US Set to Aid Syrian Rebels. Russians Contrive Military Intervention
The US president can no longer put off a decision on whether to send Syrian rebels advanced weapons.
While screening recipients to weed out al Qaeda and other radical Islamists is mandatory, Washington’s most urgent goal at this late date is to upset Moscow and Tehran’s game for sharing in the spoils of Bashar Assad’s looming triumph in the Syrian civil war.
This goal topped the agenda of the closed-door conference President Barack Obama held with his senior national security staff at the White House on Wednesday, June 11.
The conference was called because the Assad regime’s rapid military advances across the heart of Syria necessitated a drastic US response, such as the supply of advanced arms to the embattled Syrian rebels within a week or two. But the primary goal of robbing Russia and Iran of a strategic victory proved more elusive for a simple reason: To achieve it, US-Western military forces would have to intervene directly in Syria, as they did two years ago in Libya – an option utterly ruled out by Obama.
He also dropped the proposed no-fly zones plans for different parts of Syria, because their imposition required the use of combined US, European and Arab air power.
DEBKA Weekly's military and intelligence sources report that British and French intelligence papers for persuading President Obama that US intervention in Syria could no longer be avoided were put before the White House conference. They estimated that just 50 fighter-bombers equipped with advanced electronics could turn the tide of war by stopping the Syrian-Hizballah advance in its tracks and eventually forcing Assad out of power.
Russian counter-measures ready to meet US steps
This wasn't the first European bid to sway the Obama administration. They earlier co-signed with Arab governments a proposal to arm the rebels with 2,000 advanced surface-to-air missiles for downing Syrian air force bombers and helicopters. That plan made no impression on Obama and, anyway, would have been ineffective in the face of the military items Russia was supplying the Syrian army.
US officials describe Syria’s air defense systems as the world’s most advanced and densest, and therefore a major impediment to no-fly zone plans. Our military experts offer two more arguments against such plans which would also apply to the arming of the rebels with advanced air defense systems.
1. The Russians would equip the Syrian army with the intelligence and electronic counter-measures for defeating any combined US, European and Arab military effort on behalf of the rebels – even if this meant putting Russian troops on the ground.
2. Now that Iran, Iraq, the Lebanese Hizballah, Israel and Jordan are being dragged into the Syrian conflict, it is too late for no-fly zones over parts of Syria to have any strategic value. Had they been put in place in late 2011 – or even the second half of 2012 – they could have delayed President Assad’s recovery from his war reverses in the first part of the civil war and prevented him from turning the tables on the rebels.
Since then, the Syrian war has burst out of its boundaries and expanded outward to five Middle East countries as well as Russia. Fly-zones over parts of Syria would, therefore, fall short of impacting the wider war arena.
The same argument applies to US arms for Syria rebels at this juncture. It is too late to redress the balance of strength in their favor or save them from more defeats, because Moscow and Tehran have kept a step or two ahead of Washington. Furthermore, the numbers are weighted strongly against the Syrian opposition.
Rebels heavily outnumbered by the Syrian army
a) One of the working papers compiled by US intelligence for this week’s White House conference on Syria offered comparative estimates of Syrian army and rebel strength.
Assad has mobilized some 120,000 troops – roughly half of the Syrian army – to fight for his regime. (The other half, mostly Sunni officers and soldiers, are not in the field). Another 50,000 members of the paramilitary popular Alawite militia are counted in after receiving combat training from Iranian military instructors.
The Lebanese Shiite Hizballah and Iraqi Shiite militias have contributed another 10,000 troops.
All in all, Assad has expanded his fighting force by 30 percent in the space of a year, to a total of some 180,000 troops on the ground.
They face an estimated 70,000 armed rebels who belong to a host of factions and militias, including Al Qaeda.
Those numbers alone are capable of tipping the scale of the Syrian war and cheating the rebels of their chances of winning the day – with or without American arms.
b) Moscow continued this week to throw its weight around for getting Russian ground forces placed on the ground in Syria under the guise of “peacekeepers.” Failing UN or Israeli permission to insert Russian troops into the UN Golan separation force, Moscow was preparing to invoke the Russian-Asian CTSO Collective Security Treaty Organization pact and recruit its members – Armenia, Belorussia, Kazakhstan, Kirgyzstan and Tajikistan – for a “counterterrorism force” to combat Al Qaeda and other radical Islamic militias fighting in Syrian rebel ranks.
A Russian paratroop brigade established for the Golan
On Monday, June 10, Moscow announced the creation of a new special airborne brigade “suited to action within the framework of UN forces” on the Golan – as part of the CTSO force.
Gen.-Col. Vladimir Shamanov, Commander-in-Chief of the Russian Airborne Troops, said in Moscow that the new brigade had been awarded “the status of a peacekeeping unit” as of June 1.
The Russian general did not say who awarded this status to the Russian brigade, but the Kremlin was apparently confident it could get away with this high-handed measure. Indeed, the new brigade for the Golan was to be given "combat teeth" with Russian MI-24 combat helicopters.
The CSTO is being used by Moscow as the international label for military intervention in the Syrian war by a Russian-led multinational force. It also signals that Moscow is shifting to Syria the front lines of its war on Islamic terror beyond the Caucasus and Central Asia to encompass the Middle East.
No UN Security Council resolution is required for this stratagem in Moscow’s view, because the Russians are stepping into the Syrian conflict on the invitation of the Syrian president in Damascus
Once Russian boots are settled on the Syrian-Israeli Golan ceasefire line, more such units may be expected to take up position on Syria’s other borders, such as Turkey and Jordan.
The Obama administration is therefore being fast outrun for any chance of changing the course of the Syria war – even if it is decided to give the Syrian rebels advanced US weapons. In any case, the US president will be forced to think twice before letting the rebels have weapons that could bring harm to Russian troops. Tangling with Moscow is not part of his game plan for Syria.