Assad Prepares Offensive as Obama Promises Rebels Arms

It looks as if we’ve moved from “years away from war” to months away, or even weeks. As mentioned in previous submissions, the Assad regime is not going to give up easy and is going to bring down the entire Middle East with him should he realize he has only moments left of being in power. The entire region is at a critical boiling point.

President Barack Obama’s decision to send some light weapons to Syrian rebels may be too little and too late to thwart a regime offensive to retake Aleppo, the nation’s largest city and commercial capital.

Regime forces supported by fighters from the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah have moved north after defeating rebels in al-Qusair, a setback that triggered concern in Washington that Iran and its Lebanese ally are tipping the balance in favor of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

“Arming the Syrian rebels is unlikely to tip the balance in their favor,” said Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “It might have made a difference a year ago, but, today, the Assad regime — particularly after re-taking Qusair — has the advantage.”

Even some U.S. officials say they are worried that Obama’s reluctant decision to provide limited amounts of small arms and ammunition to the Syrian opposition is enough to drag the U.S. into a third Mideast war but not enough to win it.

The U.S. will direct its aid to the rebels’ Supreme Military Command, headed by Major General Salim Idris, who has appealed in recent weeks for heavy arms, beyond guns or rocket-propelled grenades, from the U.S. and Europeans.

Senator Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat who spoke with Idris by phone this week, said of the opposition leader, “He was very clear: Machine guns and RPGs can’t compete with air power. He asked specifically in addition to conventional arms for anti-tank weapons that could deal with the Russian tanks and also anti-aircraft weapons.”

Proxy War

Syria now threatens to become a larger proxy war, said two administration officials familiar with the internal policy debate who asked not to be identified discussing the classified arms shipments. Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are allied with Assad, while the U.S., U.K., France, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey and other predominately Sunni nations are backing the rebels, they said.

The most perverse twist, even given the complicated politics of the Middle East, is that the U.S. now finds itself sharing a goal with the Sunni extremist groups allied with al-Qaeda that are seeking to replace Assad’s secular regime with Islamic rule, said one of the officials. While the Islamists’ vision of a post-Assad Syria is clear, Obama’s isn’t, this official said.

No Planning

Both officials said the Obama administration has done virtually no planning for a postwar Syria, much as President George W. Bush’s administration had no road map for Iraq after the U.S. invasion other than a dead-on-arrival plan to put Iraqi exile Ahmed Chalabi in power.

The administration has been hamstrung since the war in Syria began by the risk that weapons could fall into terrorists’ hands, or enable radical Islamic groups to take control of Syria, and by the absence of domestic political support for intervening. Most American still oppose intervening in Syria, according to recent polls.

Given the lateness and scope of the president’s about-face on arming the rebels, the timing may not matter, the officials said.

‘Huge Battle’

An estimated 20,000 pro-regime forces, including fighters from Hezbollah and Iran, are now south and west of Aleppo in preparation for a “huge battle,” according to Dan Layman, a spokesman for the Syrian Support Group, a Washington nonprofit organization that works as a liaison to the the rebels’ Supreme Military Council. Rebels control about 70 percent of the province and about half of the city, he said, citing unconfirmed reports from rebel military officials.

While administration officials on June 13 cited proof that Assad’s forces have used chemical weapons as the reason for the president’s reversal, the rebels’ defeat in al-Qusair and the growing Iranian involvement triggered a series of crisis meetings this week that led to the president’s decision to begin arming the rebels.

The U.S. is responding to new concern that rebels may not be able to prevail over the regime, according to three United Nations diplomats who asked not to be identified discussing U.S. policy. Both the U.K. and France previously stated their conclusions that Syria used chemical weapons in limited instances.

‘Hands-Off’ Policy

“The unstated previous policy of the U.S. was hands-off, assuming that the rebels will win,” said Jonathan Spyer, a political scientist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel. “The new policy is an acknowledgment that this may not be working.”

Since the Syrian uprising began in March 2011, Obama had sought to avoid being drawn into the conflict, with officials stating their confidence that Assad would soon go the way of ousted Arab autocrats such as Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi. Obama was focused on removing the U.S. from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not getting drawn into a another war in a Muslim nation.

Assad so far has defied those predictions, and the situation has become more dire — with more than 90,000 deaths – – and more complex, as Syria has become a sectarian battleground in a larger war.

Full article: Assad Prepares Offensive as Obama Promises Rebels Arms (Bloomberg)

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