No Quick Impact in U.S. Arms Plan for Syria Rebels
Jm Lopez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
By MARK MAZZETTI, ERIC SCHMITT and ERIN BANCO
Published: July 14, 2013
WASHINGTON — A month ago Obama administration officials promised to deliver arms and ammunition to the Syrian rebels in the hope of reversing the tide of a war that had turned against an embattled opposition.
But interviews with American, Western and Middle Eastern officials show that the administration’s plans are far more limited than it has indicated in public and private.
In fact, the officials said, the administration’s plans to use theC.I.A. to covertly train and arm the rebels could take months to have any impact on a chaotic battlefield. Many officials believe the assistance is unlikely to bolster the rebellion enough to push President Bashar al-Assad ofSyria to the negotiating table.
The plans call for the C.I.A. to supply only small arms, and to only a limited segment of the opposition — the actual numbers are unclear. In addition, much of the training, which is to take place over months in Jordan and Turkey, has not yet started, partly because of Congressional objections.
The cautious approach reflects the continued ambivalence and internal divisions of an administration that still has little appetite for intervention in Syria, but has been backed into a corner after American and European spy agencies concluded that Syrian government troops had used chemical weapons against the rebels. Mr. Obama had declared the use of chemical weapons to be a “red line” leading to American action.
Many in the administration say they are still seeking to satisfy themselves that they have taken all precautions possible to prevent weapons from falling into the hands of Islamic extremists in Syria. To them, the plan carries echoes of previous American efforts to arm rebels in Angola, Nicaragua and elsewhere, many of which backfired. There is also fear at the White House that Mr. Obama will be dragged into another war in the Middle East.
But others, particularly many in the State Department, argue that the United States must intervene to prevent a further deterioration of security in the region and to stop a humanitarian crisis that is spiraling out of control, officials said.
“In my meetings with American policy makers I often detect a conversation between ghosts,” said Michael Oren, the Israeli ambassador in Washington, speaking of the debate. “The ghosts of Afghanistan and Iraq are vying with the ghosts of Rwanda and Kosovo.”
The plan — made possible after Mr. Obama signed a secret “finding” that circumvents international laws prohibiting lethal support to groups trying to overthrow a sitting government — continues to face bipartisan skepticism in Congress.
“It’s not clear to me that the administration has a workable policy,” Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican on the Intelligence Committee, said last week.
Senior officials, including Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. and the C.I.A. director, John O. Brennan, have lobbied lawmakers in closed briefings and personal phone calls since late June. On Sunday, a senior administration official said that the Congressional concerns had been addressed and that “we look forward to pressing forward.” Some senior Congressional officials said Sunday that final details must still be worked out.
The Congressional impasse has exposed other shortcomings in the administration’s approach, lawmakers and independent Syria specialists said.
The slow start to the arming effort has led to skepticism — particularly as Mr. Assad’s troops retake strategically important towns from rebel forces — that the C.I.A.’s plan can achieve what Mr. Obama has said is America’s ultimate goal: forcing Mr. Assad to step down.
White House officials have made few public statements about the expanded military support to the rebels. It was not the president but Benjamin J. Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, who announced the policy shift on June 13 in a conference call with reporters, saying that the approach “aimed at strengthening both the cohesion of the opposition, but also the effectiveness” of the rebels.
After the announcement, one senior Arab official said the United States would act like a “quarterback” — coordinating not only American arms shipments but also expanded deliveries of weapons from other allies, and probably providing opposition groups with intelligence reports on the movements of Syrian government forces. For nearly two years, a fractious coalition of Muslim nations, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, has supplied the rebels with weapons. The countries have been eager for the United States to take a direct role in arming them.