June 14, 2013

U.S. arming of Syrian rebels gets cool response

International reaction ranges from disbelief of U.S. intelligence reports to calls for negotiation.

By DEB RIECHMANN and LOLITA C. BALDOR The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The Obama administration hopes its decision to give lethal aid to Syrian rebels will prompt other nations to beef up assistance, now that the United States has cited evidence that the Syrian government used chemical weapons against its people.

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Injured Hezbollah fighters listen to a speech by Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah on a screen via a video link during a rally to mark "wounded resistant's day," in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, on Friday. Nasrallah said his group will continue to fight in Syria "wherever needed."

The Associated Press

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HEZBOLLAH LEADER VOWS TO KEEP FIGHTING IN SYRIA

BEIRUT - Hezbollah's leader vowed Friday that his militants would keep fighting in Syria "wherever needed" after the United States agreed to arm the rebels in the civil war, setting up a proxy fight between Iran and the West that threatens to engulf more of the Middle East.

The 2-year-old conflict, which the U.N. estimates has killed more than 90,000 people and displaced millions, is increasingly being fought along sectarian lines, pitting Sunni against Shiite Muslims, and is threatening the stability of Syria's neighbors.

Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, chief of the Shiite Hezbollah group in Lebanon, appeared unwavering in his support for the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

He signaled for the first time the Iranian-backed militant group will stay involved in the civil war after helping Assad's army recapture the key town of Qusair in central Homs province from rebels.

"We will be where we should be. We will continue to bear the responsibility we took upon ourselves," Nasrallah said in a speech via satellite to supporters in south Beirut. "There is no need to elaborate. ... We leave the details to the requirements of the battlefield."

Nasrallah appeared angry and defiant, saying the group has made a "calculated" decision to defend the Assad regime.

Hezbollah has come under harsh criticism at home and abroad for sending its fighters to Qusair, and Nasrallah's gamble in Syria primarily stems from his group's vested interest in the regime's survival. The Syrian government has been one of Hezbollah's strongest backers for decades, and the militant group fears that if Assad's regime falls, it will be replaced by a U.S.-backed government that is hostile to Hezbollah.

Nasrallah said his group was the last to join the fray in Syria, after hundreds and perhaps thousands of Sunni fighters -- many of them from Lebanon -- headed to Syria in support of the rebels.

-- The Associated Press

But the international reaction Friday ranged from flat-out disbelief of the U.S. intelligence assessments to calls for negotiation before more weapons pour into the vicious civil war.

The administration now says it has "high confidence" that President Bashar Assad's forces have killed up to 150 people with sarin gas. Although that's a tiny percentage of the approximately 93,000 killed in the civil war so far, the use of a chemical weapon crosses President Obama's "red line" for escalating U.S. involvement in the conflict and prompted the decision to send arms and ammunition, not just humanitarian aid and defensive non-lethal help like armored vests and night goggles.

The administration's plan heading into the G8 meeting of industrialized nations beginning Monday is to use the chemical weapons announcement and Obama's decision on arms to persuade Russia to increase pressure on Assad to send a credible negotiating team to Geneva for talks with the opposition.

Obama also is expected to use the G8 meeting and discussions on the sidelines to further coordinate with the British, French and potentially others an increase of assistance -- lethal, non-lethal and humanitarian -- to the rebels, the political opposition and refugees.

In a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice said the United States has determined that sarin was used in a March 19 attack on the Aleppo suburb of Khan al-Assal and in an April 13 attack on the neighborhood of Shaykh Maqsud. She said unspecified chemicals, possibly including chemical warfare agents, were used May 14 in an attack on Qasr Abu Samrah and in a May 23 attack on Adra.

U.S. officials have not disclosed any details about the weapons they intend to send to Syria or when and how they will be delivered. The United States is most likely to provide the rebel fighters with small arms, ammunition, assault rifles and a variety of anti-tank weaponry such as shoulder-fired rocket-propelled grenades and other missiles. As of Friday, however, no final decisions had been made on the details or when it would reach the rebels.

Obama has consistently said he will not put American troops in Syria, making it less likely the United States will provide sophisticated arms or anti-aircraft weapons that would require large-scale training. Administration officials are also worried about high-powered weapons ending up in the hands of terrorist groups. Hezbollah fighters are among those backing Assad's armed forces, and al-Qaida-linked extremists back the rebellion.

The lethal aid will largely be coordinated by the CIA, but that effort will also be buttressed by an increased U.S. military presence in Jordan.

U.S. officials say Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is about to approve orders that would leave roughly a dozen F-16 fighter jets and a Patriot missile battery in Jordan after ongoing military exercises there end later next week. That would result in several hundred more U.S. troops staying in Jordan to support the fighters and missiles, in addition to the approximately 250 that have been there for some time.

The added military troops and equipment are designed to increase stability in the region and are not part of the effort to train Syrian rebels or take part in any offensive operations in Syria, U.S. officials said.

The biggest hurdle for the U.S. strategy remains Russia, a major weapons supplier to Assad. President Vladimir Putin's foreign affairs adviser, Yuri Ushakov, said Friday that Moscow doesn't believe the U.S. finding on chemical weapons.

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