WASHINGTON — A newly approved U.S. aid package of weapons to Syrian rebels may be too little, too late to reverse recent battlefield gains by President Bashar Assad’s government — and few in Washington are enthusiastic about sending it.
But the White House is pushing ahead with the arms, which one official described as mostly light weapons, in the belief that doing something is better than doing nothing to help in the two-year Syrian civil war that has killed more than 100,000 people — even if the package is far less than rebels say they need.
Almost a year ago, during his re-election campaign, President Barack Obama warned that the use, deployment or transfer to terror groups of chemical weapons by Assad would amount to what he called a “red line” and bring “enormous consequences.” U.S. intelligence officials concluded in June that Assad probably had used chemical weapons at least four times this year in attacks that killed up to 150 people.
That left Obama with little choice but to launch the minimal weapons plan, especially after congressional intelligence committees reluctantly approved it this week.
“There probably was a vigorous debate within the administration about what to do in Syria,” said Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., a member of the House intelligence Committee who opposes arming the rebels. “I don’t know that anyone is particularly enthusiastic with the approach that they are recommending. But they certainly feel it’s the best they could come up with, and best they could reach their own consensus over.”
Schiff would not discuss specifics of the classified package but signaled that it would neither directly neutralize the chemical weapons nor provide enough firepower to “tilt the battlefield” in the rebels’ favor.
The Obama administration also wouldn’t detail the plans or when weapons would be shipped. Two officials familiar with the aid said it is worth a few hundred million dollars, and Republican Sen. John McCain, who wants stronger U.S. involvement, this week described the package as “light weapons” — meaning mostly small arms, assault rifles and ammunition. Other U.S. officials have said anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles could be included.
But the arms are likely to fall short of the heavy munitions the Syrian rebels have requested to stop Assad’s tanks and other heavy weapons.
Schiff said Congress would review funding for the package at least annually, giving the White House “the opportunity to discuss other things that they can do, and are doing, rather than becoming an arms supplier.”
Other House Intelligence members suggested the weapons plan was not robust enough. The committee “has very strong concerns about the strength of the administration’s plans in Syria and its chances for success” but gave its approval after discussion and review, Chairman Mike Rogers said in a statement.
Beyond the ever-growing and casualty toll, the U.S. fears Syria’s civil war could spill over its borders and destabilize the already-shaky Mideast, potentially isolating Israel and roiling global oil markets. Additionally, the U.N. estimates that at least 1.6 million Syrian refugees already have fled to Jordan, Turkey, Iraq, Lebanon and Egypt — all of which are struggling with their own economic and domestic troubles. Jordan’s economy in particular is seen as in danger.
The sectarian nature of Syria’s war — Assad is an Alawite, an offshoot of Shiite Islam, and most of the opposition are Sunni Muslims — is a major security concern for the Mideast.
With help from Iranian Revolutionary Guard troops and Hezbollah militants from Lebanon, Assad’s forces have resurged in key pockets across Syria over the past few months after giving up ground to the rebellion in the early stages of the war. Combined with tacit approval from Baghdad to let Iran ship aid to Syria through Iraqi airspace, the regional backing for Assad has effectively created a crescent of Shiite-led governments and forces. That presents a hostile front to Israel and to Mideast nations that are largely Sunni. Already, Saudi Arabia and Qatar have rushed to arm or otherwise help the rebels.
McCain said the meager U.S. weapons package will not be enough to give the rebel forces an advantage over Assad. He said the White House reluctance to do more “dramatically damages the credibility of the United States of America and its president.”
“Do you think that this paucity of reaction to crossing the red line is lost on the ayatollah in Iran? Of course not,” McCain said in an interview. “Do the Iranians think we’re really serious about preventing them from achieving nuclear weapons after our reaction to the red line? We have no credibility and we have no leadership in the region.”
Part of the White House reluctance comes from concern about where the U.S. weapons will end up once sent to Syria.
There are dozens of rebel groups — officials estimate at least 50 — fighting the Syrian government. But not all of the factions are allied, and some are even fighting each other to establish primacy and stake out turf in the deeply fractured country. The al-Qaida-linked group Jabhat al-Nusra has turned against mainstream rebel organizations with the intent of imposing strict Islamic law in the areas they want to control.
Syrian National Coalition President Ahmed al-Jarba and Free Syrian Army chief of staff Gen. Salim Idris hope to meet with Obama next month in Washington to press for the immediate release weapons, said Free Syrian Army spokesman Louay al-Mikdad. He said Syrian opposition leaders have taken strong steps to ensure the arms remain in the hands of credible rebels, and he renewed their call for anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles and a no-fly zone that would prevent airstrikes by Syrian jets.
Al-Jarba was also meeting with the United Nations Security Council to press the opposition’s case.
“Those extremist groups, they don’t care about the will of the people,” al-Mikdad said. “And we will not allow them to hijack the Syrian revolution or steal the Syrian people’s future.”
“We are waiting for the President Obama to tell us officially they will start to send the weapons and the aid we need,” he said. “We hope it will be quickly. Because every day, every hour that they do not arm us it will cost us more blood in Syria and it costs us another day from our future from the regime or the extremist groups.”
Schiff said the U.S. “has a better sense of who the opposition is now,” and that steps have been taken to make sure the aid package is sent the right rebel groups. “But that doesn’t solve the problem of making sure that weapons that are given to vetted opposition stay in the hands of vetted opposition,” he said.
Richard K. Betts, a national security expert at the Council of Foreign Relations, member of the 9/11 Commission and a former staffer on the Senate intelligence Committee, called it a mistake for the U.S. to forge ahead with little or no confidence that the limited level of weapons will help.
“It’s probably a mistake to dip our toe in the water just in order to look like we’re fulfilling a promise because that risks the worst of both worlds — getting involved without being able to affect the situation in a positive way,” Betts said. “The damage from backing off from the apparent commitment to do something would not be trivial, but it’s hard to be sure that the damage from going ahead with limited measures or even more wouldn’t be greater.”