BEIRUT: A plan to arm more Western-friendly Syrian rebels from the southern Jordan border is gaining steam in the U.S., but analysts and officials say escalation comes with a high risk and that motivations are unclear in an explosive military context.
In an interview aired Wednesday night on Syrian state television, President Bashar Assad struck a highly combative tone, interpreted by some as a war cry against the West in preparation for a more forceful summer offensive.
“There is an attempt at cultural colonization, meaning ideological invasion, in Syria, leading in one of two directions,” Assad said.
“Either Syria becomes subservient and submissive to big powers and the West, or it becomes subservient to obscurantist, extremist forces. We need to hold on ever more strongly to the meaning of independence.”
The interview, “reflects the fact that the regime is not in a negotiation mood,” Amr al-Azm, a Syrian opposition figure and history professor at Shawnee State University in Ohio told The Daily Star.
Western diplomats admit they are at a complete loss as to what actions to take in order to unseat Assad. On a diplomatic level, states have failed to overcome differences to find any incentives or threats to lure Assad to the negotiating table.
Risk of regional conflagration – as is already beginning to occur – means there is very little appetite for any direct military intervention.
But with no sign the regime has any intention of entering into negotiations over an exit for Assad, Western diplomats say they have essentially been forced to the military table.
“We know the risks, but we don’t feel like we have any other way to pressure the regime other than militarily,” a Western diplomat told The Daily Star this week.
The diplomat was referring to a plan to assist in arming Western-friendly Syrian rebels from the country’s southern border with Jordan.
The plan has been in place for several months but has gained momentum in light of sustained gains by hard-line Islamist opposition groups, particularly the jihadi Nusra Front, which last week swore allegiance to Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri.
Lack of coordination and differences over the shape of the opposition front in the north of the country, where Islamist groups now control territory that includes cities, have given the plan momentum, according to International Crisis Group’s Middle East project director.
“The Saudis partnered up with the Jordanians in the fall 2012, and have been developing their own policy very much as a result of U.S. ambivalence,” Peter Harling said.
“It is showing some results. As the northern front is chaotic and increasingly irrelevant, and as the U.S. is slowly getting sucked in for lack of other options, [Jordan] was the obvious place to jump in.”
The U.S. and its regional allies, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel, fear the rise of extremist Islamist groups on their borders and the potential for Syria’s chemical weapons cache to fall into the wrong hands.
Differences between Congress and the White House – and even rifts among different branches of President Barack Obama’s administration – over whether to arm the rebels or try to force Assad to the negotiating table through diplomatic pressures have long been acknowledged by Washington insiders. Congress has, until now, been in favor of arming the rebels, while the White House has remained more cautious.
But U.S. officials say that recent developments, particularly the advances of hard-line extremists, mean the plan to give U.S. assistance to states arming the rebels has gained support from the White House.
Addressing a congressional hearing Wednesday, Secretary of State John Kerry, who has previously voiced his preference for a negotiated settlement, said the United States’ “policy right now is that we are not providing lethal aid, but we are coordinating very, very closely with those who are.”
The goal of upcoming meetings, Kerry noted, would be to identify “what accelerants to Assad’s departure might make the most sense,” according to The New York Times.
But addressing a separate congressional hearing on the same day, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey raised the alarm about possible risks in an unpredictable opposition landscape.
Dempsey had previously told a separate congressional hearing in December that he had endorsed a proposal to arm vetted members of the Syrian opposition – but he said Wednesday he was now uncertain as to whether the U.S. could “clearly identify the right people.”
“It is actually more confusing on the opposition side today than it was six months ago,” Dempsey said, according to The New York Times report.
U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, meanwhile, revealed on the same day that some 150 U.S military specialists had been deployed in Jordan since last year and that he had ordered a U.S. Army headquarters team to bolster the mission, bringing the total American presence to more than 200 troops.
In a sign of the possible complications to come, the deployment drew sharp rebuke Friday from Jordan’s Islamist opposition, who urged a rethink of the deployment.
“The government must review its decision to authorize the deployment of foreign troops on Jordanian soil,” the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of Jordan’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood, said in a statement.
Hagel told senators Wednesday he had reservations about arming the rebels. “You better be damn sure, as sure as you can be, before you get into something. Because once you’re into it, there isn’t any backing out, whether it’s a no-fly zone, safe zone ... whatever it is,” he said.
“Once you’re in, you can’t unwind it. You can’t just say, ‘Well, it’s not going as well as I thought it would go so we’re gonna get out.’”
Efforts in the past year to monitor and manage the flow of weapons have failed, military opposition figures have noted. Arms have mainly fallen into the hands of extremist groups, even pitting secular and Islamist groups against each other in some instances as they compete for resources and influence.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has also flagged the unpredictability of the plan, urging caution over international calls to arm Syrian rebels and reserving Israel’s right to block a supply of weapons that could be turned against it, according to an interview aired on the BBC Thursday.
“We’re concerned that weapons which are groundbreaking, which could change the balance of power in the Middle East, could fall into the hands of these terrorists, and we always reserve the right to act to prevent that from happening,” he said.
“The arming of rebels presents the question of which rebels and which weapons?” Netanyahu added.
ICG’s Harling said the evolution of the conflict presented the U.S. with “no good options.”
“The U.S. believes the regime is not serious about compromise and that its [the U.S.’] allies are unwilling to apply any genuine pressure. They don’t want to hand them a victory either, so they are stepping up their engagement on the ground, reluctantly but incrementally,” he said.
“[The U.S.] knows it wants to topple the regime, but hopes it can at least alter the dynamics within the opposition, at the expense of the jihadis.”
The regime, Harling said, will not respond positively to pressure from its enemies. “It may – and that remains a question mark – yield to pressure from its allies, but up to now they have for the most part been unwilling to apply any,” Harling said.
“A major problem is that the regime has consolidated militarily just as it eroded on all other fronts, making it very vulnerable to any change of tracks. Forcing it to engage in genuine political negotiations could break it, and that is what its allies have on their mind,” he said.
Ohio’s Azm said Assad would exploit West’s uncertainty.
“The regime is aware of the [shift in calculations] and will launch an early offensive. The Aleppo-Damascus Highway is critical. The regime is exploiting the situation to stabilize some of the front lines.”