In a moment of realism, the Obama administration sized up the prospects of diplomacy bringing surcease to the Syrian crisis as dim, reversed its policy of non-intervention and is about to reach inside Syria in pursuit of its goals for 2014.
The prospects of the Syrian peace talks – Geneva-2 – ending the three-year civil war which has reduced Syria to a tragic ruin are close to nil. Even in the unlikely event of the warring sides reaching limited areas of agreement on measures for easing the conflict, those agreements will be apt to break down before they get underway, judging from what happened in the first instance.
Earlier this week, Syrian government and opposition delegations, having been persuaded to sit in the same room, agreed let UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi know that Damascus had agreed to let women and children leave the besieged areas of Homs.
But it never worked out. Syrian army commanders in Homs refused to let them go, maintaining that their escape would break the siege they were tightening on rebel-held terrain and open the door for humanitarian aid to enter.
It appears that either the Syrian ruler deceived the conference, or his local commanders, reluctant to jeopardize their near-victory over the Homs rebels, disobeyed an order from Damascus.
Syria’s chemical arsenal is removed at snail’s pace
The elimination of Syria’s chemical arsenal, though approved, is in a similar scrappy state.
Assad agreed to dismantle this arsenal to comply with a US-Russian deal reached last summer. But implementation has been more stop than go.
Tuesday, Jan. 28, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern to the Syrian government about its lagging “behind schedule.” It was “imperative,” he said, for Damascus “to intensify its efforts.”
DEBKA Weekly’s intelligence sources have repeatedly refuted the “optimistic” reports emanating from various Western sources, which purported rapid progress in destroying Syria’s chemical weapons.
This is finally admitted to be far from the truth. Only 35 kilos out of an estimated total of 1,300 kilos of poison substances held by the Syrian army have been removed so far.
Stepping into this standoff, Washington disclosed Monday Jan. 27 the resumption of deliveries of US “non-lethal aid” to the Syrian opposition.
This may have been a gesture of gratitude for the consent of certain opposition groups to turn up at the Geneva-2 conference; It was almost certainly intended to put the squeeze on the Assad regime to be more forthcoming with concessions for easing battle conditions in parts of Syria.
At the same time, the disclosure compounded the confusion surrounding the Obama administration’s policies for Syria. Official communiqués have varied between qualifying US aid to the Syrian rebels as “non-lethal” and admitting to consignments of light arms and anti-tank – though not anti-aircraft – missiles.
Three rebel militias chosen for US military aid
The weapons were to come mainly from Jordan; other sources were left vague.
Neither did the administration disclose which Syrian rebel factions were the beneficiaries of this aid, whatever form it took.
However, DEBKA Weekly’s military sources have procured this information. We are able therefore to clarify here for the first time which rebel organizations have been chosen as recipients, the types of the weapons supplied and their route of delivery:
Three Syrian rebel organizations were selected by the Obama administration for the receipt of US hardware:
One is the Syria Revolutionaries Front – formed in December 2013 by 14 Free Syrian Army (FSA) brigades. The FSA itself was virtually eclipsed in recent weeks by the new Islamic Front established by Saudi intelligence.
After a series of clashes, the Islamic Front and the Syrian Revolutionaries Front made peace. Their brittle coalition is spearheaded by Jamal Maarouf, head of the Syria Martyrs Brigade, a member of the SRF which is based in Jabal al-Zawiya, in the northern province of Idlib.
One of Washington’s objects for arming this group is the vague hope of reaching terms with the Saudi royal family for coordinating their policies for Syria.
Fostering a US-backed military presence in the Syrian capital
The second recipient of US military aid is Jaish al-Mujahideen, an unallied rebel militia operating mainly in northern Syria, which has taken up arms against various Al Qaeda units in recent weeks.
The third recipient is a group of militias which are concentrated mainly in the Damascus area and around the Qalamoun Mountains northwest of the Syrian capital.
Of the three, this is perhaps the most important one right now for Washington.
In view of the successful Russian-Iranian buttress for sustaining the Assad presidency, backed now by a nascent Iranian-Turkish pact (see separate article), Obama administration strategists considered it was high time for the US to foster an armed presence in or around Damascus as the counterweight to Russian, Iranian, Turkish and Hizballah’s bastions in the Syrian capital.
To this end, the White House agreed to send arms to rebel militias still holding out around Damascus and to the handful of fighters still battling for survival in the Qalamoun Mountains these last three months.
In military terms, Washington hopes the newly-armed rebels will be able to turn the tide of battle in the Qalamoun sector by routing the Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite forces fighting there.
These rebels have therefore been provided with second-generation anti-tank missiles, mainly US-made AT-3 Saggers, a wire-guided missile with a range of 4 km.
Iraq’s prime minister is suddenly amenable to US requests
Since the quantities of US weapons flowing into Syria are fairly large, our military sources report they are being moved in along three supply routes via Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon.
Turkey was dropped after Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan personally vetoed the transfer of US arms to Syrian rebels via his territory, in keeping with his new foreign policy venture which hinges on breaking away from Washington and setting up an alliance between Ankara and Tehran. (See the separate item)
Iraq is an interesting addition to the roster of helpful routes for the transfer of US military equipment to Syrian rebels. Ordinarily, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki would be expected to turn the Americans down. But his personal and military situation is so low, due to his helplessness in the face of surging al Qaeda terrorist activity backed by indigenous Sunni tribes, that he won’t deny any Washington request in the hope of the US eventually coming to his aid.