Debate to arm Syrian rebels gains favor: US officials

Updated 12 May 2013
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Debate to arm Syrian rebels gains favor: US officials

WASHINGTON: Discussions within the Obama administration in favor of providing arms to the Syrian rebels are gaining ground amid new indications that President Bashar Assad’s regime may have launched additional chemical weapons attacks, US and other diplomatic officials say.
As the number of suspected attacks grows, US officials said intelligence agencies are seeing signs that Syrian opposition forces may be distancing themselves from the Al-Qaeda-linked group there — chipping away at one of the key arguments against giving lethal aid to the rebels. Yet, at the same time, the fighters associated with the extremist group are among the most effective against the regime. Assad displayed new confidence, going on the offensive in the hopes of taking advantage of ill will against the extremist group.
Officials insisted Wednesday that no decisions have been made but that arming the rebels is seen as more likely and preferable than any other military option. One US official described a new “reconsideration” within the administration of the military options. The officials, who all spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss publicly the options under consideration, said that most US leaders prefer that the Syrians determine their own fate, so arming the opposition is more palatable than direct US intervention.
The US has provided humanitarian aid to the Syrians and helped bolster the defenses along the borders in neighboring Turkey and Jordan but has preferred to let other nations send in more lethal assistance.
A key obstacle in the debate over providing weapons has been US concerns that any US weapons would end up in the hands of Al-Qaeda-linked groups helping the Syrian opposition or any of the other extremist groups in the region, such as Lebanon-based Hezbollah.
The administration announced last week that it believes Assad has used chemical weapons but said the intelligence wasn’t clear enough to be certain that the regime has crossed President Barack Obama’s announced “red line” of definite chemical weapons use that he said would have “enormous consequences” for Assad’s government.
Some senior leaders, including Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are skeptical about the wisdom of providing arms to such a broad and complex mix of opposition groups. But officials say there is a growing realization that, under increasing pressure from Congress and other allied nations, the US might soon have to do more for the Free Syrian Army.
The two-year civil war has left an estimated 70,000 people dead and hundreds of thousands of refugees.
High-level meetings on the latest developments in the issue have been going on all week, including one between Dempsey and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who just returned from the Mideast.
According to a US official and a UN diplomat, intelligence agencies are looking into allegations that chemical weapons were used in Syria after the two March 19 attacks that US, British, French and Qatari officials have referred to. They provided no details on the new alleged attacks.
This emerging shift within the administration comes even as Assad and his allies insisted that the momentum in the civil war is now in their favor and that the world’s reluctance to intervene in the conflict is more evidence that the Assad regime is regaining its hold on the country.
Obama signaled Tuesday he would consider US military action against Syria if “hard, effective evidence” is found to bolster intelligence that chemical weapons have been used in the civil war. Damascus has denied it has used chemical weapons, saying that the Syrian rebels are trying to frame it.
Last month, the head of the extremist Jabhat Al-Nusra group, one of the most powerful and effective rebel groups in Syria, pledged allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri. US officials say that since then they have seen anecdotal evidence and intelligence assessments that suggest that Al-Nusra’s gains within Syria have slowed, both because of the group’s public links to Al-Qaeda and the US designation of Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization. Other opposition members, they said, now appear to view Al-Nusra more warily.
In public comments Tuesday, Dempsey said the US could provide weapons that might make the rebels more “militarily effective.”
But, he warned, “whether the military effect would produce the kind of outcome I think that not only members of Congress but all of us would desire, which is, you know, an end to the violence, some kind of political reconciliation among the parties and a stable Syria — that’s the reason I’ve been — ‘cautious’ is the right word — about the application of the military instrument of power, because it’s not clear to me that it would produce that outcome.”
However, a US official said that military planners believe that it would be possible to vet the rebel fighting forces and that those under Free Syrian Army chief Gen. Salim Idriss and the Supreme Military Council are seen as independent of Al-Nusra.
The official said the military planners also believe that Idriss’ forces would be prime candidates to receive arms, if and when Obama makes the decision to start providing lethal assistance.
Arming the rebels could take any number of paths. If ordered, the US military could provide the weapons to rebel groups or the Pentagon could use the State Department as an intermediary and transfer the weapons through those channels. Under a more covert scenario, the CIA could secretly provide the arms.
At the Pentagon on Wednesday, press secretary George Little said there are discussions underway on how to bolster humanitarian assistance and how to engage even more closely with the opposition forces.
He said the US has to also look beyond any move to bring an end to the Assad regime, and work with allies on what a post-Assad Syria would look like.
Dempsey, however, also noted that during these difficult fiscal times, the US military could do whatever was needed or ordered in Syria, but would likely require supplemental funding in order to sustain any operations over time. He said the military options are ready, although he has not yet been ordered to take any action.
Obama has said that all military options are on the table, but there has been little appetite for putting US military boots on the ground in Syria.


In Iraq’s Anbar, election offers chance to settle scores

Updated 26 April 2018
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In Iraq’s Anbar, election offers chance to settle scores

  • In January 2014, Daesh militants captured the city of Fallujah just west of the capital, and after a year of heavy fighting they took the city of Ramadi too
  • Three years of brutal militant rule may have helped ease sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites

RAMADI, Iraq: In the vast desert province of Anbar where Daesh group militants first emerged in Iraq, parliamentary elections next month are an opportunity for the predominantly Sunni residents to settle scores.
Many of the new candidates are eager to push out lawmakers they believe minimized the danger of — or even sympathized with — the Sunni extremists that stormed across the country in the summer of 2014.
“The political class that existed before IS is no longer suitable. They have lost their credibility with the residents of Anbar,” said Rafea Al-Fahdawi, who heads the candidate list in the province for the Victory Alliance led by Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi.
“They were involved in bringing terrorism and made people believe that terrorists were just rebels belonging to our tribes. The people of Iraq will punish them at the ballot box,” said Fahdawi, leader of the Tribes Against Terrorism coalition that battled militants in the western province.
In the lush garden surrounding his home in the city of Ramadi, tents were set up to host crowds that came to listen to Abadi, part of the premier’s campaign tour in the area.
“We fought against terrorism, and today, thanks to our campaign, we want to continue the fight against sectarianism. We have great hope for change,” said Fahdawi, 62, dressed in a traditional white robe.
In late 2013, Sunni tribes in Anbar rose up against the Shiite-led government in Baghdad.
In January 2014, Daesh militants captured the city of Fallujah just west of the capital, and after a year of heavy fighting they took the city of Ramadi too.
It was not until 2016 that the Iraqi army and the paramilitary forces of the Hashed Al-Shaabi managed to retake the two cities, recovering full control of Anbar province in late 2017.
The people of Anbar are eager for change, their feelings fueled by burning disappointment with the political class.
In the largely agricultural province, where tribes carry considerable weight, 352 candidates are competing on 18 lists for 15 seats.
A quarter of the contenders are running for office for the first time, according to the electoral commission, who say the province’s electoral lists include women and young people.
“The Iraqi people, in general, want to see radical and complete change. We will not accept the same faces under different (party) names and slogans,” said Sheikh Mohammed Al-Nimrawi, a leader of the Khalidiya tribes in Ramadi.
In a sign of the times, election fever has taken over the province.
It is a stark difference from previous polls and campaigns, which were bleak and almost secretive affairs as militants increased attacks on polling stations.
Despite Daesh threats against this year’s elections, campaign posters are everywhere in Anbar — hanging on the city’s destroyed homes and on the walls of newly rented candidate offices.
Even more surprising is the presence of a list from the Conquest Alliance led by Hadi Al-Ameri, the most well-known leader of the largely Shiite Hashed Al-Shaabi.
Ameri fought for Tehran in the 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war and has been accused of forming death squads in Iraq at the height of sectarian tensions nearly 10 years ago.
“The time for change has come. Anbar will witness social and political revolution and choose men who can steer the ship to safety,” said Khalaf Al-Jeblawi, a candidate on the Conquest Alliance list.
“The province has emerged from a fierce war and the Hashed fighters played a big role in the battle,” he said.
The Hashed Al-Shaabi paramilitary force was formed in 2014 at the urging of Shiite spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Sistani to counter the Daesh blitz.
But three years of brutal militant rule may have helped ease sectarian tensions between Iraq’s Sunnis and Shiites.
“While sectarian identities do retain a (somewhat diminished) political relevance, when it comes to violence, today ‘sectarianism’ is yesterday’s conflict,” said Fanar Haddad, a senior research fellow at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute.
“I think that, for now, sectarian division is no longer the defining feature of Iraqi political mobilization.”