Washington weighs options
Washington seems to be in an unenviable position after Syrian forces, supported by a sectarian alliance that stretches from Tehran to Baghdad to Hezbollah, chalked up important military gains in the battle over Qusayr. Backed by Moscow and regional allies, President Bashar Assad seeks to retake other cities in order to demoralize his opponents whether within Syria or without.
For many in the Middle East, the United States has been giving the rebels only lip service. While Assad’s allies have been providing him with almost everything his forces needs, the US and the West have got cold feet. The operational and tactical consequences of the Western inaction cannot be more obvious: Assad and his allies are gaining the momentum!
This realization has compelled the United States to shift gears and to rethink its approach to the Syrian crisis. Nothing short of arming the rebels can create a better environment for political solution. US Secretary of State John Kerry said last week, “We are determined to do everything that we can in order to help the opposition to be able to … save Syria.”
Meanwhile, senior national security aides are discussing options to turn around the battle in Syria. The most recent talk about Assad’s crossing the American red line is indicative of the things to come. On more than one occasion, the American administration made it perfectly clear that the use of chemical weapons would trigger American action in Syria. It seems that the US cannot continue pretending, as if Assad’s forces are losing.
The defeat of the rebels in Qusayr has sharpened the debate over whether or not the US should arm rebels. Explicit in statements made by the Syrian opposition groups is that their ability to hold on in the war would be jeopardized unless they receive weapons that can restore the balance in Syria. Now, the next battle may be over Aleppo. The leaders of the Free Syrian Army urged the US administration to provide them with weapon and air cover.
The American fear that the weapons may fall in the hands of the radicals is absurd given the developments on the ground. So far, Washington has been successful in designing the formula by which it can send weapons to the right opposition groups. And yet, after months of indecision and caution, US President Barack Obama is edging to take bolder steps. Not only did he authorize weapons shipments to the rebels, but also has urged Britain and France to take similar steps.
By now, Obama should have learned that waiting for an international consensus over what should be done in Syria is a waste of time. It looks almost impossible for the leaders of great powers to reach a consensus on the issue given the spoiling role being played by Russia. Moscow is instrumental in buying more time for Assad to be able to crush his opponents and decide the matter once and for all. Therefore, it would be naïve to expect Russian President Vladimir Putin to agree on ending the crisis. For this reason, Washington must set a huge price tag on Assad if he continues with his defiance.
Those who hope that Putin would ask Assad to step down are daydreamers. As long as Moscow feels that it can continue its policy and get away, Putin is not expected to jump ship. If anything, Russia takes issue as response to every statement made by the Western powers. On every occasion, the Russians deny that Assad’s forces used chemical weapon. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov ridiculed the idea that Assad would use such weapons now in light of its obvious military gains against the rebels.
“The regime doesn’t have its back to the wall. What would be the sense of the regime using chemical weapons, moreover at such a small quantity?” Lavrov wondered.
Given the Russian position toward the Syrian crisis, the rebels cannot win without an active American involvement. Perhaps, it is important to see how Assad allies are framing the crisis as a Western conspiracy against Syria. While we all know that the picture is much more complicated than this rather simplistic idea, the rebels’ defeat will be an American defeat too. A few in this part of the world would then believe that American presence and statements mean anything. Not surprisingly, the American administration is weighing serious options in the months to come.
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