The Pentagon supported a joint State Department-CIA proposal to provide lethal assistance and training to the Syrian opposition, the Joint Chiefs chairman testified today.
His testimony coincided with a call from a gathering of Muslim Nations for a “serious dialogue” between the Assad regime and the opposition coalition on a transition to end nearly two years of civil war.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Martin Dempsey said both he and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta endorsed a plan advocated by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus to train and arm moderate and pro-democratic factions of the Syrian opposition.
Many Congressional leaders, reportedly briefed on the proposal at the time, were in support.
“It was going to be limited to groups that we were going to certify that were secular and more moderate in nature. The guys who are going to determine the future of Syria are the guys on the ground with the weaponry,” told The Cable’s Josh Rogin, who adds:
On Feb. 2, the New York Times reported that Clinton and Petraeus worked together on a plan last summer that would have seen the United States vet and train opposition groups and supply certain parts of the Syrian opposition with weapons. The White House rejected the Clinton-Petraeus plan, according to the paper.
“The plan had risks, but it also offered the potential reward of creating Syrian allies with whom the United States could work, both during the conflict and after President Bashar al-Assad’s eventual removal,” the Times wrote.
The revelation follows reports that the US refuses to use humanitarian assistance to bolster moderate opposition factions and coincides with news that the opposition coalition, headed by Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, is planning to open offices in Washington and New York, with the support of the American administration. But the group will not be moving into the Syrian embassy.
“We are in discussion with the Syrian Opposition Council about opening an office in Washington. With regard to an office in New York, we’re supportive of that too,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.
The move to the US indicates the opposition’s determination to assume Syria’s seat at the United Nations.
“The Assad regime has lost its legitimacy, so we have the goal of taking over the Syrian seat at the UN,” coalition envoy Najib Ghadbian told AFP, acknowledging that it faced a “long legal and political battle.”
“We understand that it will be a long and difficult process, but we want to start right away,” said Ghadbian, a politics professor at the University of Arkansas, who was recently appointed the coalition’s representative in the US.
“There is always the prospect that the regime could collapse and we want to be ready for that,” he said.
A two-day summit of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation backed an initiative by Egypt, Turkey, Iran and Saudi Arabia to broker negotiations to stop the fighting in which at least 60,000 people have died, Reuters reports:
The statement called for talks between the opposition Syrian National Coalition and “representatives of the Syrian government who are committed to the political transformation of Syria and those who have not been involved directly in any form of oppression”.
The final communique, issued hours after the summit ended because of last-minute wrangling over the wording, said President Bashar al-Assad’s government was most to blame. It also urged all other opposition groups to join the SNC.
“We stress that the primary responsibility is on the Syrian government for the continuation of violence and destruction of property, and we express our deep concern at the deterioration of conditions and the spread of killings that led to the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians and the Syrian authorities’ commission of massacres in cities and villages,” it said.
SNC leader Alkhatib this week made a surprise offer of dialogue with regime representatives on a transition that would provide Assad safe passage into exile.
Channeling assistance through the opposition would represent what former State Department official Anne-Marie Slaughter called “the happy medium between not committing us to a decades-long ground war and choosing not to do anything.” A board member of the National Endowment for Democracy, she has been an eloquent advocate of US intervention in Syria.