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The Syrian situation is heading towards a full-scale conflict, with partisans and allies on each side. On Thursday last week, former US ambassador to the UN Bill Richardson said the US would have no choice but to start arming Syria’s rebels if indeed Russia is sending attack helicopters to President Assad’s forces.
Several members of the Congress – including Senators John McCain (R-AZ), Lindsay Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-CT), as well as Rep. Sue Myrick (R-NC) – had already shown support to the idea of arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA). Last March, a congressional briefing by Myrick featured a presentation by James F. Smith, former director of the controversial Blackwater (a military contracting firm), to discuss potential ways to establish a “liberated” zone in northeast Syria, to allow US military and intelligence agents to operate freely.
On April 2012, Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman visited the Turkish-Syrian border and met with General Mustapha Al Sheikh and Colonel Riad Al Asaad, leaders of the Free Syrian Army, before paying a visit to a refugees camp. “Make no mistake,” the Senators said, “the situation in Syria is an armed conflict. This is a war. Diplomacy with Assad has failed, and it will continue to fail so long as Assad thinks he can defeat the opposition in Syria militarily.”
But the inconsistency of the Obama administration over this issue is alarming.
Last Tuesday, US State Secretary Hillary Clinton accused Russia of sending attack helicopters to Syria. Although both Putin and Lavrov denied arming Bashar, a declaration from Rosoboronexport Deputy CEO Igor Sevatyanov, on the same day, confirmed that Russia’s state-controlled arms trader intends to fulfil its contract for the supply of armaments to Syria (RIA Novosti, June 12). “The contract was signed long ago,” said Sevatyanov, “and we supply armaments that are self-defence rather than attack weapons, and there can be no talk about any violations by Russia or Rosoboronexport either de jure or de facto.”
However, the oddity is not in the fact that Putin continues to provide weapons to Assad, but in that the Pentagon is buying Mi-17 helicopters from the same arms trader: Rosoboronexport!
The story is reported widely on June 14: the state-run weapons broker signed a $367.5 million deal with the United States in May 2011 for delivery of 21 Mi-17 V5s. Twelve more were reportedly added. They are now talking about a $900 million deal, including engineering services and spare parts.
Can you believe the Pentagon needs Russian helicopters seemingly for the Afghan military, while the State Department is charging the Russians with delivering helicopters to Assad? What is this cacophony just after the massacre of Houla? Then who to blame?
US commentators have focused on the mercenary reasons for Russia’s support of Assad. Herve Ladsous, the UN’s peacekeeping chief, acknowledged on Tuesday that Syria was now effectively in a state of civil war. Ostensibly, Russia is part of the sinister game Assad is attempting to survive the earthquake. Thus all efforts to slow down the slipping towards a full-scale war, is deflected by Putin’s rigidity. Although, Washington policy-makers seem undecided, Hillary Clinton has already announced that the USA would be joining an international effort – led by Arab countries – to finance and equip the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The talk about arming the FSA is not new. The Wall Street Journal reported in March about a meeting in Riyadh between the Saudi and the Jordanian kings whose object was to permit weapons shipment into Syria through the border, “in exchange for economic assistance to Jordan.”
The fact that an ultra-conservative Saudi Arabia supports a revolution in an Arab country, while the Americans seem still reluctant, is in itself a sign that times are really changing in this region. “Saudi Arabia has argued strongly for weapons supplies to Syrian rebels despite US concerns,” says the WSJ. The option of arming the FSA means that not many people among the most influential Arab states think presently that it is still possible to resolve Syria’s crisis diplomatically, as was the case in Yemen.
However, the question today is not about whether “they” will arm the FSA, but rather what kind of weapons will be delivered to match the heavy weaponry used by Assad.
In a meeting with Dr Burhan Ghalioun, former president of the Syrian National Council in Doha a few days ago, I asked him whether it is true that there is a scenario resembling the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan: funds from the Arabs, and weapons from the USA and its allies for the forces resisting Assad and his Russian allies.
He said something like “the Arabs are helping with funds” and “we still have meetings to coordinate our efforts”; and he added something that confirmed the state of enmity with Russia now prevalent among the Syrians. He said: “We will declare Russia an enemy of the Arab people if it continues its support to Assad.” That means that Russia would likely lose all its assets in the Middle East, after the fall of Assad.
The ambiguous point is now about the kind of weapons needed by the FSA and that the US would permit its circulation. Insofar as Saudi Arabia is concerned, high-end US weaponry such as F-15 fighter jets, Patriot air-defence systems and Abrams main battle tanks seem unlikely to be delivered to the Syrian rebels. Yet, even smaller US-made weapons, such as anti-tank missiles, are covered by strict terms that prevent re-export.
Saudi Arabia arsenal also includes rocket and missile systems, grenades and field artillery. Nonetheless, we can imagine a situation where the US Congress would waive the restrictions concerning some weapons and allow their delivery to the FSA. For example, if Assad makes full usage of Russian helicopters and other weaponry to commit more genocides, it is useless to ask the UN Security Council for a condemnation and much less so for a military intervention, because of the Russian veto.
We have seen cases where wars and regime change are conducted as undercover operations, sometimes with the full knowledge of powerful Congressmen. This may happen again, not to mention the Kosovo crisis when Nato launched a military intervention against Russia’s strongest objections…
The author is an expert in US-Middle East
relations at the Arab Center for Research
and Policy Studies (Doha Institute)