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Has America Changed its Stance? | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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New Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey attend a meeting in the Joint Chiefs Conference Room, more commonly known as “The Tank,” Friday, March 1, 2013, at the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Various news reports have been leaked over the past few weeks about new weapons reaching the Free Syrian Army (FSA). As has already been said, these are not going to fully bridge the gap between the Assad regime’s forces and those fighting against them, but they can narrow the gap and bring about a change in certain areas where the regime suffers from structural weaknesses, particularly in the north and northeast of the country, a highly significant region from humanitarian and economic perspectives. These weapons may curb the Assad army’s push to settle the situation in Homs, where “the mother of all battles” is taking place. The city holds strategic importance for Syria’s entire political, military, and humanitarian situation, and could be the key to whether the country remains a united state or faces division in the future.

Whether these news reports are correct or exaggerated, they are an important indication of the US stance towards the complex Syrian crisis, which in the past has been based on two main principles: Firstly, no weapons should be provided to the Syrian resistance and there should be no direct military interference. Secondly, the emergence of fundamentalist rule in Syria cannot be tolerated. This would have impact on Israel and could potentially draw it into the violent Syrian crisis, leading to an armed confrontation with powerful, organized, radical Islamist groups. Were these groups then to gain the upper hand in the conflict, this would be a violation of an international red line, particularly if they were in possession of weapons of mass destruction.

It seems that the recent provision of weapons to the Syrian opposition indicates either a change in the US equation, with its two aforementioned principles, or strong pressure being applied by Arab and regional parties. If the US itself had agreed to send the weapons, this would mean that there had been a change in its policy, and that it had abandoned its first principle. However, if the US did not agree to send the weapons, this would indicate that its influence over relations between some Arab countries and Syria has weakened or collapsed. Has Washington’s control over the conflict weakened, or has it changed its stance and begun to warm to the idea sending weapons to Syria? Or, is the US encouraging certain countries to become more involved in the military conflict taking place on Syrian soil, and to supply the opposition fighters there with weapons to make a qualitative change in the battle, in an effort to confront either the regime or those parties affiliated with anti-West jihadi groups?

It has been hinted, and even openly stated, that weapons have been sent to Syria to cut certain groups down to size, and enable other opposition forces to restore the initiative in the battlefield. The role of extremist opposition groups has become more prominent in the past few months as they have emerged as extremely active and influential parties, whose presence in most areas and battles eclipses that of the FSA. They have seized airports and large military bases and enjoy broad popularity. Now we even hear clerics in Friday sermons saying, “We do not recognize the legitimacy and courage of any fighters except the Jabhat Al-Nusra, and we do not seek the protection of others.”

Does this potential change in the US stance come in accordance with the desire of the Gulf states to prevent radical Islamists from seizing power in Damascus, and also to weaken the chances of moderate Islamists coming to power after the overthrow of Assad and his entourage? Or has the opposition armament taken place in light of a decision made by the Gulf states without consulting the Americans—a call to arm the revolution whether the US likes it or not—especially as Syrian developments are becoming more and more an issue of national security for the Gulf? Or did the Gulf states simply observe the jihadi activities taking place in Syria, and assume that America’s preoccupation with this phenomenon would prevent Washington from continuing with its original stance, and hence they took the step to arm the opposition while confident that Washington’s reaction would be moderate or even accepting?

Whatever the answer, I think that what happened has taken place within the framework of these calculations, and that the US is no longer considering changing its policy, but has actually done so. Consider the rumored shipment of weapons from Croatia; a country with positive relations with both the US and Germany, and also what is being said about the transfer of these weapons through Turkey, and Washington’s encouragement for opposition groups that are not affiliated with fundamentalist factions. There is also the talk about attempts to ensure the safe use of this relatively advanced weaponry, and plans to supervise and restructure the FSA so that its leadership and command hierarchy is purely military. This would create a stronger distinction between civilian and military opposition, enabling the latter to gain control of the ground, while the former can address worrying developments such as the Islamists’ coming to power, Assad’s weapons falling into the wrong hands, sectarian infighting, and regional conflicts. There are many military and political dimensions that cannot be ignored in any future development plan.

It has become clear in recent weeks that a change in the balance of power would have to precede any form of negotiation with the Assad regime. This change has now been demonstrated in the arming of the opposition, enabling it to deter the regime’s army, break its siege of Homs, and expedite its collapse in and around Damascus. Are we about to witness key developments both in terms of US policy and the Syrian arena? I believe there is some truth to this. The eventual objective is to force the regime to abandon Assad, and for influential members of the regime to declare their readiness to negotiate a democratic transition that would take place in a relatively secure climate. What would happen if the regime continues to remain united and insists on escalating the conflict? I think that we would then see weapons flow in the quantity necessary for opposition fighters to storm the presidential palace in the near future.