The US Senate Foreign Relations Committee has overwhelmingly approved the Syrian Transition Support Act that calls on the U.S. to provide arms to «moderate» Syrian opposition groups, underscoring growing sentiment among lawmakers for a change in the U.S. stand on the conflict. The 15-3 vote showed broad support from both parties. «Vital national interests are at stake and we cannot watch from the sidelines», said the Foreign Relations Committee's chairman, Sen. Robert Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat who introduced the bill. The legislation heads first to the Senate, then to the House and, finally, to the President. Strong opposition is expected in the House. The President’s attitude is not clear as yet. Mr. Obama has rebuffed the idea of arming opposition forces. However, recently the administration has begun to study the option of providing arms to moderate rebel groups, possibly along with the UK and France. Meanwhile, it is widely questioned what, if anything, the US President will do as he is «gathering more evidence» of the use of chemical weapons in Syria. Obama has been mostly circumspect, speaking in dapper diplomacy terms about the need for the international community to apply pressure on Assad.
What bill is about?
The bill authorizes the U.S. to provide small arms and training to units of the Free Syrian Army and other groups opposed to the Assad regime who «have gone through a thorough vetting process by the U.S. government, meeting certain criteria on human rights, terrorism and nonproliferation, «and that have been «properly and fully vetted and share common values and interests with the United States». Air defense systems can't be transferred as other weapons. President Obama could authorize supplies of «antiaircraft defensive systems with strict limitations», the press-release states. The legislation would also enable the administration to penalize individuals found to have supported movement of weapons and oil to the Syrian government, and it would create a pathway for potential future leaders to free Syria from U.S. economic penalties by meeting «certain terrorism and WMD criteria», according to the panel’s statement. In addition, the bill would provide $250 million in annual aid through fiscal 2015 to support early operations by a possible replacement government in Damascus. The fate of the bill is uncertain with opposition among several senators and far less enthusiasm in the House for stepped-up military action. But the draft legislation sends a strong message to the administration.
Debates: views divided
The debate over the legislature underscored apprehensions about U.S. deeper military involvement in the conflict after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It also exposed divisions within the Republican Party about U.S. foreign policy.
Despite fear that sending arms to the rebels might backfire if al-Qaeda gets a hold of them, US lawmakers are adamant that weapons will be supplied to those groups «committed to rejecting terrorism and extremist ideologies».
During the hearing Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican who has been an outspoken critic of Mr. Obama's response to the Syria crisis, said the legislation «sends a signal to the administration» that needs to get more involved in Syria. As to him, more action will be needed beyond providing small arms «if we are going to reverse the tide that's now taking place in favor of Bashar Assad». The Senator added that the rebels need heavier weapons that those authorized under the current Senate bill.
The co-sponsor of the House measure, Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.) welcomed the Senate committee action, saying the approach «would put our Syria policy on the best possible course».
Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, the panel's top Republican, implicitly criticized the Obama administration as he joined Menendez in embracing the measure. «Much of the policy on Syria has been done on an ad hoc basis», Corker said. «This bill lays out a strategy».
Republican Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, another potential White House candidate, backed the legislation and insisted that it was critical to help groups battling the well-armed, pro-Assad forces and radical jihadists.
At all events, several lawmakers raised objections to providing small arms.
Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) noted that it is dangerous to arm rebel forces whose intentions are unknown. «I think we have to ask the question, 'Who are we arming?'« Sen. Udall asked fellow senators. «To tell you the truth, I don't think we know.…It changes every day».
Sen. Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, said supporting the legislation was tantamount to supporting the arms supplies going to rebel groups that are the allies of al Qaeda. «It's an irony you cannot overcome», he said.
Government troops in Syria are gaining ground. The Senate panel’s vote came as the pro-President Assad forces, fighting alongside Hezbollah, engaged in an offensive on the rebel-held city of Qusayr—a battle of strategic importance. The city of Deraa was recaptured by the government forces last week. A success will permit outward control of central Syria expanding out from these zones. The recent reports from Syria say government troops have been able to regain the upper hand in the region stretching from Damascus to Homs, including the coastal areas, and expel rebel fighters from several districts on the edge of Damascus severing their supply lines to the south. Currently, the government forces are cutting off supply lines to the west. The armed opposition formations are facing extreme difficulties, including internal strife. They get weakened further with each passing day. If President Assad’s troops establish control over the southern part of the country, then the opposition will be in dire straits because the north is controlled by Kurds.
The Germany’s foreign intelligence agency, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (BND), has fundamentally changed its view of the ongoing civil war in Syria. It believes the rebels are in trouble. Government troops are set to make significant advances, it predicts. It is a notable about-face as last summer the agency reported that he felt the Assad regime would collapse early in 2013. According to German intelligence agency, the situation has changed dramatically. The new situation allows Assad’s troops to combat spontaneous rebel attacks and even retake positions that were previously lost. The BND believes that Assad’s military is strong enough to improve its position in the current stalemate. (1)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has already embarked on yet another trip to the Middle East, the fourth trip to the region assuming office at the end of January, to visit Oman, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian city of Ramallah. In Jordan the Secretary is to meet with representatives from 11 nations as part of the US-Russian roadmap to end Syria's violence. Officials said the gathering has two aims: to change Assad's calculation, only fortified by his recent military successes, that he can win the war militarily, and to persuade both the government and the opposition to attend peace talks next month in Geneva. British Foreign Secretary William Hague and German Foreign Minister Westerwelle will join Kerry during the trip. On May 22 John Kerry said the United States and partner nations are prepared to increase assistance to opposition forces if Assad remains unwilling to seek a diplomatic end to the war.
The trip is different from others in a way. Russia has officially said it is preparing to send S-300 cutting edge air defense missiles to the Syrian government. The move creates a serious obstacle on the way of imposing any potential no-fly zones. General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the transfer of the advanced missiles is «an unfortunate decision that will embolden the regime and prolong the suffering». According to his logic, the arms supplied by Saudi Arabia and Qatar as well as military aid from the West is probably «a fortunate decision» no matter it is emboldening radicals and criminals in their efforts aimed at plunging Syria into the quagmire of Somalia-like chaos. Moscow has also sold anti-ship missiles to Syria capable of striking ships as far away as Cyprus. Flying range – is more than 300 km at the speed almost three times of that exceeding the speed of sound. A Western military operation involving carrier groups would also be complicated by the fact that Russia has deployed a robust naval force to the Mediterranean.
Earlier in May Mr. Kerry visited Moscow and said the U.S. and Russia «can accomplish great things together when the world needs it». So the Senate panel’s decision obviously doesn’t dovetail with the US foreign policy, at least, as it is formally stated by top officials.
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It’s just as simple as the history teaches. Once the arms deliveries to motley crew of opposition start there is no way one can predict where they go, unlike in the event of supplies to government-controlled forces. Jabhat al-Nusra is a powerful extremist force; it will be delighted to receiver weapons from the US. As is known, once out of the state control the Libyan arms went to Mali and other places. Training given to anti-Soviet forces in Afghanistan was used by Al Qaeda to stage the 9/11 tragedy. Starting from «small arms» the country may be dragged into a prolonged conflict again in the times of budget sequestration. For instance, in April Defense Secretary Hagel told the Senate Armed Services Committee that some 200 US military personnel had been sent to Jordan to help plan for potential operations related to Syria's civil war. The Los Angeles Times reported back then that the number could be increased to 20,000, if the Obama administration decided to intervene to seize Syria's chemical weapons. That’s how it usually goes – one thing leads to another to launch chain reaction further quickening the quagmire of Civil War into a toxic powder keg giving rise to sectarian violence in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, getting Israel involved as well as the greater region.
That’s what many want to prevent. The Russia – US agreement on the Geneva conference is the best thing to do under the circumstances.
Russia takes steps as a direct response to a more likely US intervention and establishing no-fly zones – the possible steps in the process of consideration under the Capitol Hill pressure aimed at advancing the course of rebels, the rag-tag army of different groups under no one’s command – there is no leadership whose orders are given any attention to. It would be a big mistake if Washington embarks on this course to make common Americans pay dearly again. Actually Moscow is thus further reacting to the US in a preemptive manner. The policy is to prevent a situation akin to Libya.
Many a time Russia has argued that arming the rebels would contradict international law. It has repeatedly said that its stance on Syria arises from its concern for the Syrian people rather than the fate of Assad and that his forced departure would make the situation worse. Moscow insists that only direct talks between parties involved in the conflict – the government and the opposition – can help to resolve the ongoing crisis. It also criticized some players in the international arena for providing support and arming Syrian rebels. «International law does not permit the supply of arms to non-governmental actors and our point of view is that it is a violation of international law», Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in March after meeting his British counterpart in London.
The Senate panel’s vote will hinder diplomacy efforts at the time the world is pinning hopes on Moscow-initiated Geneva conference… The action will probably not stymie the talks process. But it goes to show the support is strong in the US Congress to get tough on Syria and ignore the lessons of the recent past. The trouble is that the words «tough» and «wise» are far from being synonyms.