Time running out to aid Syria’s rebels
July 3rd, 2013
10:11 AM ET

Time running out to aid Syria’s rebels

By Charles Dunne, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Charles Dunne is director of Middle East and North Africa programs at Freedom House.  The views expressed are his own.

While millions flood Cairo’s streets, the war in Syria rages on – and may soon reach a critical turning point. A new Syrian army offensive launched in recent days against the strategic city of Homs is a vital step in an effort to secure a corridor linking Damascus to the Alawite hinterland, building on the government’s conquest of Qusayr early last month. The U.S. decision to arm Syrian rebels, announced last month, raises a key question:  at this point, can the United States still make a difference?

The answer is yes. The president has certainly changed his “calculus,” as he promised to do, causing political shock waves and setting the stage for potentially stronger action down the road. The decision is important in another respect, too: it has provided political and diplomatic cover for stronger action by U.S. allies. In a ministerial meeting in Doha June 21, Saudi Arabia and Qatar reportedly agreed to provide specific quantities of the shoulder fired anti-aircraft and anti-armor weapons the rebels had begged for, a first. This would probably not have been possible without the United States’ own arms commitment.

Urgent action is needed. The bloody conflict in Syria has approached another grim milestone: 100,000 deaths since the conflict began – more than 36,000 of them civilians – according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. More than 18 percent of Syria’s population, or 4.25 million people, is internally displaced, and that number is growing.  The refugee burden on neighboring states is too: according to the United Nations, more than 1.7 million refugees have fled to neighboring countries, with more joining them every day. In Jordan, 20 percent of the country’s population could consist of Syrian refugees by the end of the year, a percentage that could double by the end of 2014. Violence is spiking inside the country and Syria’s neighbors are increasingly dragged in as well; an anti-Assad Sunni militia in Lebanon recently clashed with the Lebanese army, killing at least a dozen.

More from GPS: What if al-Assad prevails?

Arms alone will help rebel forces significantly, but more is needed. This will depend on U.S. leadership.  Humanitarian safe zones in the north and south of the country could help protect at least some of the internally displaced persons and ease the work of international humanitarian agencies. Allied imposition of no-fly zones is a militarily vital step that could turn the tide of the war. The U.S. also needs vigorous on-the-ground liaison with rebel military leaders to ensure well-coordinated deliveries of weapons into the hands of fully-vetted rebel groups. U.S. pressure on allies is needed to ensure arms promises are fulfilled quickly, and that rebel forces are adequately trained in the weapons’ use.

The U.S. public, unwilling to countenance American involvement in another Middle East conflict, is emphatically against arming the rebels.  According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, “70 percent oppose the U.S. and its allies sending arms and military supplies to anti-government groups in Syria; just 20 percent favor this.” But the poll also concluded that “the public continues to pay very little attention to news about Syria.” Well, wake up, because here’s what at stake: the possibility of  a crucial Middle East country dominated by Iran and its ally Hezbollah, no friends, to put it mildly, of the United States.

Iran, Hezbollah and Russia are all committed to a strategic victory for al-Assad, his regime, the implicit defeat of the United States and the destruction of the forward momentum of the largely pro-democracy Arab Spring.  Al-Assad’s survival in power, after a brutal campaign against his citizens that involved bombing parts of his own capital, would strengthen the resolve of other such dictators – not just in the Middle East – to adopt his successful tactics even against non-violent protesters.

By vigorous action, the United States can change the military facts on the ground, and the political calculations of the al-Assad regime and its allies. Prospects for a diplomatic solution can even be improved: the proposed Geneva II conference, already slipping further over the horizon, stands a chance of success only if the rebels appear at the table in a position of military strength.

No one is calling for boots on the ground (a post-conflict peacekeeping force may be another matter) or an open-ended financial and military commitment.  And no one should underestimate the difficulties of bringing this war to a conclusion that favors elements who seek a pluralistic system that fairly represents all Syrians. U.S. arms for the rebels are a good starting point for a rejuvenated policy, and should be the beginning of greater political commitment to a new Syria by the United States and its allies.

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Topics: Syria

soundoff (52 Responses)
  1. tms5510

    Give them more weapons so they can kill more innocent people and down the road used those weapons against you. very wise.

    July 3, 2013 at 10:17 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      It's the infiltrating elements of Islamist fighters that deter many in the West to arm the rebels. In some areas held by Islamists, Sharia law is implemented and any disregard of the law will be punished harshly. It's really sad. On the one side, there are innocent civilians, who are killed. On the other side, one is hesitant to help, as one doesn't know whom one's arming.

      July 3, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Reply
    • khatkar

      The tribal regimes of Qatar and Saudi immediately, and USA ultimately are responsible if any of these shoulder fired SAMs take down passenger aircraft.

      July 4, 2013 at 8:48 am | Reply
      • 1010101010

        WE NEED TO STAY OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA!! THE CIA NEEDS TO GET OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA. LET ISRAEL DEAL WITH THESE PROBLEMS. DO NOT ARM THE REBELS. DO NOT ARM ANYONE, PERIOD. SYRIA IS MORE STABLE UNDER A DICTATORSHIP THAN A "DEMOCRACY" RULED BY TRIBE ALLIANCES. WE NEED TO STAY OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA. WE SHOULD ONLY INTERFERE IF IRAN ATTACKS ISRAEL. WE SHOULD NOT INTERFERE IF ISRAEL ATTACKS IRAN FIRST. THEY MAKE THE PROBLEM, THEN LET THEM FIX THE PROBLEM.

        July 4, 2013 at 1:59 pm |
  2. Jon Kraft

    The last time the U.S. allied itself with al Qaeda (Afghanistan, 1980s), it did not turn out so well for the U.S.

    July 3, 2013 at 10:38 am | Reply
    • Lief

      It wasn't al-qaida in the 80s, it was the taliban. Different group. Different goals.

      July 4, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  3. Rob Centros

    "Urgent action is needed ..." because NATO has shown that only 10% of the Syrians now support the foreign backed rebels (aka cannibal terrorists) and if we don't do something NOW, the Syrian government will defeat them and the war will be over (and people will stop getting killed). And the natural gas recently discovered off Syria's coast won't be in the hands of grasping U.S. corporations!

    July 3, 2013 at 11:10 am | Reply
    • Joseph McCarthy

      Thank you, Rob. Let's all hope that you're right.

      July 3, 2013 at 10:15 pm | Reply
    • tennessee tuxedo

      the USwiil step in and settle assads hash for him he cannot be alloewd to win

      July 4, 2013 at 8:48 pm | Reply
  4. Rob Sanfrom

    It seems like the US government and the media are the only ones driving with the blinders on. The American public strongly disapproves of arming these thugs yet our government will ignore the people and arm Al Qaeda regardless. I think most Americans have caught on by now what happens when we give bad people weapons. We have already seen this movie and we know how it ends. Maybe the government and the press can catch up?

    July 3, 2013 at 11:14 am | Reply
    • Rob Centros

      "Fool me once ... " - you know the drill.

      July 3, 2013 at 11:15 am | Reply
  5. Rob Centros

    Hey, Mr. Dunne, when are you going to yammer on about human rights violations in those bastions of democracy, Saudi Arabia and Qatar? Methinks you have an agenda, and "freedom and human rights in the Middle East" ain't it.

    July 3, 2013 at 11:14 am | Reply
  6. BC Dude

    Why is the western media and governments so intent on forming Islamic, al quaida alligned governments in the middle east? I love the way this article forgets to mention that Syria has been one of the most secular countries in the middle east under Assad, one of the best places to be a minority or a member of another religion, that is until the rebels (who absolutely must win) have started applying shariah law, publicly beheading supporters of the regime (including a Christian priest last week), and engaging in sectarianism. I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but given these facts, there must be an agenda at work here. The only rebels we should be supporters we should be supporting are the ones in Egypt, who don't want an Islamic government pushed down there throat, not the rebels in Syria who are openly alligned with AQ, and do not share our values.

    July 3, 2013 at 1:30 pm | Reply
  7. Alexander Fluegel

    It really takes a long time until the US government admits to have made a grave error in Syria. How long we still need to wait? How many more people need to get killed? I'm not so sure any more who is committing more human rights violations: Assad or Obama...

    July 3, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
    • tennessee tuxedo

      obamas not mkaking any mistake .it would be a disaster if assad and Iran win the USA will not let radicals form a govt

      July 4, 2013 at 8:51 pm | Reply
  8. Hiding in Plain Sight

    "Arms alone will help rebel forces significantly, but more is needed. This will depend on U.S. leadership. Humanitarian safe zones in the north and south of the country could help protect at least some of the internally displaced persons and ease the work of international humanitarian agencies. Allied imposition of no-fly zones is a militarily vital step that could turn the tide of the war."

    ------------

    In other words, let's have yet ANOTHER useless, asinine Middle Eastern War where we'll do ALL the heavy lifting, rack up trillions more in debt and get hundreds of thousands of our finest killed for nothing. Just to have these barbaric ingrates elect even bigger blowholes than the ones they had in place before.
    No thanks. PASS.

    July 3, 2013 at 2:23 pm | Reply
  9. ZT

    This article is Alice in Wonderland meeting Kafka's Metamorphosis: Poll shows majority of people do not to slide into a war in Syria. By a normal person, that would be considered paying attention to factors that affect lives and livelyhood.
    But not is metamorphised wonderland.

    GPS has metamorphized into Grotesque Pi*ss*ing Square. It is just a shade away from neocon daily abultions like that of Jennifer Rubin at Washington Post. Zakaria is now crawling on his hands and legs to please the likes of Paul Wolfowitz, Bret Stephens, Richard Haas ... What gives ?

    July 3, 2013 at 2:34 pm | Reply
  10. true patriot

    Most Americans do not want another war that makes us less safe, wastes vast amounts of tax revenue better spent on improving the lives of Americans or reducing the deficit, and which would replace a Western educated secular leader who had protected religious minorities such as Christians and allowed women equal rights with Islamic terrorists not supported by the majority of the Syrian people. Shipping weapons to the terrorists increases civilian deaths–hardly a humanitarian gesture to help the Syrian people.

    July 3, 2013 at 2:43 pm | Reply
    • true patriot

      Do we really want to create another mess like the one we caused in Libya–I think not.

      July 3, 2013 at 2:46 pm | Reply
  11. David

    Why does CNN continue to give these paid hacks a forum to repeat the same arguments over and over again. We are not in favor of arming an Islamic revolution. Period. Americans aren't interested in what Saudi Arabia or Qatar think, please return their money and tell those brutal dictators that we're not stupid as they think.

    July 3, 2013 at 4:52 pm | Reply
  12. Moo

    Why do we keep on siding with terrorist i.e. rebels who are killing innocent people?

    July 3, 2013 at 4:56 pm | Reply
  13. ARobards

    Absolute animals over there, the worst on this earth.

    July 3, 2013 at 6:13 pm | Reply
  14. David Knowles

    I still don't believe the US actually intend to send arms. Obama made the promise to shut up a few loud mouths up in Washington, at least that what I hope.

    An even if he does want to arm the rebels, to do it properly, would mean any US arms will still be months away from being deployed to the battle field. Doing it properly means that the CIA starting from scratch recruiting it own people in the refugees camps, recruiting Allawite, Shia and Sunni, Christian and then build mix combat units and then given them at least a couple of months worth of training in the Jordanian desert, in which time radicals an those that cant be trust can be weened out. Scaling this up to the 20 to 30,000 troops minimum that would be needed to defeated Assad battle harden troops will take months longer. In fact doing it properly would mean no sizable forces being deployed until at least early 2014. given the slap dash nature of past CIA arming rebels I don't believe they will do it properly, and result will have to been cleaned up by his successors in the future, with Americans troops being deployed on the grounds.

    We should just let the Syrians sort it out among themselves. We are already hearing local FSA commanders and Syrian government coming to peace deals, and ceasefire, such as in Tal Kalakh. Many, if not most Syrians have had enough of the fighting, an I expect and rapid succession of peace deals, especially as Syrians see the fabric of their own society fall apart.

    There was already fighting between Jordanians before the refugee crisis, if Syria falls, the Islamists will move onto Jordan, who government they hate even more than Assad in the past.

    July 3, 2013 at 7:05 pm | Reply
  15. David Knowles

    Hezbollah is no enemy of the US, they just hate Israel with passion, an it kind of understandable why they hate Israel so much, but Hezbollah have willing to engage with the West in the past, EU, especially British intelligence whom apparently have fruitful relationship with the group.

    Iran is only an enemy of the US because the US wants Iran to be an enemy, because their Israelis masters tell the US senators how evil the Iranian are, in fact Iran and US could be good friends in the Middle East if they can just learn to trust each other, Iran is a lot more liberal and friendly to Western ways than countries like Qatar and Saudi Arabia , both nations knees deep in Salifist believers and people who funds Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Who provided the US with the most intelligence after 9/11. Iran, who provided logistics, airports, ports, allow Americans to freely cross into their borders from Afghanistan, Iran, zero negotiations, zero begging, which country was the first to aid in the rebuilding of Afghanistan, Iran.

    July 3, 2013 at 7:19 pm | Reply
  16. Theodore Alford

    It's rather hard to do anymore than what Russia is doing at this point. Yeah you can send in some anti tank missiles but thats about it. A few Sam's and i do mean a few. We don't want the weapons to be used against Israel which they just might. On top of that Hezbollah and the re trained Syrian army are waiting for the arms. Enforcing the No Fly Zone is a no go. If we go there Russia will ship the S 300 system. At the end of the day Assad will be weakened but he will ultimately stay unless Damascus can be taken. The rebels should abandon all rebel held areas and make way straight for Damascus thats all that truly matters.

    July 3, 2013 at 8:39 pm | Reply
  17. Aria Zoesch

    Charles Dunne is an idiot, why would you arm a terrorist who beheads Priests and Christians? are you a real journalist? CNN should be closed down

    July 3, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  18. Paul J

    This is a crazy article for all the reasons people have already pointed out. I'll add another..
    While he says no to any troops on the ground, he casually suggests "a post-conflict peacekeeping force may be another matter..." What, with thousands of al qadea running around, armed to the teeth with US weapons? They'd be busy butchering the Christians and Allawites, and some UN blue helmet peace keeping force would be able to prevent them?

    Don't imagine for a moment that anyone other than the US would be willing or able to contribute to that force.

    The arguments for intervention in Syria just get dumber and dumber. Any weapons sent to the rebels will end up in the hands of al qaeda, and once Assad gets beaten, al qaeda will win the subsequent peace, although it won't be much of a peace for anyone. Without Assad, only the commitment of a good 250 thousand US troops, for perhaps 5-8 years, could stop Syria turning into an al qaeda emirate. Qatar and Saudi may have enough money to fund thinktanks like Freedom House, but they sure won't be footing the bill to keep al qaeda out of Damascus.

    July 3, 2013 at 11:53 pm | Reply
  19. Dave

    We or the Moroccans should strongle support the Kurds with solar installations and linguistic rights in all four countries they have heavilly settled in.

    July 4, 2013 at 12:53 am | Reply
  20. Stalin

    So arming the rebels, OR allowing Syrian government to win (defs the minority) and allowing iran to rule the Middle East....if you think al-Qaeda weapons hitting the US was bad JUST WAIT for iran missiles to come flying down. But regardless, the rebels are going to win, the people always win....

    July 4, 2013 at 12:56 am | Reply
  21. David Knowles

    Yes Stalin the people always with, that means Assad is likely to remain in power, according to the UN, he has well over 70% support in the country and it growing not decreasing.

    July 4, 2013 at 3:38 am | Reply
  22. David Knowles

    Whole and the evil baby eating Iranians ;) will not be raining missiles down on anyone, unless they are provoked first by an attack. Iran believes that Israel will destroy itself without Iran intervening, an Israel is Iran only true enemy in the Middle East.

    An a Iranian controlled Middle East is better than a Salifist control middle East.

    July 4, 2013 at 3:41 am | Reply
  23. jew

    Assad is the good guy though.

    July 4, 2013 at 4:49 am | Reply
  24. Daniel ronpaul napolitano

    The conspiracy is that none of the Arab spring protests would have happened it it were not a direct goal of US foriegn policy. Obama took bush's foriegn policy covert. The CIA is and was involved In helping al Qaeda overthrow Tunisia, lybia Egypt and syria. These revolutions were not organic but planned. That Is why the Turkish revolution ( not planned ) and Egypt over throw of CIA puppet morsi ( not planned ) are so important. Don't worry though, according to western media, it has nothing to do with syrias success against the global conspiracy

    July 4, 2013 at 12:53 pm | Reply
  25. 1010101010

    WE NEED TO STAY OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA!! THE CIA NEEDS TO GET OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA. LET ISRAEL DEAL WITH THESE PROBLEMS. DO NOT ARM THE REBELS. DO NOT ARM ANYONE, PERIOD. SYRIA IS MORE STABLE UNDER A DICTATORSHIP THAN A "DEMOCRACY" RULED BY TRIBE ALLIANCES. WE NEED TO STAY OUT OF EGYPT AND SYRIA. WE SHOULD ONLY INTERFERE IF IRAN ATTACKS ISRAEL. WE SHOULD NOT INTERFERE IF ISRAEL ATTACKS IRAN FIRST. THEY MAKE THE PROBLEM, THEN LET THEM FIX THE PROBLEM.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:01 pm | Reply
    • Jeff

      We Americans need to find a way to dissolve the State of Israel because – as its history has shown us time and again – it enjoys picking wars with every neighboring country, and enjoys dragging us in it as well. We need to stop assisting Israel with our advanced weaponry and money. Let us fight and take down this degenerate government we have in Washington!

      July 4, 2013 at 9:00 pm | Reply
  26. 1010101010

    LET RUSSIA ARM THE SYRIAN AND EGYPTIAN GOVERNMENT. THEY HAVE MONEY, LET THEM USE THEIR MONEY. THESE WEAPONS WILL PROBABLY BE USED TO ATTACK RUSSIAN INTERESTS LATER ON. WE SHOULD HOWEVER CONTINUE TO ARM THE ISRAELIS.

    July 4, 2013 at 2:04 pm | Reply
  27. CJ

    Lies from the war-mongering Zionist media. Just like 1984– one day "The US is at war with Islamic extremism and allied to Arab autocrats. The US has always been at war with Islamic extremism and allied to Arab autocrats." the next "The US is at war with Arab autocrats and allied to Islamic extremists. The US has always been at war with Arab autocrats and allied to Islamic extremists." F*(k that, stay out of Syria, God bless the Syrian Arab Army!

    July 4, 2013 at 3:40 pm | Reply
  28. WimR

    I hate this kind of articles as they condemn many people to a certain death – only because the author wants to score some dubious political points.

    Syria is in no danger to become an Iranian colony. Secular Syria and fundamentalist Iran Iran are only cooperating because they are facing aggression from the same group of countries: the US and the Gulf States. Unfortunately the author makes the logical error to confuse cause and effect.

    July 4, 2013 at 6:05 pm | Reply
  29. Matt

    First it would be crushed in a week, then a month, then three months, then a year. Then mid 2013 after using all his force options he need chemical weapons and the intervention of Hizbullah, al-Quds and Iraqi militants. And the narative has been the same Assad is winning. It is a narrative not reality. So the time issue what does it mean. If a quick victory does not occur in an insurgency then the conflict becomes protracted and history says for an insurgency to be defeated completely is around 20 to 25 years. So with gains Assad made recently with the assistance he had a little over a month it would take 6 months to clear and hold. So the object is to halt that momentum via increased assistance. The longer it goes on the more blood and money it costs Syria, Hizbullah and Iran also the Russians fiscally. Syria went from an Arab Spring uprising to an armed revolution to a civl war and long term insurgency. The FSA had limited support so a slight increase can make a difference, tactically Assad has been fighting a lightly armed numerical small force and he could not win. So a slight increase in aid can keep that balance. It may take 5 to 10 years for real talks to achieve a peaceful outcome. Or another 10 to 15 on top of that for a military victory by one side or the other.

    July 6, 2013 at 9:08 pm | Reply
  30. mike

    What a sham all this. Charles was recently taking about negative comments on Asad's social profiles. Look at your own one-sided misinterpretation of the situation in Syria.

    August 1, 2013 at 11:30 am | Reply

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