US could decide this week on arming Syrian rebels

John Kerry: Put off planned trip to Israel. Picture: AP
John Kerry: Put off planned trip to Israel. Picture: AP
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THE United States could make a decision as early as this week on whether to arm Syrian rebels, with US Secretary of State John Kerry putting off a Middle East trip to attend meetings on the subject.

The US government has debated for months whether to provide weaponry to the rebels in their civil war against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s forces and has so far decided against.

One US official who spoke on condition of anonymity yesterday stressed that while a decision on whether to start arming the rebels was possible as early as this week, deliberations could easily take longer.

Mr Kerry put off a planned trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories to attend the White House meetings, an Obama administration source said.

What has changed in recent weeks is the tilting of the battlefield against the rebels as Lebanese Hezbollah has entered the fray on the side of Assad’s forces, helping them to retake the strategic town of Qusair.

The regime is understood to be preparing for a major offensive to retake opposition-held areas in the province of Aleppo.

The recent shift to Syrian goverment forces going on the offensive has made it less likely that a US and Russian planned peace conference, to bring the rebels and the government to the table, would succeed in US president Barack Obama’s aim of a negotiated political transition to remove Mr Assad from power. With his forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran, gaining the upper hand, Mr Assad has little incentive to stand down.

The US and other governments are also weighing evidence that Mr Assad’s forces may have used chemical weapons, something Mr Obama has said would cross a “red line.”

A consensus remains elusive, with US policymakers wrestling with concerns that any American-supplied weapons could fall into the wrong hands.

The renewed focus on Syria comes two years into the uprising against Mr Assad that has seen at least 80,000 people killed and has sent hundreds of thousands of refugees into Turkey and Jordan.

Fredric Hof, an analyst at the Atlantic Council think tank, said the Obama administration might decide to take charge of the distribution of weapons to the rebels but not necessarily to provide US arms.

“If the president is going to make that decision this week, I suspect it would be a decision for the US to take charge of the process by which carefully vetted units of the Free Syrian Army get what they need both in terms of lethal and in terms of non-lethal [aid] and that General Salim Idriss of the Supreme Military Council gets full credit and indeed things would be passed through him,” said Mr Hof, a retired official.

If the US were to channel arms through Gen Idriss, who leads the military wing of the main civilian opposition group, the former military officer could gain credibility from other fighters and perhaps greater control over the notoriously fractious anti-Assad fighters.

Mr Obama this year shifted policy to take the step of giving the rebels US medical kits and military rations. Arms provision, however, has been left to nations such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

By centralising the delivery of arms – whatever their origin – it might become easier to get the rebels to work under a single command authority rather than as multiple militias.

Bernadette Meehan, a spokeswoman for the White House National Security Council, yesterday said Washington was always looking at ways to strengthen the opposition but had nothing new to announce.

“At the president’s direction, his national security team continues to consider all possible options that would accomplish our objectives of helping the opposition serve the essential needs of the Syrian people and hastening a political transition to a post-Assad Syria,” she said.