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Middle East May 8, '14

US flies false flag for Syrian rebels


By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Despite new gestures of support for the Syrian opposition,
the administration of President Barack Obama is unlikely to change its
longstanding policy of restraining US involvement in the country's more than
three-year-old civil war, according to experts here.

Instead, Obama appears determined to do the minimum necessary to reduce or
co-opt pressure from neo-conservative and liberal hawks here, as well as
Washington's Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to substantially increase military
assistance to the fractious rebel forces, let alone take direct military action
against President Bashar al-Assad's war machine.

In particular, the administration remains strongly opposed to providing surface-
to-air missiles (SAMs) to the rebels for fear that they could eventually fall into
the wrong hands, most importantly radical Islamist forces aligned with or
sympathetic to al-Qaeda.

SAMs, however, are at the top of the shopping list brought by the leader of the
main external opposition coalition, Ahmad al-Jarba, and the latest head of its
military wing, General Abdul-Ilah al-Bashir, who are meeting with top
administration officials, very possibly including Obama himself, key lawmakers,
newspaper editorial boards, and think tanks over the next week.

"We do have a problem with the air forces, the air raids and the barrel bombs,"
he told an audience at the US Institute for Peace Wednesday. "[We] need
efficient weapons to face these attacks, ... so we can change the balance of
power on the ground. This would allow for a political solution."

Jarba's trip here, coupled with the administration's announcement Monday that
it was according the Washington and New York offices of Jarba's Western-
backed Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) official diplomatic status and asking
congress to approve US$27 million more in "non-lethal" assistance (bringing the
total to $287 million), marks a visible upgrade in US support.

Both moves also followed the recently reported delivery of at least 20 US-made
TOW anti-tank missiles to "moderate" rebels who have been vetted, trained and
partially equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency in collaboration with its
allied intelligence agencies in the region.

More will follow if the rebels can show that they're being used effectively and
kept out of the hands of other factions, according to administration officials.

The latest developments have given heart to the opposition, its regional backers,
and Obama's critics on both the left and the right here who have long
complained that he was doing far too little to support the rebels in a vicious and
bloody civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people and
displaced as many as eight million others, about 2.5 million of whom have sought
refuge in neighboring countries, notably Jordan and Lebanon, whose own stability
is increasingly threatened by the exodus.

They hope it presages a major shift in US policy towards ensuring that the
"moderates" among the dozens of rebel factions will receive enough assistance
to halt, if not reverse, the momentum the regime has built on the battlefield
over recent months and also protect them against assaults by jihadist factions,
especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and the al-Nusra Front with which
the "moderates" have often joined forces, at least for tactical purposes.

But while the latest gestures clearly indicate greater support, such hopes are
likely to be misplaced, according to most experts here.

"The opposition is going to be once again very disappointed that, after repeated
testing, that you're still taking only tentative steps rather than giving them a
more robust capability, especially when SAMs are clearly not on the table,"
according to Wayne White, a former senior Middle East intelligence analyst at
the State Department.

"It's clear that the administration wants to show it has a policy even though it
doesn't in the sense of anything comprehensive with well-defined goals that is in
any way realistic in terms of giving the resistance a real leg up on governments,"
he told IPS.

"So far as I can tell, Obama isn't going to change his policy, and [the opposition]
isn't going to get lots of money or arms from Washington," said Joshua Landis, a
Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and publisher of syriacomment.com,
a widely read blog.

"I think this is a way for [Secretary of State John] Kerry, who's been much
more aggressive on Syria than Obama, to show he has a policy after the failure
of [the] Geneva II [peace talks between the regime and the opposition]," he told
IPS.

"It's possible that Obama has allowed 3% more aggressiveness in the policy to
show Assad that he's not going to reward him, show the opposition that he's still
on their side, and reassure the Saudis who threatened to 'go it alone' after
September when Obama failed to attack" Syria after it crossed his "red line" by
allegedly using chemical weapons.

According to Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and retired career
CIA veteran who served as Washington's top Middle East intelligence analyst
from 2000 to 2005, the latest steps by Obama are motivated by several
considerations.

"[I]t is not an all-or-nothing proposition in the administration's eyes, and there
are several reasons to make at last modest gestures in the direction of greater
involvement and support for the opposition," he told IPS.

"One of the motives is the domestic political one of having to be seen to do
something in response to the incessant charges of the administration being
adrift or weak or feckless. Its relationship with its Gulf allies is another one,
and this does figure into relations with the Saudis particularly."

"In addition to that, the administration probably sees some advantage in not
letting the Assad regime experience an increasingly one-sided battlefield
victory. [Given] how the tide of battle on the ground has been mostly in the
regime's favor in the last few months, it makes policy sense to keep limited
pressure on the regime ... so it doesn't get too comfortable and to thus continue
to see some necessity for negotiation and political change in Syria that would
take greater account of the interests represented by the opposition," he said.

Both Landis and White agreed that the administration's concerns about Saudi
Arabia, which aggressively promoted Jarba's candidacy for SOC chief last year
and has repeatedly threatened to provide the rebels with SAMs and other
advanced weaponry that Washington wanted to curb, have been a major
consideration.

Growing tensions between the two nations over Syria and possible detente
between the US and Riyadh's regional arch-rival, Iran, prompted a summit
between Obama and King Abdullah in Riyadh at the end of March. Since then, it
appears that the two sides have co-operated more closely in support of the
opposition.

"In order to keep Saudi Arabia from giving too much to the rebels, we're
okaying the minimum," according to Landis. "We can't afford to let them go off
the reservation."

Saudi Arabia was not alone in pressing for stronger support to the rebels, noted
White. "The Israelis, speaking more sotto voce, also considered our policy
anaemic. And the Turks and Jordan are both beleaguered by the refugees, and
we certainly don't want Jordan destabilized. That is of great concern to both us
and the Israelis," he said.

Jim Lobe's blog on US foreign policy can be read at Lobelog.com.

(Inter Press Service)