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Le Monde, France

Arming of Syrian Rebels
Divides Washington

By Philippe Bernard

Translated By Paul de Zardain

Feb. 2, 2013

Edited by Kath­leen Weinberger

France - Le Monde - Original Article (French)

Will history judge Barack Obama’s refusal to arm Syrian rebels at the end of his first presidential term as an act of wisdom or a tragic mistake? The question came as a surprise and gained center stage at a U.S. Senate hearing on Thursday, Feb. 7. That day, two high-ranking Pentagon officials admitted to having backed a recommendation by then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and former CIA Director David Petraeus in the summer of 2012 to supply arms to opponents of the Bashar al-Assad regime.

Testifying in front of senators, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (soon to be replaced by Chuck Hagel) and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey both admitted in the heat of the moment that President Obama, then in the midst of a reelection campaign, had vetoed the initiative. The differences of opinion, aired during the public hearing, were so sensational that they eclipsed that day’s agenda—the attack against the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11, 2012. The four-hour hearing reached its climax when Republican Senator John McCain, a presidential candidate in 2008 and a firm believer in U.S. aid to the Syrian opposition, solemnly questioned Mr. Panetta and Mr. Dempsey.

“How many people need to die before you recommend a military intervention? Last March, 7,500 Syrians had died. We are now close to 60,000!” said McCain. The senator stepped up his questioning by asking if the Pentagon had shown support for the recommendations by Hillary Clinton and General Petraeus aimed at arming the resistance. “Did you support that?” he asked. “We did support that,” both Panetta and Dempsey responded.

Presidential Veto

On Feb. 2, the New York Times revealed that in the summer of 2012, the Secretary of State and the Director of the CIA had joined forces to back “a plan consisting of holding rebel groups to closer scrutiny and training combatants who had been equipped with arms.”

At the time, the conflict seemed to be at a turning point. The Syrian regime had been hit on July 18 by a spectacular attack on Damascus, followed by rebel advances in Aleppo. But the use of aerial bombings by the regime had given it additional leverage. On Friday, the leader of the opposition, Ahmed Moaz Al Khatib, had shown his willingness to negotiations “without preconditions.”

The United States controls the supply of light arms to rebel forces, largely from Qatar and Saudi Arabia via Turkey. But Washington only supplies imaging and transmission equipment, along with training and humanitarian aid. The Americans have declared an embargo on antiaircraft equipment for fear that it might be used against them in the future. Since the presidential veto, the armed rebels have continued to score points, but at an extremely high price in terms of human lives. The opposition has also become increasingly fragmented and subject to an uncomfortable radicalization within its ranks. This evolution in the conflict has led the Europeans to discuss the possibility of lifting the arms embargo, which has been backed by the British and to a lesser extent by the French. The Scandinavians oppose this position. The foreign affairs ministers of the European Union will have another chance to discuss this on Feb. 18.

The ‘red line’ of chemical weapons

In the U.S., the possibility of a revision in President Obama’s outlook after his reelection on Nov. 6 has not materialized. Asked by CBS at the end of January, the president seemed less constrained, but still voiced his caution: “We do no one a favor by forging ahead without looking or by taking action without reflecting on the consequences.”

However, the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime against members of the opposition in Homs on Dec. 23 should have made Washington reconsider since Barack Obama had said it constituted a ‘red line of enormous repercussions.' According to Le Monde, the U.S. State Department declared at the end of January that it had not been able to confirm the use of chemical weapons.

The reshuffling of high-ranking officials in the U.S. government—Mrs. Clinton has just been replaced with John Kerry and General Petraeus is about to be replaced by John Brennan—seems to have let out into the open the disagreements which had been confidential. It has also served to highlight the reluctance of the Obama administration to be openly implicated in a military intervention for fears of a backlash by public opinion. “We are considering what measures, especially the diplomatic ones, could be taken to reduce the level of violence,” said Mr. Kerry on Friday. He refused to comment on the revelations made at the hearing by Mr. Panetta and Mr. Dempsey. “I am not going to revisit the past. This is a new government, a second term for our president, and I am the new secretary of state. We will move on from here,” said Mr. Kerry.

In the wake of his scoop, John McCain has labeled the situation in Syria as a “shocking failure in American policy.”In addition, he has called on the president to “keep in mind the advice…and to take the necessary action immediately…in order to bring an end to the conflict.” Those who favor military aid to rebel forces say that this alone would guarantee U.S. influence if power changed hands in Damascus.



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