The world must provide Syria’s new opposition coalition with “quality weapons” to help it oust President Bashar al-Assad, one of its leaders said today.
Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger said it would be in the strategic interest of the US to arm Syria’s rebels.
“Until now Western powers have been reluctant to give overt military backing to insurgents lacking a disciplined command structure,” Reuters reports:
They fear sophisticated weapons might reach Islamist militants, who could later use them against the West or Israel. … Sunni Muslim jihadi groups are now prominent in the fighting and Syria risks being engulfed in all-out sectarian war that could destabilize Iraq, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey…..But Suhair al-Atassi, vice president of the coalition forged in Qatar at the weekend, said the absence of outside military aid for the rebels had only swelled Islamist militancy.
“When the international community turned its back on the Syrian people fearing the rise of the Islamists, they encouraged this extremism,” the pro-democracy activist said.
The new Syrian National Coalition for Opposition and Revolutionary Forces represents “the real weight of the revolutionary forces” and must now prove it has legitimacy on the ground, Atassi told Reuters.
“The ball now is in the international community’s court,” she said. “There is no more excuse to say we are waiting to see how efficient this new body is. They used to put the opposition to the test. Now we put them to the test.”
The new coalition should be the sole conduit for financial, humanitarian and military assistance, said Atassi, to prevent foreign donors from selectively backing preferred factions on sectarian grounds.
“There is no reason now to keep quality weapons away from the (rebel) Free Syrian Army. Now there is a unified, responsible body through which the army and revolutionary forces can be organized,” she said.
A spokesman for the new coalition that the group had been led to expect military assistance from the West would be forthcoming.
“We have assuaged a lot of the concerns and fulfilled a lot of preconditions on the Syrian armed opposition in terms of accountability and unity,” Yaser Tabbara told the UK’s Guardian, “and I believe the international community is ready to invest in the opposition both militarily and politically. That is the sense we got in Doha.”
Arch-realist Kissinger endorsed a cautious, calibrated arming of the opposition, but warned against inadvertently bolstering jihadist elements.
“When I ask myself what is the American national interest in Syria, it is certainly in our national interest that the support of the Shia in Lebanon via Syria be interrupted, and that Syria not become a base in the projection of Iranian power,” Kissinger said. “So from that point of view an Assad victory in the civil war would be against the American national interest. And from that point of view some arming of the rebels is desirable.”
“If you look at the performance of the rebels up to now, we have to be careful not to repeat in Syria what we did in Afghanistan of arming groups which, if they achieve total victory, could represent a significant threat of their own,” he said. “So it’s an extremely complicated balance. I am opposed to using American ground forces or American military forces except for the objective of weakening the Iranian position…”
Washington should “engage in diplomatic activity” with the aim of establishing a power-sharing arrangement among Syria’s diverse ethnic and religious groups along the lines of pluralistic institutions in neighboring Lebanon.
The US administration announced a further $30 million in humanitarian aid and welcomed the formation of a new opposition coalition, but Washington remains reluctant to provide lethal assistance.
“We have long called for this kind of organization. We want to see that momentum maintained,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told reporters. “As the Syrian opposition takes these steps and demonstrates its effectiveness in advancing the cause of a unified, democratic, pluralistic Syria, we will be prepared to work with them to deliver assistance to the Syrian people.”
France and six Gulf Arab states have recognized the new coalition, and Paris will consider providing arms once an interim government is formed, but the US, UK and other states say it needs to demonstrate its credibility on the ground.
London will recognize the coalition “if it is inclusive and Syrians support it,” said Jon Wilks, the U.K.’s Special Representative to the Syrian Opposition. But the new coalition must first demonstrate its accountability. “It’s not enough to ask for suitcases of money or opening up of a fund,” he said. “We need Syrian technocrats trusted by both the coalition and donors.”
According to the New York Times: Andrew J. Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said that the new coalition would have to create a secure zone in Syria to be successful, and that such a step would require support from the United States, which was instrumental in the negotiations that led to the group’s creation but has not yet committed to giving it full recognition. What the French have done, Mr. Tabler said, is significant because they have started the process of broader recognition, putting pressure on the group to succeed.
“They’ve decided to back this umbrella organization and hope that it has some kind of political legitimacy and keep it from going to extremists,” he said. “It’s a gamble. The gamble is that it will stiffen the backs of the opposition.”
But some analysts believe foreign states’ role in forging the new coalition could backfire.
“It’s obviously a great step forward for the West and the Syrian opposition,” says Joshua Landis, a Syria specialist at the University of Oklahoma. “This group has great purchase among upper-class urban Sunnis, particularly those who have spent a lot of time in the West. But the key question will be whether or not it is able to unify rebel military groups on the ground, which haven’t been particularly involved in this process.”
As Time’s Tony Karon notes: Its leader, Moaz al Khatib, former Imam of the famous Ummayad Mosque in Damascus, is considered a moderate, as are his two deputies, businessman Riad Seif and Suhair al-Atassi, an anti-Assad activist whose appointment also signals the new group’s willingness to put women in leadership roles.
“The leadership of the new Coalition seems straight out of Central Casting,” warns Landis. “Many of those on the ground know that this is a foreign-massaged operation. It looks great, but there’s a danger of this initiative falling apart because it’s too obviously stage-managed.”
There are new indications that Syrian rebels are securing more sophisticated weaponry without Western help, The Times reports:
The Brown Moses blog, considered an authoritative source on arms used in the conflict, reported new images showing insurgents armed with SA-16 and SA-24 shoulder-fired heat-seeking antiaircraft missiles, apparently captured from the Syrian military. Both systems are newer generations of weapons than rebels have been seen carrying before, and pose a new threat to Syrian military aircraft.
A growing chorus of voices, including Zalmay Khalilzad, a former US envoy to the UN, and former State Department policy planner Anne-Marie Slaughter, has called on the administration to provide not only nonlethal technical assistance, but to arm Syria’s pro-democratic opposition in order to counter extremists.
Khalilzad and Slaughter are both board members of the National Endowment for Democracy.