Syr­ian maze is filled with hid­den dan­gers

The Pak Banker - - OPINION - Ab­dul­lah Al Shayji

WITH a di­vided US Se­nate ap­prov­ing Chuck Hagel as the sec­re­tary of de­fence, and Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry em­bark­ing on his first overseas visit to the re­gion, US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama has com­pleted his na­tional se­cu­rity team. He seems to be ready to tackle var­i­ous crises and re­visit some of the ur­gent is­sues that were put on hold dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign.

Of all the crises, the Syr­ian con­flict mer­its the most ur­gency. In my ar­ti­cle ti­tled In Search of Obama's Mid­dle East Legacy, I ar­gued that "the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion's han­dling of the Syr­ian de­ba­cle is abysmal ... It is ironic that af­ter 70,000 were killed in Syria, af­ter ex­trem­ist el­e­ments as­so­ci­ated with Al Qaida es­tab­lished a foothold there, and de­spite fears about Syria's stock­pile of chem­i­cal and bi­o­log­i­cal weapons fall­ing in the wrong hands and Rus­sia up­ping the ante in Syria, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has not led the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to do any­thing about the Bashar Al As­sad regime …"

Fur­ther­more, "all those chal­lenges have not con­vinced the US ad­min­is­tra­tion to arm se­lected el­e­ments of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion. It emerged dur­ing a hear­ing in the US Se­nate that the White House had ve­toed former sec­re­tary of state Hil­lary Clin­ton and former sec­re­tary of de­fence Leon Panetta along with the chair­man of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey who sup­ported a plan last year to arm care­fully vet­ted Syr­ian rebels.

How­ever, the White House pre­ferred to fo­cus on the po­lit­i­cal front to help build the op­po­si­tion.

But it seems there is a pivot in the White House to­day re­gard­ing Syria. Lately, many im­por­tant de­vel­op­ments some with wor­ry­ing signs have emerged re­gard­ing Syria. For the first time, the Syr­ian regime is will­ing to ne­go­ti­ate with "the armed rebels", as Syria's For­eign Min­is­ter Walid Mua'alem ac­knowl­edged in Moscow, while Syr­ian troops con­tinue to fight ter­ror­ism.

But the most sig­nif­i­cant devel­op­ment was the Washington Post re­port­ing last week the pos­si­bil­ity of the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion's will­ing­ness to re­visit the is­sue of sup­ply­ing cer­tain el­e­ments of Syr­ian op­po­si­tion with tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance. The plan is to sup­ply them with ar­mour and armed ve­hi­cles and pos­si­bly pro­vide mil­i­tary train­ing, but with­hold arms in or­der to nudge the course of the con­flict and bring to an end the Bashar Al As­sad regime with­out US mil­i­tary in­ter­fer­ence.

The Syr­ian rebels have been dis­il­lu­sioned and frus­trated over the last two years and feel aban­doned by the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity, which re­fused to arm them be­cause it feared that the weapons would fall into the wrong hands, par­tic­u­larly the ji­hadist groups.

But the change of heart in Washington and in other cap­i­tals seems to have been pre­cip­i­tated af­ter, as the Post puts it, the con­clu­sion by the US ad­min­is­tra­tion and its key al­lies "that there is lit­tle im­me­di­ate chance for a ne­go­ti­ated po­lit­i­cal set­tle­ment with Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar Al As­sad".

Fur­ther­more, ac­cord­ing to the Post, "the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion is mov­ing to­ward a ma­jor pol­icy shift on Syria that could pro­vide rebels there with equip­ment such as body ar­mour and ar­moured ve­hi­cles, and pos­si­bly mil­i­tary train­ing, and could send hu­man­i­tar­ian as­sis­tance di­rectly to Syria's op­po­si­tion po­lit­i­cal coali­tion".

This re­ver­sal of course by the US ad­min­is­tra­tion was be­cause "west­ern of­fi­cials have …ac­knowl­edged that the op­po­si­tion coali­tion is un­likely to quickly de­velop a gov­ern­ing in­fra­struc­ture or at­tract sig­nif­i­cant sup­port from fence-sit­ting Syr­ian mi­nori­ties and Al As­sad sup­port­ers". Clearly, this rep­re­sents a ma­jor shift in US stance re­gard­ing Syria, and a de­par­ture of the White House po­si­tion of lim­it­ing its as­sis­tance to the Syr­ian rebels and refugees to non-lethal as­sis­tance along­side $385 mil­lion in hu­man­i­tar­ian aid through in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions. This co­in­cided with a report in the New York Times last week, quot­ing uniden­ti­fied US of­fi­cial con­firm­ing that "Saudi Arabia has fi­nanced a large pur­chase of in­fantry weapons from Croa­tia and qui­etly fun­nelled them to anti-government fight­ers in Syria", to break the stale­mate.

Mean­while, there has been progress on the diplo­matic front be­tween the Amer­i­cans and Rus­sians over Syria. Kerry met with his Rus­sian coun­ter­part Sergey Lavrov in Berlin, and with rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the Syr­ian op­po­si­tion in Rome last Thurs­day. The Syr­ian rebels changed course and de­cided to at­tend the meet­ing af­ter as­sur­ances by US Vice-Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den and Kerry, where they asked for "qual­i­ta­tive mil­i­tary sup­port" from the ma­jor pow­ers to put an end to the bloody two-year con­flict.

But the omi­nous devel­op­ment is the spillover ef­fects of the Syr­ian con­flict. It is pro­vok­ing sec­tar­ian strife be­tween the ma­jor­ity Sun­nis and the mi­nor­ity Shi­ites in the re­gion. Iraqi Prime Min­is­ter Nouri Al Ma­liki's warn­ing of a civil war in Iraq and Le­banon fol­low­ing the ouster of Al As­sad's regime, is a clar­ion call to Sunni Is­lamists in both coun­tries to stay out of the Syr­ian morass.

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