NEW YORK, May 21, 2013 – President Barack Obama is at odds with Democrat and Republican Senators who want to arm opposition forces in Syria. Both the lawmakers and the President want the civil war to end with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad removed from power, but Obama prefers to continue his policy of humanitarian assistance and economic sanctions rather than providing weapons.
Achieving peace in Syria is not as simple as deciphering between non-lethal or military intervention. The alliances that the government and rebels have to terrorist groups and the use of chemical weapons on civilians makes Syria a breeding ground for instability.
“Syria Transition Support Act” introduced by Senators Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Bob Corker (R-TN) may be up for vote today. The bill calls for lethal and non-lethal aid for vetted opposition groups; military training; a $250 million annual transition fund through fiscal year 2015; administrative and humanitarian assistance and sanctions on oil sales to the al-Assad regime.
“The future for Syria is uncertain, but the U.S. has a vested interest in trying to prevent an extremist takeover, which poses a very real risk for us and the region. Without authorizing the use of force or additional spending, this legislation will begin to implement a more coherent U.S. strategy, both now and for the day after Assad,” said Sen. Corker.
The opposition forces that the Senate proposes to arm are Sunni groups, but some of them are affiliated with terrorist organizations. Jabhat al-Nasrah is one of the largest rebel forces and has recently pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda. This group is responsible for several suicide attacks since the start of the civil war. The Syrian Islamic Front (SIF) is a coalition group of rebels founded by Ahrar al-Sham, a jihadists group. Although the Senate plans to give aid to oppositional forces without ties to extremists, the possibility exist that weapons provided by the U.S. can become the property of SIF or al-Nasrah.
Israel has asked the UK and France not to provide Syrian rebels with military aid due to its concern that the arms may find way to terrorists that would target Israel.
Syria under Assad is already a transportation route for Iran to ship weapons to Hezbollah in Lebanon, which uses the Iranian weapons against Israel. “Before al-Qaida’s attack on the U.S. on September 11, 2001, Hezbollah was responsible for killing more Americans in terrorist attacks than any other terrorist group,” according to David Cohen, Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence.
In the meantime Iran and Hezbollah, Assad’s allies, are establishing alliances with Syrian Shiite radicals in case opposition forces are successful in overthrowing the government. The downfall of Assad could open the pathway to sectarian violence between Sunni rebels and Shiite Assad supporters as seen in Iraq.
President Obama has held the position of providing non-lethal aid, without eliminating the possibility of military alternatives. Last August he warned that the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government would trigger aggressive force.
In March of this year, the Syrian state media reported that rebels unleashed sarin, a deadly odorless and tasteless nerve toxin, killing 16 people in Khan al-Assal in the northern region of the country. Allegations of additional attacks have occurred since.
The United Nations and other independent sources have confirmed the use of chemical weapons, but there is controversy over who used sarin. The Syrian state run media is a questionable resource for information, therefore their claim that rebel groups used chemical warfare cannot be verified. Conducting an independent investigation is a challenge because foreign journalists have movement restrictions and UN inspectors do not have access into Syria.
The White House will not consider military options in response to the chemical attacks without further evidence that al-Assad is at fault. If the Syrian government attacked its citizens with sarin, Assad would be in violation of international law - specifically the 1925 Geneva Protocol banning the use of the chemical weapons.
Regardless of who has released sarin, the fighting in Syria compromises peace and security. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy early in May said, “Syria’s civil war is putting its stockpiles of chemical weapons and advanced conventional weapons at risk…”
Al-Nusrah is one of the main forces fighting to win al-Safira, which is home to Syria’s main chemical weapons facilities. Sarin is one of the chemicals being produced in the town. The toxin is known as one of the most volatile nerve agents because it can quickly evaporate from a liquid into a vapor and spread into the environment. One drop absorbed through the skin or inhaled as a vapor can kill a person in less than 10 minutes. It is clearly against U.S. interests to allow an al-Queda affiliate to gain access to sarin.
The President and lawmakers should also consider a coalition led intervention with an exit strategy that entails supporting a moderate group in peace building and democracy. American forces can confiscate the chemical weapons; secure safe zones for the 1.5 million refugees to return to Syria and disrupt the weapons routes from Iran to Lebanon. The Pentagon informed the Obama administration last December that action in Syria would require upward of 75,000 troops, which is nearly half the number deployed to end Saddam Hussein’s regime. That number also would outweigh the army of 50,000 men that Hezbollah trained and Iran financed to support Assad in March according to Israeli intelligence.
Obama does not have the luxury of allowing the international community to take charge. NATO chief Anders Fogh Rasmussen refuses to go into Syria without a UN mandate, which was provided when NATO entered Libya in 2011. Russia and China would block UN military authorization in Syria in a Security Council vote.
If the “Syria Transition Support Act” is passed, there is no guarantee that military aid will not land in the hands of extremists; therefore, Obama is wise to be cautious regarding the type of assistance that the U.S. provides. Carefulness, however; should not turn into a reason for complacency. Options regarding Syria should not be a choice between tolerating the influence of Iran and Hezbollah or an al-Nusrah regime that supports al-Qaeda. Both options are opportunities for enemies of the United States.
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