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Why US must give military aid to Syria's rebels

The war in Syria is at a turning point. Backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militants, Bashar al-Assad has the upper hand. Ending the war requires backing him into a corner from which peace talks provide his only safe escape. US military aid for the rebels can help do that.

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First, the rebels understand that Mr. Assad has no incentive to negotiate his own exit as long as he holds – or at least thinks he holds – a military advantage. Second, the coalition, a movement largely in exile, does not carry a unified brief for the wider, fragmented rebellion.

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Third, the rebellion has no reason to trust its hesitant would-be Western patrons. The European Union lifted its arms embargo only late last month, but key members – Britain and France – remain undecided on whether to send military assistance. Washington is even more wary of entering the fray in yet another Middle Eastern war – despite Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent admission that US foot-dragging has been a mistake.

The war is at a turning point. Backed by Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah militants fighting inside Syria, the Assad regime has reason to be confident. The opposition is demoralized and ill-equipped, providing fertile ground for jihadist opportunists. Meanwhile the war is spilling into the broader region.

Ending the war and its crushing humanitarian crisis requires backing Assad into a corner from which the negotiating table provides his only safe escape. Yes, dropping more firepower into a volatile region is dangerous, increases the death toll, and runs the risk of placing arms in the hands of anti-Western extremists.

But arming the rebels addresses several objectives: It shifts the strategic balance of the war against the regime; it unifies the splintered rebellion; and it strengthens the West’s diplomatic stand vis-à-vis Russia and Iran. All of that would also work to bring rebels to the negotiating table.

Providing materiel should be one part of a larger effort involving the West’s friends in the region. Supply-corridors starting from Turkey and Jordan and protected by NATO air power – no-fly zones – would facilitate a humanitarian response to war-pummeled cities and villages and enable well-armed rebels to advance more assuredly on the regime’s vital strongholds in Aleppo and Damascus.

The goal is to compel peace negotiations. The Obama administration’s bid for talks has exposed the cost of the West’s dithering in Syria. Assad and his patrons see more advantage on the battlefield. The rebellion is fragmented. The West has little leverage. Preparing the conditions for peace begins not in Geneva, where American and Russian diplomats talk about talks, but on the battlefield in Syria.

Kurt Shillinger was a national political reporter for The Christian Science Monitor and Africa correspondent for The Boston Globe. He conducted political research in Syria in the mid-2000s.


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