“The French government is providing funds to five revolutionary councils in rebel-held parts of Syria to help them restore water supplies, sanitation, health services and bakeries,” reports suggest.
“French diplomats say that France is not supplying funds for weapons or providing weapons to the rebel Free Syrian Army, an umbrella for a number of disparate groups that are separate from the councils,” the New York Times reports. “But they say they are in regular conversation with the rebels, to hear their needs and to encourage them to unite and to protect minorities and democratic values.”
It is “an important but imperfect beginning,” said Éric Chevallier, a senior French diplomat, to supporting civilian authorities filling the vacuum left in areas vacated by the Syrian government:
The five local revolutionary councils in the French program are in cities in three governates in the north and east — Aleppo, Idlib and Deir al-Zour — where fighting continues to flare but rebels control areas holding 700,000 people. … Officials would not be precise about the amount of money involved but one official suggested that the projected was about 5 million euros, or $6.3 million, only some of which is immediately being spent. The French said they were monitoring the use of the funds through trusted Syrians who had been working with the French for more than a year.
Paris is also considering supplying anti-aircraft weapons to rebel groups, on condition that they do not fall into the hands of radical Islamist elements.
“It’s a subject that we are working on seriously, but which has serious and complicated implications,” a diplomatic source told Reuters. “We aren’t neglecting it.”
Until now Western powers have insisted on giving rebel fighters only “non-lethal” aid, fearing that the armed opposition’s chaotic and fractured organisational structure could allow weapons to fall into the hands of radical Islamist groups. While acknowledging that arming the rebels remains potentially hazardous, France is impressed with the way the opposition is administering towns under its control after it set up local revolutionary councils to impose law and order.
Syria today condemned calls by Egypt’s president for Bashar al-Assad’s regime to step down, accusing Cairo of blatant interference in its internal affairs, while the opposition began reorganizing its military capacity in a bid to attract international assistance and prepare for a political transition.
Opposition leaders ended two days of talks in Turkey with a plan to disband the Free Syrian Army and reorganize rebel groups under the rubric of a new Syrian National Army under the leadership of Mohamed al-Haj Ali, the most experienced general to have defected to date.
The aim of the restructuring is to establish a “real military institution” and attract greater foreign assistance, said Mustafa al-Sheikh, head of the FSA military council.
“We want to remove the idea that we are not united, which is used as an excuse not to help us,” he said from his base at the Turkish-Syrian border. “We also need to build an institution and be more responsible and ready for when the regime collapses.”
Another person familiar with the talks in Turkey said that Gen al-Haj Ali appeared to be secular-minded and to have international backing, which appealed to some rebel groups.
Joseph Bahout, a Paris-based Middle East expert, said the role of Gen Haj Ali – who defected last month – and the restructuring of the FSA should be seen in a broader context of an international push to upgrade the technical help to the armed Syrian opposition and give it a more acceptable outlook….There also has been mounting concern about reports of torture and summary execution by the fighters, crystallised by a video circulated last month which appeared to show them killing members of a pro-regime clan in Aleppo in cold blood.
The diplomatic spat broke out as observations of fighting in Aleppo suggested that Syria “is stuck for now in a stalemate, both on the battlefield, where neither army nor rebels seem capable of a decisive blow, and in the wider struggle for support.”
President Mohamed Mursi’s comments to Arab ministers in Cairo were a “clear attack on the right of the Syrian people to choose their future by themselves, without foreign interference,” a foreign ministry statement said.
The new Islamist president said on Wednesday* that the time had come “for change and not wasting time speaking of reform,” calling on the authorities in Damascus to “take into account the lessons of recent and ancient history”.
The opposition’s problem is that the Syrian army has not imploded, but is transforming itself, says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies and associate professor at the University of Oklahoma:
As the Sunni Arabs defect from the army, and increasingly, the Sunni elements in the army are not trusted, the army has been remaking itself as an Alawite militia…. If they were to give up, the leadership in the army will be killed. And many Alawites believe that they would be marginalized in society as the Sunni Arabs take over. So they’re fighting a very brutal war, and it’s hard to see how this comes to an end anytime soon.
On the other hand, the Syrian opposition, while fragmented, is nevertheless expanding its reach. The big swathes of territory that they do control our up near Idlib, the Turkish border, stretching from Idlib all the way over towards northern Aleppo…..Because the urban centers, Damascus and Aleppo, which had been denied to the rebels for such a long time, have now become part of the battleground. And the rebels have shown their ability to strike into the very heart of both of Syria’s big, major urban centers. And it’s not just a rural battle. It’s now a battle everywhere in Syria.
“Reports from local activists speak of an ongoing battle between rebels and loyalists over control of the northernmost coastal strip separating Syria and Turkey,” notes Ammar Abdulhammid, and fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and founder of the Tharwa Foundation:
In the course of the battle and for the first time since the beginning of the revolution, Alawite villages were targeted by rebels using mortars confiscated from loyalists in previous clashes. For the first time since the beginning of the revolution, loyalists were forced to flee their villages. Rebels seem adamant on having their own access to the sea.
The United States is openly providing non-lethal assistance to Syria’s opposition, but also reportedly supplying arms by covert or indirect means.
But Washington should be wary of an Afghanistan redux and of “supporting a Saudi strategy that inevitably is self-interested,” writes foreign policy analyst David Ignatius: The Saudis understandably would prefer that Sunnis who oppose autocratic rule should wage their fight far from the kingdom; Damascus is a far safer venue than Riyadh.
The United States should be cautious about embracing the Sunni-vs.-Shiite dynamic of the Syrian war…a poisonous and potentially ruinous sectarian battle, the kind that nearly destroyed Iraq and Lebanon and is now plunging Syria into the inferno….
Washington “should work hard (if secretly) to help the more sensible elements of the Syrian opposition and to limit the influence of extremists, says Ignatius, echoing a recent call from Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN and a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, that the provision of technical assistance and even arms is needed to prevent extremists from filling a political vacuum.
Few observers appear to place much hope in veteran United Nations troubleshooter Lakhdar Brahimi succeeding where his predecessor, for UN secretary general Kofi Annan, failed.
“Annan was the victim of an increasingly vicious campaign of public denunciations, not least by friends of the rebels who want to see the war go on until Assad falls,” said Richard Gowan, associate director of New York University’s Centre on International Cooperation. “It’s likely that the same critics will target Brahimi, making his work harder.”
Annan “blew his credibility” by failing to enforce deadlines in his peace plan while Assad forces stepped up shelling of protest cities, said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Brahimi has an opportunity to regain UN credibility, but he is operating under the constraint of a divided UN Security Council,” Tabler added.
Assad loyalists have stepped up cyber attacks in the past year, the Project for Middle East Democracy notes, targeting a range of international organizations that attackers claim are biased against the Assad government:
Hackers gained access to the Reuters blog three times in as many weeks in August 2012 and posted false reports of rebel defeats and human rights abuses. Amnesty International and Harvard University have been the victims of similar attacks. A group called the Syrian Electronic Army was often credited with previous online offensives, and while al-Rashedon appears to be a separate entity, analyst Aaron Zellin suggested that the new collective “may be a cyber arm of the Shabiha militia loyal to Syrian president.”
Via the indispensable Foreign Policy Initiative daily round-up:
President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt on Wednesday warned the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, that “your time won’t be long,” as Syrian warplanes and artillery shelled the battleground city of Aleppo and opposition groups reported heavy fighting around the Euphrates River city of Deir el-Zour. – New York Times
The United States is adding $21 million to its humanitarian aid package for people displaced by violence in Syria, U.S. officials said Wednesday amid U.N. reports that more than 100,000 Syrians fled to neighboring countries in August. – Washington Times
The fight for Aleppo has become a grueling battle of attrition in which parts of the historic city are gradually leveled amid mounting numbers of casualties — many, if not most, of them civilians hit by shrapnel and sniper bullets. – Los Angeles Times
Syria’s disparate rebel brigades are trying to unite under a new name and the leadership of a Jordan-based general, in what the fighters say is an attempt to respond to international and Arab calls for more co-ordination. – Financial Times
Syria came under scathing international criticism Wednesday, with Turkey calling the country a terrorist state and Egypt’s leader calling on President Bashar al-Assad to “learn from recent history” and step down. – Associated Press
Lee Smith writes: The White House has feared arming the Syrian opposition would only make the conflict bloodier and give the Iranians cause to commit to force. Well, the civil war has grown bloodier, and the Iranians have joined in—not because of what Obama did but because of what he didn’t do. –Weekly Standard