July 17, 2012
Issue is too sensitive during presidential race, White House tells groups lobbying for arms
By Peter Foster
Barack Obama’s government has warned its western allies and Syria’s opposition groups that it can do nothing to intervene in the country’s crisis until after November’s presidential election, The Daily Telegraph has learnt.
Despite the pleas of Syrian rebels, who are seeking assistance for their efforts to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad, the White House has refused all requests for heavy weapons and intelligence support.
Syrian lobby groups in Washington, who only a few weeks ago were expressing hope that the Obama administration might approve the supply of anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles, said they had now been forced to “take a reality pill” by the US government.
The Telegraph understands that the Syrian Support Group (SSG), the political wing of the Free Syrian Army (FSA), recently prepared a document requesting 1,000 RPG-29 anti-tank missiles, 500 SAM-7 rockets and 750 23mm machine guns, as well as body armour and secure satellite phones. They also wanted $6million (£3.8million) to pay rebel fighters.
However, the group abandoned plans to present their demands after being warned they would be rejected.
“Basically the message is very clear; nothing is going to happen until after the election; in fact nothing will happen until after inauguration [Jan 2013]. And that is the same message coming from everyone, including the Turks and the Qataris,” said a source close to the group.
The Obama administration has also made clear to its allies that it will not intervene, a message that was carried to London last week by Tom Donilon, the White House national security adviser, who made a low-profile stop en route to Israel.
Sources in Washington who were familiar with the matter said Mr Donilon had made it “abundantly clear” that there was no room for increased American involvement in Syria.
Syrian lobby groups in Washington have thus far been reluctant to speak publicly about their frustrations with the Obama government for fear of alienating White House officials, but also giving succour to the Assad regime.
However, a third lobby group contacted by this newspaper, which asked to remain anonymous, said it too had come up against a White House “red line”, despite some earlier receptiveness from the State Department.
“No one wants to touch this,” the group’s representative said. “Not the White House, not the Congressional committee on foreign affairs. It is clear we will have to play a longer game.”
Fears that the disparate rebel groups are being infiltrated by al-Qaeda have also reduced the appetite in the US for arming the rebels, either directly or with the help of third-party countries such as Libya, Qatar or Saudi Arabia.
The American position means there is little hope of any swift resolution to the Syrian crisis, with the stage set instead for a protracted civil war. Russia repeated yesterday that it was “unrealistic” of the West to expect it to convince Mr Assad to step down.
Abdulbaset Sieda, the chairman of the official Syrian National Council, the other principal opposition group, called on the US not to abandon the rebels for the sake of domestic political calculations, following the latest alleged massacre in the village of Tremseh last week.
“We want for America and the western countries to carry out their responsibilities,” he said. “With regard to America, specifically, we would like to say to President Obama that waiting for election day to make the right decision on Syria is unacceptable for the Syrians.
“We cannot understand that a super power ignores the killing of tens of thousands of Syrian civilians because of an election campaign that a president may win or lose. That’s why we are saying there is work that must take place at the Security Council.”
In an effort to build credibility with the US and western allies, the Syrian Support Group is now planning to release a “Declaration” signed by nine key rebel commanders. The document, which is currently circulating in Syria and has been seen by the Telegraph, commits the FSA to work under a civilian government, commits to the ideals of democracy and promises to protect minorities.
However, analysts said that the combination of a war-weary public, a general election campaign and the spectre of weapons falling into the hands of radical Islamists continued to mitigate against increased US intervention.
Jonathan Schanzer, the vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think-tank in Washington, which has lobbied for intervention, said division among Republicans had also helped to give the Obama administration a “free pass” politically.
“The Right is split between those who say the US has a moral imperative to intervene and those who say Syria is an enemy of the US and there is no national interest in intervening. The result is that no one wants to touch this.
“The reality is that the US appears to have no coherent foreign policy since the Arab Spring. It is not clear why we helped topple Gaddafi and we let Mubarak fall but we let Assad stay in power.
“The gruesome, cynical truth is that while Kofi Annan ‘spins his wheels’ at the UN, there is a tacit understanding with Assad. He knows where his ‘red lines’ are; if he keeps the massacres beneath a certain level, he knows the US will not do anything to intervene.”
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