group that posts on a Web forum that is used by al-Qaeda chief Ayman al-Zawahiri and known affiliates of the terrorist network. This suggests a link, at least through its media department, to the main al-Qaeda organization, a connection that endows Jabhat al-Nusra with a credibility among jihadists that other groups lack, said Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“This is the premier jihadi organization in Syria right now,” Zelin said.
Syrian democrats and exiled groups are trying to counter radical Islamists’ growing role and promote pro-democratic elements within the opposition.
“From a hodgepodge of U.S.-based Syrian opposition organizations run by expatriates, one – the Syrian Support Group – has emerged recently with the explicit purpose of raising money for the rebel Free Syrian Army,” Reuters reports:
The group says it convinced the U.S. government to give it a license to send money to the rebels, after setting up shop in Washington and hiring a former NATO political officer to manage it. Supporters can now go on the group’s website, click on a form and make a donation to the Syrian rebels via credit card and PayPal.
The Syrian Support Group won’t say how much it has collected, and says no cash has yet been sent. Members want to start by raising $7 million a month, according to SSG co-founder Louay Sakka, a Syrian-Canadian who lives in Toronto. He admits gathering such sums is going to be difficult without some “big institutional” help.
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said it was impressive that many rebel commanders had signed the SSG’s proclamation of principles. Other Syrian opposition groups such as the Istanbul-based Syrian National Council, a political umbrella organization, had taken a long time “to agree on almost anything,” Tabler said.
He suspects the SSG is having a greater impact than some groups in exile because it is focusing on fighters inside Syria. Tabler spent a recent evening with some armed elements of the Free Syrian Army who thought the SSG was “a good development.”
“If you want to fight a vacuum (being) created, and al Qaeda taking over and some other extreme groups, we have to unify” the rebels, Sakka said. “We have to be able to pay them their payroll.”
Radwan Ziadeh, a U.S.-based SNC leader, said there was no direct connection between the Syrian National Council and the Syrian Support Group, but that they had the same goals.
“There is no other option for the Syrians to defend themselves, other than the Free Syrian Army,” said Ziadeh.*
Violence has intensified in recent days, not least in Daraa province, where the conflict commenced in March 2011.
“It is also the home province of Vice President Farouq al-Sharaa, who rebels say has defected from the regime,” CNN reports.
If confirmed, such a defection could suggest that “the regime is collapsing very quickly,” said Rafif Jouejati, a spokeswoman for the LCC opposition network.
“If confirmed, (this) represents yet another high-level official who sees that the al-Assad regime is a sinking ship,” she said. “I expect to see additional defections in both the military and civilian sectors in the coming days.”
But other observers believe that Assad is pursuing a Plan B that “makes any prospect of reconciliation remote and exacerbates sectarian divisions between the mainly Sunni Muslim rebels, Assad’s Alawite community, and Christian, Druze and Kurdish minorities.”
Assad may already be planning to exploit those divisions to ensure that, if he cannot win outright, no successor could monopolise power in the way that he and his father, Hafez al-Assad, have done for four decades.
“In order to survive, Assad and his Alawite generals will struggle to turn Syria into Lebanon – a fractured nation, where no one community can rule,” said University of Oklahoma’s Joshua Landis.
Landis said Assad’s “Lebanon option” would be to “turn Syria into a swamp and create chaos out of (its) sects and factions… Already the Syrian army has largely been transformed into an Alawite militia.”
Neither side can assert full control of the territory it holds nor deliver a knockout blow, raising the prospect of protracted fighting which could get still bloodier.
“The regime is no longer able to secure complete quiet in any area that it has retaken,” said Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre in Beirut.
“But for now the regime still possesses very considerable means to raise the threshold of violence, while denying the opposition the means to build a similar capacity.”
Other analysts believe that the Assad regime is winning the battle for hearts and minds within Syria.
Syrian TV is playing a highly effective role in the war, says Nadim Shehadi, a specialist on Syria and Lebanon at Chatham House, the London-based foreign policy think-tank.
”My impression is they are doing quite a good job and are much more effective than the opposition media,” Shehadi said. “Their aim is not to be credible but to pass messages, such as that the regime is strong. People don’t have to believe what is being broadcast, but the overall message is ‘we’re here and here to stay,’ which is quite strong.”
*Ziadeh is a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.