BEIRUT – Syria’s rebels Friday criticized the U.S. decision to offer small-scale military assistance as late and inadequate, saying they will need heavy weapons to counter the growing challenge posed by a reinvigorated Syrian Army that is already receiving foreign help.
But the real significance of the policy shift may lie in the signal it sends to the increasingly polarized region that America does not intend to remain on the sidelines and allow Syrian President Bashar Assad to prevail over the outgunned rebels.
The fact that the United States is now committing itself militarily to the rebels at a time when Russia, Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement are escalating their support for Assad draws the United States inexorably into what is rapidly becoming a global proxy war for control of Syria, analysts said.
“The general direction of travel is toward greater Western involvement,” said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
The White House on Thursday said that the United States will for the first time send direct military assistance to the Syrian rebels, following the conclusion by U.S. intelligence agencies that the Syrian government used small quantities of chemical weapons in its efforts to defeat the armed rebellion.
It also followed months of battlefield setbacks for those seeking Assad’s ouster, culminating in the loss earlier this month of the strategic western town of Qusair near Lebanon’s border to a force in which Lebanon’s Shiite Hezbollah movement played a leading role.
On Friday, government forces launched their heaviest attack in months against rebel-held areas in the divided northern city of Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, pounding rebel positions with artillery and attempting to break through rebel lines in the front-line neighborhood of Sakhour.
The push fell short of the full-scale offensive to retake the city that has been widely touted as imminent. Rebel leaders say they are confident they can withstand a government assault in the north, where the regime’s supply lines are stretched and the rebels have access to the Turkish border, a key source of weapons supplies, whether from the black market or the Arab Gulf countries that have been supporting them. It would also be one of the likely routes for any U.S. weapons supplies.”On the Aleppo front we are the most powerful and we are putting the regime and Hezbollah under pressure,” said Col. Abdul Jabbar Akaidi, head of the military council in the city, who returned there Thursday from Qusair after the rebel rout.
But the loss of Qusair and the threat of a government assault in Aleppo underscored a growing sense of desperation among the rebels that they are being forced onto the defensive after nearly a year of battlefield gains that saw them seize control of large swaths of territory in the north and east of the country.
Instead, the regime is steadily gaining ground in the crucial battle for control of the Damascus suburbs and is routing the rebels in the central province of Homs, putting Assad in a strong position to retain control of the capital.
Louay al-Mokdad, political and media coordinator for the umbrella Free Syrian Army, said he welcomed the White House decision, but called it a “late step.”
“If they send small arms, how can small arms make a difference?” he asked. “They should help us with real weapons, antitank and antiaircraft, and with armored vehicles, training and a no-fly zone.” U.S. officials were expected to meet with Gen. Salim Idriss, head of the rebel Supreme Military Council, over the next two days to discuss details of military assistance that Washington will provide. The White House has not specified what the assistance may entail, and that may be deliberate, said Andrew Tabler of the Washington Institute of Near East Affairs.
“I think they are being tactically ambiguous, for their own reasons and to make Assad sweat,” he said.
Some rebel leaders expressed doubt that any meaningful support will actually arrive after months of statements from the U.S. promising nonlethal aid that they say has not materialized.
“We have honestly lost hope,” said Mosab Abu Qutada, a spokesman for the rebel military council in Damascus. “We were promised a lot before, and they never kept their promises.”
Also Friday, the U.N.’s top human rights forum condemned the involvement of foreign fighters in Syria, singling out the Shiite militant group Hezbollah.
The 47-member U.N. Human Rights Council backed a resolution from the U.S., Britain, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, with only Venezuela voting against it.
The text said the council “condemns the intervention of all foreign combatants in the Syrian Arab Republic, including those fighting on behalf of the regime and most recently Hezbollah.”