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Case Analysis 26 June, 2013

Reasons Behind the US Shift in Arming the Syrian Opposition


The Unit for Political Studies

The Unit for Political Studies is the Center’s department dedicated to the study of the region’s most pressing current affairs. An integral and vital part of the ACRPS’ activities, it offers academically rigorous analysis on issues that are relevant and useful to the public, academics and policy-makers of the Arab region and beyond. The Unit for Policy Studies draws on the collaborative efforts of a number of scholars based within and outside the ACRPS. It produces three of the Center’s publication series: Situation Assessment, Policy Analysis, and Case Analysis reports. 


After having committed not to provide any military backing to the Syrian Opposition, President Barack Obama recently decided to change his position and accepted arming those elements of the opposition that his administration describes as ‘moderate'. Following a series of US National Security Council meetings from June 10 to 13 this year, the Obama administration confirmed that the Syrian regime had used chemical weapons against its opponents, leading to the deaths of somewhere between 100 and 150 people. This was viewed as having crossed the red line that Washington laid down for the Syrian regime in July 2012, warning that such use would be a game changer in the way it dealt with the Syrian crisis.

President Obama's new position has raised questions over the real reasons behind this change and, in particular, its timing. For months, the US administration has known that the Syrian regime has used chemical weapons against its opponents in more than one location, yet it attempted to evade these reports, which demanded a firmer response. Although Obama and Secretary of State Kerry were in the end forced to admit that there was strong evidence of the use of chemical weapons, the response did not go beyond verbal condemnation. The US statement on the number of victims of chemical attacks also caused some surprise. Why did this relatively small number of casualties lead to a change in the US position toward a regime that, according to the UN, has killed around 100,000 Syrians to date? It therefore seems clear that the change in the US position comes against a backdrop of other factors, of which the use of chemical weapons might be the least important.

Resisting pressures to arm and efforts toward Geneva 2

For more than a year, all the foreign and domestic pressure to convince President Obama to change his position on arming the Syrian opposition have met with failure. Last summer, Obama rejected the advice of his senior assistants calling him to arm the Syrian opposition so as to create a balance on the ground which would push the regime into accepting the idea of a negotiated settlement to the crisis. At the time, the administration appeared split into two camps. The first camp comprised then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, former CIA chief General David Petraeus, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey. This camp was calling for arming. The second camp was opposed to arming and comprised Vice-President Joe Biden, National Security Advisor Thomas Donilon-one of the strongest proponents of what has become known as the Russian track-and to a certain extent Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta.

After his re-election as president, Obama replaced most of his foreign policy and security teams. His choices for the new teams were in large part consistent with his own positions and views. The new Secretary of Defense, Charles Hagel, and of Foreign Affairs, John Kerry, are considered to be among the staunchest opponents of foreign military intervention. New CIA chief John Brennan, who took the place of Petraeus after his removal owing to a personal scandal last summer, thinks that the US should remain focused on fighting terrorism. In addition, Brennan was known to be a proponent of security coordination with the Syrian regime during his work at the CIA under Leon Panetta and General Petraeus.

Accordingly, the new team is distinguished by the dominance of a pragmatic tendency largely in accord with the president's view in favor of keeping out of problems in the Arab world. This is another indication that the second Obama administration is more conservative that the first with regards to intervention in Syria. Since assuming the foreign affairs portfolio at the beginning of this year, Kerry has repeatedly stated that he is working toward changing the Syrian regime's assessments so that it agrees to enter the resolution process. This, however, has not been translated in the way expected by many observers.

Once Clinton had left the State Department, the trend represented by Donilon that called for full coordination with the Russians and ruled out arming the Syrian opposition was triumphant. Accordingly, Kerry went to Moscow at the beginning of May and surprised many by reaching an understanding with the Russians on holding a new international conference on Syria to reach agreement on the implementation of the Geneva 1 Accords agreed upon on June 30, 2012. This agreement, according to all reports, was in line with the Russian stance since it did not refer to Assad's future, and, when describing the powers of the suggested transitional government, changed these from "full" to "enhanced". Other significant areas of difference were also left for the negotiating table.

The Americans thought that the Geneva Conference would help contain the ramifications of the crisis, particularly with the growing regional interventions on the Syrian question. They also hoped this initiative would grant them a way to save face while not wishing to take decisive steps in response to the Syrian regime's use of chemical weapons. From another perspective, the Americans considered the agreement as a means to alleviate the pressures from Arab and European allies to take a more proactive role in solving the crisis. The US position communicated to the Russians was that failure to hold the Geneva Conference would lead to Washington's lifting of the embargo on arming the opposition. To make this threat more credible, Washington encouraged the EU to lift its own embargo by means of joint Anglo-French coordination. The issue of supplying arms and the political exploitation of the use of chemical weapons were used to apply pressure while waiting to see what the Russians could do to persuade their Syrian ally to go to Geneva and make the required concessions.

The march to Geneva via Qusair

The Russians learnt of the US position and sensed that the Americans had no desire to get involved in the struggles of the Arab region once again, provided that the Syrian regime did not continue to embarrass them by crossing the "red lines". As much as the Russians were interested in Geneva 2, in that it gave them a central position in solving the Syrian question and restored to them a role long absent in the international arena, they were simultaneously trying to benefit from the weakness of the US position. This weakness has been made evident in America's doubts over arming the opposition, on the pretext of fears that weapons would fall into the hands of extremists, and its irritation at the Syrian political opposition's inability to present itself as a credible partner as a result of internal disagreements. Thus, since formulating the agreement to hold the Geneva 2 Conference, the Russians have been pushing for the regime to attend from a position of greater strength, mainly through:

1.  A focus on attacking the opposition and making it bear responsibility for scuttling the conference because of internal differences.

2. The regime achieving an important victory in the field thus strengthening its negotiating position.

Hezbollah's clear and open intervention in the crisis, and the regime's allies' (Iran, Maliki's government, and Russia) provision of every kind of material, military, and diplomatic support, enabled the regime to make a major breakthrough by regaining Qusair. Despite the strength of the resistance put up by the opposition-in a battle that lasted for some 17 days during which the regime used every sort of heavy weaponry and was backed up by Hezbollah fighters-the regime has proceeded to exploit its achievement in Qusair, and has used it to make important breakthroughs on other fronts. The battle of Qusair is being promoted by the Syrian regime as a victory over the Revolution.

Mobilizing to prevent the rout of the opposition and the Geneva Conference

The fall of Qusair was a turning point for the regional and international allies' assessment of the Revolution. They felt the dangers of the situation and mobilized their forces to prevent the outright defeat of the opposition forces. At a time when the opposition's military leadership was warning of the potential fall of Aleppo should the Arab and international stance continue to be passive, regional and international capitals witnessed political activity to contain the aftermath of Qusair. The Arab League convened in Cairo on June 6 to condemn Hezbollah's involvement in the fighting raging in Syria. France called for action to prevent Aleppo falling into the hands of the regime. Qatar and Saudi Arabia responded by stepping up coordination over the Syrian crisis. Islamic religious leaders also held a conference in Cairo on June 13 - after the announced change in the US position on arming the Syrian opposition - and concluded that Iranian and Hezbollah involvement in fighting alongside the Syrian regime was equivalent to a declaration of war. They issued calls to fight and for jihad in support of the Syrian people.

The Sunni-Shiite polarization that threatens further regional and international intervention in the Syrian crisis also had an effect on the American position and on the chances of holding the Geneva conference. The regime also began to feel greater confidence after its victory at Qusair and took to talking of conditions for its attending the Geneva Conference. These included no interference in the makeup of its delegation to the conference, its right to specify whom it would talk to from the opposition, and the army and security being non-negotiable matters. As for the opposition, it has said it is unable to attend the Geneva Conference given the great imbalance of power resulting from the battle of Qusair. The opposition saw attending in the circumstances as political suicide and capitulation to regime superiority.

Given this reality, the Geneva Conference seemed in jeopardy, as stated by US Secretary of State John Kerry. Hence, it was necessary to act to save the situation. Furthermore, it seemed almost impossible for President Obama to go to Northern Ireland for the G8 summit, which included a scheduled meeting with Russia president Vladimir Putin, given the severe weakness of his political position as a result of the victories on the ground achieved by the Syrian regime and its allies.

A number of factors have demanded a change in the US position: the tipping of the situation on the ground in favor of the regime; the resultant foreign pressures (Saudi-French in particular) on the Obama administration to prevent the collapse of the opposition; US-domestic pressures exerted by the Republicans and led by Senator John McCain who called upon Obama to do something to rescue the prestige of the US presidency; growing doubts over the chances of holding the Geneva 2 Conference, and strong signs that it might be possible for Iran and its allies to emerge victorious in Syria if the Arab and international position should remain passive. All of this together mandated a change in the US position.

Limits to the change in the American position

Although the Obama administration has yet to reveal the precise nature of the weaponry it will provide to the Syrian opposition, it has become clear that this will be limited sufficiently to enable only a correction in the imbalance of forces between the regime and the opposition that arose after Qusair. Washington has ruled out, for the moment, the imposition of a no-fly zone. It has also ruled out supplying the opposition with MANPAD ground-to-air, shoulder-launched missiles, which would neutralize regime air power and obviate the need for a no-fly zone. Washington, however, will stick to supplying light, automatic weapons, light mortars, and anti-tank missiles. Some of these missiles have actually reached factions of the opposition and were used in recent battles in Ma'arat Al-Arteeq, Kafar Hamra, and the Eastern Ghouta. It should be noted that the CIA bureau responsible for Turkey and Jordan prevented the entry of such weapons into Syria from the beginning of last year. It is also still unclear whether the Obama administration will provide these weapons directly to the opposition or whether it will assign this task to its allies while keeping the matter under its supervision so as to permit these weapons only to reach specified parties in the opposition. Yet, irrespective of the kind of weapons Washington will supply, and how it does so, it must be affirmed that its acceptance of the principle of providing arms will allow the regional allies of the Revolution to go further and supply heavier weaponry including anti-aircraft missiles, as might Saudi Arabia for example.

Accordingly, it seems clear that the Obama administration remains committed to a policy which does not permit one side to achieve a military victory over the other and is again exerting pressure to reach a political resolution. This also explains why Washington will leave some patriot missiles and F-16 fighter planes in Jordan after the Eager Lion military exercises come to an end this month as further means to pressurize the Assad regime. In parallel, Washington intends to intensify pressure on the opposition by linking arms supplies to its agreement to a settlement. In the meantime, and while agreement is being reached, Syria will remain an arena for exhausting the Sunni and Shia "extremists" opposed to the US, on the condition that this confrontation does not spill beyond Syria's borders. This means that the US position will be subject to on-going adjustment in light of developments in the field and their effects on the overall regional situation and US interests therein.

*This Assessment was translated by the ACRPS Translation and English Editing Department. The original Arabic version published on December 4th, 2013 can be found here.