The lack of a credible Syrian opposition leader to succeed Bashar Assad – or even lead an opposition negotiating team for the country’s transition – has weighed heavily on efforts to bring the Syrian war to an end.
Last Saturday, three days before his reelection, President Barack Obama ordered an intensive headhunt launched to locate a military rebel leader with appropriate leadership qualities, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s exclusive military and Washington sources. When the right leader is approved, the US would begin considering sending arms to the Syrian rebels.
A presidential directive entrusted the task to the US intelligence bodies dealing with Syria. It specified that only rebel commanders fighting in Syria’s battlefields would qualify – as distinct from the opposition groups in exile and Free Syrian Army officers based outside the country.
Four more stipulations were laid down by Obama:
1. That the chosen leader and the men under his command have no affinity to the Muslim Brotherhood, only a strong commitment to replacing the Assad regime with civil, democratic non-religious government.
2. American arms would only be delivered to a fighting group with proven battlefield credentials.
3. All the weapons to be supplied by the US would be of Russian manufacture. Obama planned to replicate the tactic employed by President Ronald Reagan in the second half of the 1980s when he supplied the Afghan mujahidin with Russian arms for fighting the Red Army.
Obama is also after revenge on Russian President Vladimir Putin for declining to support efforts to quickly terminate the bloody Syrian conflict. Before voting day, the US president was heard referring to a “revenge vote” – a sentiment which is reported to crop up often in his private conversations.
4. Three types of weapons will be on tap for the chosen Syrian rebel outfit: The 9K34 Strela-3 SA-14 shoulder-carried anti-air missiles; the 9K111 Fagot wire-guided anti-tank missile; and the advanced Russian rocket-propelled grenade – RPG.
Failed bids to shape discrete rebel groups into instruments of government
So far, Obama’s headhunters have shortlisted only one rebel commander and militia with the right qualifications for the national opposition leadership role, DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s intelligence sources disclose. He is Abdul-Razzaq Tlass, nephew of the former Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, who commands the 2000-strong Farouk Brigade fighting the Syrian army in the northern region of Rasstan, a stronghold of the Tlass clan.
The Tlass name now reposes on Obama’s Oval Office desk. His aides said in answer to questions that a presidential decision is expected in the coming days.
The leadership vacuum and disconnect between the Syrian mainstream opposition in exile and the men fighting Bashar Assad in the field preyed heavily on the four-day meeting in Doha, Qatar. This motley group of Syrian opposition leaders drove up to the first session Tuesday, Nov. 6, in shiny limousines from posh hotels in the Qatari capital.
But even the Free Syrian Army (FSA) chiefs sitting alongside the aging politicians in exile could not claim an integral role in the rebel movement fighting in Syria.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's military sources disclose that October was taken up with a US-Turkish-Syrian effort to organize rebel forces into military councils for taking charge of the administration and military activities in their respective regions. It was hoped that they would form the nuclei of future civil government.
The experiment fell flat; not a single council was set up.
Washington ditches the mainstream Syrian opposition
Then, FSA leader Gen. Mustafa al-Sheikh made his way to Aleppo to try and persuade militia leaders fighting there to set up a central command. They rebuffed him, saying they would never take orders from his fellow FSA commanders Gen. Riad al-Asaad and Gen. Mohammad Haj Ali.
Responding to this stalemate, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Oct. 31: "We’ve made it clear the SNC can no longer be viewed as the visible leader of the opposition. They can be part of a larger opposition, but that opposition must include people from inside Syria and others who have a legitimate voice that needs to be heard."
The Obama administration thus lost patience with the Syrian opposition’s inability to produce a representative front of forward-looking, involved leaders and has launched its own hunt for a Syrian leader able to speak for the fighting movement of the Syrian uprising. Washington also left itself free of commitments to any Syrian opposition faction to pursue alternative channels for resolving the Syrian imbroglio – for instance, in diplomacy with Beijing, Moscow or even Tehran.
(See a separate article in this issue about prospective US-Iranian talks)
Moscow sensed that something was afoot in the Middle East, which is why Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has been flitting between Arab capitals since Nov. 5. He has been scattering fresh new Russian proposals and ideas while denying any form of collaboration with Washington.
Russia stings Washington over “Stingers
In Cairo, he said: "We have never conducted secret negotiations with anybody about the future of third countries.” And we have had no secret contacts with Americans or anybody else for a deal on the future of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."
The Russian foreign minister never quite shut the door to early negotiations with Washington, although he settled some scores and put out feelers on Moscow’s behalf.
He accused the Obama administration’s Syrian policy of prolonging the conflict by backing the opposition, insinuating that the Americans were toying with Syrian lives and the rebels would be better off under Russian protection.
“We have solid information of more than 50 Stingers (surface-to-air missiles) in Syrian rebel hands now,” Lavrov told reporters in Amman and reminded them that Free Syrian Army leaders had said repeatedly that Syrian civilian aircraft were legitimate targets. He sharply denied Moscow was supplying Assad’s army with weapons of mass destruction.
(Moscow too was not above its own revenge for Obama’s plan to send Syrian rebels Russian arms.)
Obama rebuffs Turkey’s request for Patriots
On Wednesday, just a few hours after the US election, Ankara announced it would be posting an official request to its NATO partners, including the US, to deploy Patriot anti-missile missiles along its border with Syria. The request which was put on hold pending the election in America, would be filed immediately, said a Turkish Foreign Ministry official. A no-fly zone over Syria is still on the table despite NATO's reluctance to intervene in the Syrian conflict without a Security Council mandate, said another Turkish spokesman.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report that Ankara is desperate to stop Washington abandoning the Syrian opposition and going for deals with Tehran and Moscow over their heads.
But meanwhile, no sooner was Obama elected, when he turned down the Turkish request for the deployment of NATO Patriots. Ankara came back with a second request, for US warships armed with advanced Aegis ballistic missile interceptors to be stationed near the Turkish coast.
This too was rebuffed by Washington.
President Obama was making it clear to Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan that his policy with regard to the Turkish role in Syria was unchanged in his second term. He is determined to distance Ankara from intervention in the Syrian conflict as well as keeping NATO out of it so as to leave his hands free for reaching an accommodation with the big powers on Syria’s future.