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Huanqiu, China

US Seeks Excuse to Interfere in Syrian Civil War

By Wang Suolao

Translated By Nathan Hsu

15 June 2013

Edited by Natalie Clager

China - Huanqiu - Original Article (Chinese)

U.S. Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes issued a statement on June 13, claiming that the "Assad regime has used chemical weapons, including the nerve agent sarin, on a small scale against the opposition multiple times over the last year."

Per President Obama's clear indications on several occasions that the use or transfer of chemical weapons to terrorist organizations would constitute the crossing of a "red line" for the U.S., he "has augmented the provision of non-lethal assistance to the civilian opposition and also authorized the expansion of [U.S.] assistance to the Supreme Military Council."

It is easy to see that the significance of Ben Rhodes' statement lies not in the question of whether or not the Syrian government has in fact crossed the so-called "red line," but rather in the fact that the U.S. was using this as pretext for its official decision to provide lethal weaponry to forces opposed to the government in Syria. The decision has transformed the formerly hesitant attitude of the U.S. on the Syrian issue and has flung open the door on the possibility of armed intervention in the Syrian civil war.

Why has the U.S. made its decision at this, of all moments? Let us first examine the military situation within Syria. On June 10, Syrian government forces launched a new offensive on the key northern cities of Aleppo and Idlib in an attempt to seize back territory occupied by the opposition. According to reports published on the Israeli intelligence site DEBKAfile, five Syrian airborne commando units, combat forces from the 11th and 18th divisions, and 2,000 Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon surrounded the region, an opposition stronghold where resistance forces have been massing. The Syrian army has reversed its fortunes on the battlefield in recent weeks as it has successively reclaimed strategic zones; this is due to several key factors. First, government forces far outnumber opposition fighters. Some estimates place the regime's army at 120,000 strong, bolstered by an additional 50,000 from the Alawite militia. Meanwhile, opposition forces only number about 70,000. Second, approximately 10,000 Lebanese Hezbollah militants and Shiite fighters from Iraq have joined the conflict, aiding the Syrian government in its assault on the anti-government coalition. Third, the Syrian government has likely received copious amounts of military equipment from Iran and Russia.

Aleppo and Idlib are the headquarters of the opposition and the Western military advisers and intelligence personnel accompanying them. According to analysis by experts on Middle Eastern military affairs, if the campaign in Qusair at the end of May stood as a significant victory in the Syrian government's counterstrike, the retaking of Aleppo would be akin to the tolling of a death knell for anti-regime forces. The Qusair campaign severed the opposition's supply lines to Lebanon. If Aleppo and Idlib fall, the opposition will be cut off from Turkey, as well.

Needless to say, the Aleppo campaign is one of vital importance for the opposition. Note that the loyalist army spent a month retaking Qusair, including 16 days spent occupying the heart of the city. It is estimated that the Syrian government will require at least 50 days to reclaim Aleppo and Idlib. At the outset of the Aleppo campaign on June 11, Obama called a meeting in Washington to discuss probable developments in the battle for Syria. It is safe to assume that the Obama administration's renewed attention to the Syrian government's illegal use of chemical weapons, as well as the U.S. decision to provide arms to anti-regime forces, is to a large degree in an effort to "save" Aleppo and the opposition.

How will it attempt to accomplish this? It has been rumored that U.K. and French intelligence agencies have suggested to the U.S. that it will take at least 50 bombers outfitted with advanced electronic systems to first halt the momentum of the offensive by the combined regime-Hezbollah army and then force President Bashar al-Assad to step down. According to reports, European and specific Arab countries previously issued a joint proposal to the U.S. to provide opposition forces in Syria with advanced surface-to-air missiles in order to counter the Syrian government's bombers and combat helicopters. However, the regime also has strong foreign backers. Besides support from Iran, Russia may provide the Syrian government with electronic countermeasures and anti-aircraft missiles. The coming two months will most likely see an unprecedented level of ferocity in the Syrian civil war, but as to which side will emerge victorious, it is impossible to say.

The author is director of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the School of International Studies, Peking University.



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