Kerry bearing good news for Syrian opposition in bid to affirm US engagement

Syrian opposition leaders and rebels have criticized what they see as US disengagement from a conflict that has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Kerry's news on promised US arms may do little to change that view.

Seth Wenig/AP
Secretary of State John Kerry (l.) speaks while UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon listens before a meeting at United Nations Headquarters Thursday, July 25.

Secretary of State John Kerry will be able to tell representatives of the Syrian opposition he meets with in New York Thursday that promised American arms should be reaching their fighters soon.

But that bit of news is unlikely to sway either opposition leaders or the rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who criticize the US for what they see as its disengagement from the Syrian conflict.

The grim statistics of Syria's two-year-old civil war were revised upwards Thursday when UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon announced at a meeting with Secretary Kerry before he sat down with the opposition leaders that the war's death toll has surpassed 100,000.

In addition, the war has now forced 1.7 million Syrians to flee for refuge in neighboring countries, Mr. Ban said.

Both Ban and Kerry said the spiraling numbers make reaching a political solution to the war all the more urgent.

Kerry, who in recent weeks has been largely focused on getting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process back on track, will use his meeting with representatives of the Syrian National Coalition, including its new president, Ahmad al-Jarba, to demonstrate that the US has not forgotten about Syria and has not abandoned the opposition.

Mr. Jarba is a longtime opponent of the Assad regime – he was imprisoned in the 1990s for his opposition to then-President Hafez al-Assad, the current president’s father – and was quickly arrested when Syria’s political opposition first took to the streets in March 2011.

Last week Kerry faced a barrage of complaints from Syrian refugees when he visited a sprawling refugee camp in Jordan. Kerry pointed out that the US is the largest donor of humanitarian assistance for Syrians displaced by the war, but his pleading was largely drowned out by protests of US abandonment.

The Syrians accused the US of being largely absent, while they said Russia, Iran, and the Lebanese militant organization Hezbollah provide decisive assistance – in arms, funding, and manpower – to President Assad. 

Kerry will be in a somewhat stronger position when he meets with Syrian opposition leaders this time: Since last week, congressional intelligence committees have cleared the way for the lethal assistance that President Obama announced last month to begin flowing to the rebels.

The White House has not disclosed what kind of aid the US will provide, but officials speaking on condition of anonymity have said it will consist of small arms and ammunition to be supplied by the CIA through its existing networks with Syrian rebel forces in Jordan.

Supporters of the covert arms deliveries within the administration insist that the program will demonstrate to the Syrian opposition and rebel fighters that the US is engaged and intends to continue playing a major role in diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict.

But critics of the plan abound, both in the US and among Syrian opposition forces. Some members of Congress and rebel leaders say the planned US aid is too little, will not be decisive on any battlefield, and will at most only prolong the fighting. Those critics wanted the US to consider imposing a no-fly zone over parts of Syria, to provide heavier weaponry such as anti-aircraft missiles, and to create safe havens to facilitate humanitarian assistance to displaced Syrians inside the country.

On the other hand, opponents of any US lethal aid to the rebels maintain that there is a risk of the US arms falling into the wrong hands – specifically the extremist Islamist elements that are playing a growing role in the war.

In recent months Islamist fighters, including some affiliated with Al Qaeda, have poured into Syria from surrounding countries such as Iraq, and even from Europe. Those groups are not just fighting to oust Assad, but are also involved in an increasingly nasty internal conflict pitting opposition groups against one another.

Senior administration officials who have pressed members of Congress to support arming the rebels, including Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden, argue that by arming the rebels the US will have a stronger hand for determining where all of the weapons flowing into the war end up. Currently the Gulf Arab states and Turkey are thought to be the major suppliers of arms to the rebels.

In his meeting Thursday, Kerry is also expected to discuss the ongoing efforts by the US and Russia to convene an international conference to address the Syrian conflict. In announcing Kerry’s plans to meet with opposition leaders, State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Wednesday that Kerry would address “not just the situation on the ground, but the path forward toward a political solution.”

That initiative is unlikely to receive a warm endorsement from opposition leaders in New York, however. Instead, most of them see Kerry’s diplomatic outreach to Russia – Assad’s principle ally in the international community – as a doomed effort that has done nothing but offer Assad time to regroup from last year’s military setbacks and to go on the offensive.

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