Middle East

Controlling Syria’s outcome

“The [US] administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground. They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”[1]

As the uprising in Syria fast approaches its second anniversary the Washington Post broke the news, Monday 24th February, that an influx of new heavy armaments have entered Syria which is tilting the balance of power towards the rebel fighters.[2] Advanced anti-tank weapons such as the M60 and M79 Osa anti-tank weapon, as well as advanced rocket propelled grenades such as the RBG-6 and RPG-22s have entered the conflict. Chinese FN-6 shoulder-fired missiles i.e. MANPADS have also been seen via internet videos in various attacks since the beginning of 2013.[3] Such weapons are not part of the inventory of the Syrian regime, none of them are used by the Syrian military, and none had been used before by the Syrian opposition. The CNN confirmed the Western position: “The Obama administration has resisted providing arms to the rebel movement out of concern such weapons could wind up in the hands of extremist groups, such as the recently blacklisted Nusra Front.”[4]

The question that arises is what has driven the sudden change in policy in arming the rebel fighters with heavy weapons. Since November 2012 Bashar al-Assad’s forces have been on the retreat in the face of significant firepower and advancement from rebel forces. Bashar al-Assad’s forces are surrounded in the North of the country as supply lines to his forces have been blocked, forcing the regime to resort to supplying troops from the air. Rebel forces have been chipping away at territory controlled by Assad’s forces and the loss of Taftanaz air base (the country’s second largest air base) in January 2013 is testament to the changing balance of power in the country. Rebels recently overran the Thawra hydroelectric dam on the Euphrates, which is one of Syria’s biggest power-generating facilities. Al-Assad’s forces now face daily attacks on Damascus and its suburbs, with the rebels capturing numerous choke-points to the capitol. In an act of desperation al-Assad launched SCUD missiles against rebels held territory in Aleppo in the end of February.[5]

Incoming US secretary of state, John Kerry on his first overseas trip, speaking at a news conference in London said regarding Syria: “I’m the new Secretary of State and the President of the United States has sent me because he is concerned about the course of events.”[6] In order to influence the future direction of the country the US has worked to weaken the Islamist elements of the rebel forces. The New York Times reported: “The weapons’ distribution has been principally to armed groups viewed as nationalist and secular, and appears to have been intended to bypass the jihadist groups whose roles in the war have alarmed Western and regional powers.”[7] These weapons were first sighted in Dera, in South Syria in December 2012 via shipments shuttled through Jordan, officials told the New York Times.[8] US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta confirmed in October 2012 that a team of US military planners were in Jordan: “We have been working with Jordan for a period of time now …on a number of the issues that have developed as a result of what’s happened in Syria.”[9]

The US has since the uprising began controlled the flow of weapons into the country. In this way the US has been able to effectively control the outcome of the uprising. Rebel forces have long complained about the non-delivery of promised weapons and heavy armaments from the US, even though the US continues to project the rhetoric of supporting the rebels. In one incident rebel fighters who held a meeting with the CIA for weapons confirmed: “that the Americans had kept none of those promises, that not even the communications equipment or hospital supplies had materialized.”[10] Under this rhetoric the US gave cover to al-Assad to carry out his heinous crimes and end the uprising, however this has failed as rebel forces control large swathes of territory and now begun their onslaught for Damascus itself.

The arrival of these new weapons across the entire length of the country suggests two supply lines are providing these weapons – one from Jordan and the other from Turkey. This means if the supplier cuts off ammunition supply, such as the advanced RPG’s which is a one-shot disposable anti-tank weapon that needs to be continually replenished, the weapons become ineffective. This creates a critical dependency – which is the ideal position for anyone hoping to control the outcome of the Syrian uprising.

The end game for Bashar al-Assad began some time back. What worried the West was the central and influential role the Islamic minded rebels were playing. The rebel success has been led by Jabhat al Nusra, who the US designated as a terrorist group. In order to drive a wedge between the rebels and to support the more secular and nationalist minded rebels, the US has been ensuring that only these rebels groups receive the new advanced weapons. This is meant to counter the influence of those groups calling for Islam in Syria post al-Assad. The Council of foreign relations put this bluntly: “The only strategy that stands a chance – and not even necessarily a very good one – is for the United States, the post-Assad Alawites, and the secular Syrian Sunnis to focus relentlessly on the common goal: stopping the victory of Islamic extremists.”[11]

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/29/world/us-is-weighing-stronger-action-in-syrian-conflict.html?pagewanted=1

[2] http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2013-02-23/world/37257669_1_free-syrian-army-rebel-forces-assad

[3] http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/world/syria-live/how-did-syrias-rebels-get-their-hands-on-powerful-new-weapons/article9057642/

[4] http://security.blogs.cnn.com/2013/02/25/kerry-works-to-assure-syrian-rebels/?hpt=po_c2

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/23/world/middleeast/scud-missile-aleppo.html?src=recg

[6] http://news.sky.com/story/1056823/john-kerry-pledges-new-ideas-for-syria

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels-in-syria.html?ref=global-home&_r=0

[8]http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/26/world/middleeast/in-shift-saudis-are-said-to-arm-rebels in-syria.html?ref=global-home&_r=0

[9] http://rt.com/news/panetta-syria-jordan-troops-111/

[10] http://www.thedailybeast.com/newsweek/2013/02/11/did-the-cia-betray-syria-s-rebels.html

[11] http://www.cfr.org/syria/save-syria-al-qaeda/p30068