Vol. 77/No. 25 July 1, 2013
White House says it will send
light arms to Syria opposition
BY SETH GALINSKY
The White House announced June 13 that the U.S. government will start sending light arms and ammunition to opponents of the Syrian government, claiming that Damascus had crossed “a red line” when it used chemical weapons back in March.
The New York Times noted that leading bourgeois figures in the U.S., from former President William Clinton to former Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, had been pushing Obama to take action beyond “nonlethal” aid to help topple the regime.
But President Barack Obama “had to be almost dragged into the decision,” the Times reported. “Obama expressed no confidence it would change the outcome, but privately expressed hope it might buy time to bring about a negotiated settlement.”
In the end, the paper said, Obama left it to Deputy National Security Adviser Benjamin Rhodes to announce the shift, while Obama was addressing a gay pride event in the White House. The next day, Rhodes took further questions from the press about the move.
According to the Wall Street Journal, Obama agreed to the shift because of “growing U.S. concerns about large-scale battlefield deployment of militants from the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah — an appearance that alarmed Israel and caught the Americans by surprise — and President Bashar al-Assad’s more recent battlefield gains.”
On June 4 the Assad regime — with the aid of Hezbollah fighters and massive aerial bombardments — wrested Qusayr from opposition control, restoring a land link with Hezbollah bases in Lebanon. Syrian army forces also recently pushed rebel fighters from some neighborhoods in Aleppo, the country’s largest city, although the opposition still has more than half the city under its control, Reuters reported June 16.
Since the start of the uprising in March 2011, the death toll in Syria has reached 93,000, more than 6,500 of whom were minors and 1,700 under 10 years old, according to U.N. figures.
So far Obama has opposed sending anti-tank and hand-held anti-aircraft missiles and has ruled out declaring a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone.
“A political settlement is still the preferable outcome,” Rhodes told the press. “There is a future for those in the Assad regime who are willing to accept the end” of Assad’s reign.
Washington is also worried that some weapons funneled to the opposition could fall into the hands of anti-U.S. Islamist groups also fighting the Syrian government.
About three-quarters of Syria’s population are Sunni; 12 percent Alawites, a branch of Shiite Islam; 10 percent Christians; 9 percent Kurds; and 3 percent Druze. The Syrian government is based on the privileged Alawite minority, but also has support from a layer of Christian and Sunni capitalists. Backed and armed by Moscow and Tehran, Assad has also held on to support by stirring up fears of a takeover by Islamist groups who would persecute minorities.
The mostly Sunni-based opposition is heterogeneous. It includes former officers in the Syrian army, as well as members of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist groups. Three loose military groupings — the Free Syria Army, the Syrian Liberation Front and the Syrian Islamic Front — coordinate their operations through a Supreme Joint Military Command. The Jabhat al-Nusra Front, allied with al-Qaeda in Iraq, is not part of the joint command.
The governments of Qatar and Turkey have been supporting the groups that are part of the Muslim Brotherhood, while the governments of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates back competing factions.
Kurds try to stay out of the war
In an attempt to keep the Kurdish minority in Syria from uniting with the opposition, Assad, soon after the uprising began, granted Syrian citizenship to more than 200,000 Kurds who had been denied it on the grounds that they or their parents were not born in Syria. He also reversed the ban on teaching the Kurdish language in schools and pulled back army troops from parts of the Kurdish Northeast — bordering both Turkey and the Kurdish Regional Government in Iraq — and allowed de facto autonomy so that he could concentrate his forces against the Sunni opposition.
Taking advantage of this new space, Kurdish groups have sparked a renaissance of Kurdish culture.
Some Kurdish areas have been bombed by the Syrian air force. In early May Kurdish Popular Protection Units clashed with Jabhat al-Nusra and other Islamist groups in Al-Hasakah province.
While visiting Washington in April, Jordan’s King Abdullah, trying to impress on Obama the dangers to U.S. imperialism of staying out of the war, showed the White House “a map of a hypothetical future Syria, splintered along ethnic lines,” the Journal reported June 15. “An Alawite coast strip; a Sunni-dominated area that officials said the king called ‘Sunnistan’; a Druze-controlled area near the border with Israel; a Kurdish zone in the northeast corner; and a large swatch of Syrian desert abutting Anbar province in Iraq dominated by Islamists.”